11/08/2013 04:37 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Korean veterans keep memories alive of the 'Forgotten War'

TORONTO - When Leonard Wells joined Canada's armed forces, he expected to encounter much of the death, deceit, heroism and hope experienced by soldiers who had fought in the Second World War.

Those expectations were more than fulfilled during the 18 months he spent with the Royal Canadian Navy in Korea between 1950 and 1952.

The leading seaman, who served on the destroyer HMCS Cayuga, was a witness to historic battles like the epic landings at Inchon, mourned a fallen shipmate and even knocked back drinks with a rogue soldier posing as a naval surgeon.

But the rigours that would have earned previous generations of veterans a nation-wide hero's welcome barely made a local splash, Wells said, adding the reaction established a long-term trend for those who served alongside him in the Korean War.

"They always classed it as being the Forgotten War, and it was forgotten I would say for 40 years," the 82-year-old Winnipeg native said in an interview. "I can recall that when we arrived, the only people there to greet us on the dock were the wives of the sailors. There was no spontaneous group of people … It took that 40 years before things started to come out."

The relative obscurity of Canada's role in the Korean War had its roots in the conflict itself, according to experts who studied the period.

Andrew Burtch, a historian with the Canadian War Museum specializing in the post-1945 era, said the war failed to capture the imagination of the Canadian public as it was unfolding, largely because of its muted effect on civilian life.

The nearly 27,000 Canadian soldiers who served in the three-year conflict were largely drawn from regular troops rather than conscripts, and were part of a broader United Nations force comprising 16 countries.

That force was dispatched to beat back North Korean troops from South Korean territory at a time at a time before fear of communism had reached fever pitch, he said.

Closer to home, Burtch said the departure of the Canadian troops had few economic or social repercussions for the rest of the country. Civilians, for instance, did not have to put up with rationing or other day-to-day hassles that would keep Korea on the collective radar.

The war being fought on far-flung shores also had limited emotional resonance for those left behind. The lack of historical ties to Korea, the comparatively small Korean population at home and relatively small number of soldiers meant few Canadians felt the personal impact of the turmoil overseas.

"The war continued despite the fact that life at home continued. It wasn't as though Canada was holding its breath and wondering when the war would end," Burtch said. "Many Canadians, astonishingly, didn't really know that it was on."

A new online poll suggests that ignorance has spilled down through the ensuing decades and is evident even on major anniversaries commemorating the war, which only drew to a close through a negotiated armistice and is still not officially ended.

A recent Ipsos Reid poll of just over 1,000 Canadians suggested a wide gap in public knowledge about the war that claimed 516 lives, making it the third deadliest conflict in Canadian history.

Only 37 per cent of respondents could name July 27, 1953 as the date of the official ceasefire that ended Canada's role in the war, while 56 per cent of participants could not identify Korea as Canada's "forgotten war."

Only 43 per cent of those surveyed could identify the 1951 Battle of Kapyong as Canada's most significant engagement of the war. The survey found 86 per cent of respondents felt there was a greater need for education on Canada's military history, including the forces' time in Korea.

The poll, which was commissioned by Historica Canada, surveyed Canadians between July 2 and 7 of this year.

The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population like traditional telephone polls.

Historica Canada President Anthony Wilson-Smith said the survey results suggest that the comparative ignorance of the Korean War is not rooted in indifference towards the soldiers who fought it.

"It shows that while Canadians may not pass a history test on the Korean War and there's more teaching to be done, their collective heart is in the right place," he said. "In other words, there's a tremendous appreciation for the sacrifice."

Wells said that appreciation was not evident for decades after his return to Canada, a time during which he left the navy and forged a new career making parquet flooring. Government benefits were negligible and public interest was minimal, he said, adding the resurgence in awareness has been a welcome development over the past 20 years.

Only one of his wartime adventures received prominent public attention - an episode that saw famed impersonator Ferdinand Demara assume the identity of Canadian naval surgeon Joseph Cyr. Demara's ruse was so convincing that he performed successful surgeries and served aboard Wells' ship for months before being exposed and discharged.

De Mara's escapades made him a popular figure among Wells and his compatriates and were eventually dramatized in the 1961 film "The Great Impostor" starring Tony Curtis.

Recognition for legitimate military service, however, was much slower in coming.

Wells said he's pleased to see Canadians receive medals for their service in Korea decades after the fact and takes pleasure in knowing a Korean War memorial has been erected outside of Toronto.

There have been greater efforts to document the experience of Korean War veterans, he said, adding recognition has also been more forthcoming from the South Korean government itself.

All of these strides, he said, have left him at peace with the long period of relative obscurity.

"It's history, it's past, and we have to move on," Wells said. "We've had our publicity lately in the past 20 years … Now that we've created the memorial … that's enough."