11/09/2011 12:49 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Memory project to put Korean War vets' accounts into online archive

OTTAWA - Pilot Eric Smith remembers a head-on encounter with an enemy jet that flashed by his cockpit in an instant. Hub Gray tells of a heroic young lieutenant who ordered artillery to shell his own position to beat off a swarm of attackers.

After 60 years, stories of heroism and horror from the Korean War are being retold for posterity. The Forgotten War is being remembered.

A new project is recording the recollections of Canadian Korean War veterans for posting to an online audio-visual archive.

It's the brain child of the Historica-Dominion Institute, which earlier completed a similar memory project for Second World War vets.

The institute's Jeremy Diamond says the Korean conflict of 1950-53 was long overshadowed in the public mind by its far-larger predecessor.

"This is really the Forgotten War," he said in an interview. "This is a war that people don't talk about nearly as much as they do the Second World War.

"It's really skipped over in a lot of classroom lesson plans and curriculum."

Canada sent about 26,000 people to the Korean War, far fewer than the 1.1 million Canadians who served in 1939-45.

Historian David Bercuson of the University of Calgary, in the preface to his well-received Korean War history "Blood on the Hills," says Korean vets waited a long time to be recognized.

"It took the government of Canada more than four decades to issue a dedicated Korean service medal to the veterans of that war," he wrote. "It has taken the people of Canada half a century to acknowledge properly what those veterans did."

Diamond said the idea of a Korea archive arose during the Second World War memory project, when Korean War vets asked why nothing was being done for them.

The institute was then financed by a federal grant, but the mandate didn't cover Korea. A new, $1-million contribution from Canadian Heritage now supports the three-year Korean project.

The idea is to record 516 stories, one for every Canadian fatality in Korea.

Diamond said institute researchers go into community centres or Legion halls to record the war stories in a sort of "antiques road show" for vets.

"It's a tough one because there's not as many veterans of the Korean War," he said. "There's only about 10,000 left . . . so they're a little harder to find.

"But with the success of the stories of the Second World War project I think we're finding a very positive reaction when we reach out to the Korean War veterans."

Smith of Navan, Ont., was a Second World War veteran who also flew F-86 Sabre jets in Korea as a Canadian exchange pilot in an American fighter squadron. He chuckles about encounters with enemy MiG fighter jets, especially the one he met head-on.

"We were doing about 18 miles a minute closing speed," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "It happened so fast we just ended up canopy to canopy."

He remembers another Mig that jumped him from behind.

"I didn't know he was behind me until I saw the shells going over my wing. He was a terrible poor shot, because he didn't hit me."

Smith welcomes the memory project.

"I think it's great," he said. "I have somewhat of a guilt complex because I've been interviewed by them twice, once for World War Two and once for Korea."

Many of the vets speak of lost comrades. Others talk about the bitter cold of a Korean winter, the heat and dust of summer marches and the ever-present stench of fields fertilized with human excrement.

The recorded memories, probably a three-minute clip from each veteran, will be posted online along with a gallery of photos, letters and other war memorabilia.

Diamond said the recollections may eventually end up in a book. In 2010, the institute produced a handsome volume of Second World War reminiscences entitled, "We Were Freedom."

"We would love to do that potentially in the next year or so in the lead-up to the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War . . . so 2013."

Mike Czuboka of Winnipeg, who enlisted at age 18 in 1950 and fought in Korea, thinks the memory project is overdue.

He has since visited Korea on veterans' pilgrimages and says people there have a far greater understanding of the stakes involved in the war.

"These people realize they wouldn't have a country if it wasn't for us, if we hadn't gone there," he said.

"This is what a lot of the modern generation forgets. They just take for granted, they don't even know why Korea is a successful state and it's successful because we helped to keep it that way."

The veterans' memories can be riveting.

Gray, of Calgary, was a young lieutenant in the 2nd battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry during the brutal battle of Kap'yong on the night of April 24-25, 1951.

The Patricias faced overwhelming odds against a Chinese force which had routed a South Korean unit and pushed back an Australian battalion, leaving only the Canadians to stave off what might have been a serious breakthrough.

Some accounts credit Gray with saving the day by directing massed machine-gun fire against Chinese human wave attacks, but he brushes that off . He says the real hero was Lt. Mike Levy, whose platoon stood like a rock with attack after attack breaking against it.

At one point, Levy ordered the supporting artillery to fire on his own position. His soldiers were sheltered in fox holes, while the Chinese attackers out in the open were scythed down by shrapnel.

"When Mike Levy called the artillery down on his own position for 40 minutes, that saved our bacon in the end," Gray remembers.

After the battle, the Patricias were awarded a distinguished unit citation by the United States, the only time a Canadian unit has been so honoured.

So far, the memory project has interviewed more than 100 veterans and Diamond said he's confident the full 516 can be done within the three-year period.

"There is a real sense of urgency that we better record these stories. We better encourage them to tell their stories now, because we don't know if they're going to be able to a year from now or five years from now," he said.

"Should we have done it 30 years ago? Yeah, maybe, but we're doing it now and I think the sense of urgency is leading to the interest in the community."