Bill McAndrew: Part II

Bill McAndrew joined the army at age 17, was commissioned the following year and served the next eleven years as an infantry officer in Canada, Korea, Germany and Ghana. On leaving the army, a high school dropout, he attended Glendon College, York University as a mature student and gained his doctorate at the University of British Columbia. McAndrew taught at the University of Maine at Orono and directed that university’s Canadian Studies programme before joining the Directorate of History in Ottawa from which he retired in 1996. His particular interest has been in the battlefield behaviour of soldiers.

This is Part II of an excerpt from an article which originally appeared in Canadian Military History, Autumn 2013 issue and is reprinted with permission of the author. 

If you missed Part I you can read it here.

Joining the 2nd Canadian Rifles and The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada in Korea

I duly went back to Camp Borden for the last training phase, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and posted to the 2nd Canadian Rifle Battalion. The unit was a new one, formed during that massive expansion of the Army for Korea and the NATO commitment in Europe. From a peacetime brigade the army expanded in a year or so to five brigades of fifteen battalions. The 1st Rifles went to Hannover in Germany in 1951 and the 2nd was meant to relieve them in due course. It formed in Valcartier in the summer of 1952 and moved to Ipperwash in western Ontario in the autumn where I joined it. The battalion was made up of companies from several militia units: “A” Company from the Victoria Rifles from Montreal, “B” the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, “C” the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, “D” the Regina Rifles, and Support Company the Queens Own Rifles of Canada from Toronto. The CO was Bill Matthews who had been awarded two Military Crosses while serving with the Canadian Scottish in Europe. I went to “A” Company commanded by Bob Firlotte, a veteran of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Our CSM was a small, tough Montrealer from Pointe St. Charles, Jake Burton, a wonderful guide to a young bugger like me and the other platoon commanders, Ian Gilmour and Ted Ball. Ted introduced me to the wonders of Stan Kenton who was pretty far out in those days. In the unit, two subalterns, the only two university graduates, were lieutenants, the rest of us second lieutenants. A few were married, the families living nearby, but most of us lived in quarters. There were two cars among us.

There were some real characters among the lot. One was fond of sliced onions covered with black pepper and strolling through the hallway of our H-hut quarters firing his 9-mm pistol at the lights. We ducked. Vip Vipond had an unfortunate habit of falling to sleep before putting out his cigarette, a habit that later killed him. Robbie Robinson was a fine woodsman, a Second War vet who had not been overseas likely because he was such a superb survival instructor. He showed me how to fry eggs on a shovel, among other useful things. Another Robbie, Mark 2, was a likeable guy and a natural Pioneer Platoon commander. Later he was mayor of Petticodiac, New Brunswick. Howie Traynor, Derrick Bamford, and Neil Anderson were buddies in “B” Company under Tom MacDonald, a former Hamilton cop with a big heart, a sense of humour and a Military Medal. Boom Marsaw later became an evangelical minister, John Saunders was a former sailor, Ron Werry an imaginative instructor, and Bill Crew held the record of most sneezes after taking the obligatory snuff at mess dinners. Paul Zmean, Charlie Belzile, and I hung around a lot together. Jack Hanley, from OCS arrived, also Johnny Moad another ex NCO Con Bissett, from out west, later transferred to the RCN’s Fleet Air Arm and killed himself flying a Banshee into the ground. They were all solid companions.

A second lieutenant in those days made $150. a month, with room and board, the same salary as half a century before at the time of the Boer War. The Mess was the centre of our social lives and mess bills were the first and biggest claim on our limited finances. Bill Matthews insisted on having a formal dinner every Friday, no matter where we happened to be at the time, and this ensured there was little money left. We single guys didn’t mind as we were having a grand time but how those who were married managed is a mystery. We received an issue of work clothing and kit and got a small initial clothing allowance which gave us a start for dress uniforms. The price in those days for dress greens was $47.50, with a $15.00 deposit. For the rest we arranged credit with a tailor and that was the next priority charge on our five daily dollars.

Ipperwash was chaotic as the battalion was just getting organized, and our company was made up of recruits, so we were doing basic training. The training schedule went through Saturday mornings and on Sundays there was almost always a church parade in the nearby towns where the battalion was led by the bugles and Deucehorn, our Great Dane regimental mascot who invariably chose to throw up or exercise his bowels enroute. Far distant Army Headquarters decreed that the low level of education standards had to be raised so on two nights a week this high school drop-out taught arithmetic and English barely half a page ahead of my less than enthusiastic soldier students. I was also sports officer and organized inter-company competitions in volleyball, basketball and other sports, hugely assisted by Harry Warren, an ex-British Army physical training instructor who carried in his pocket a copy of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and Denny Stahl, then a corporal soon to be sergeant. Tuesdays and Thursdays were doubling days when all ranks had to double everywhere when outdoors and we did a lot of PT rifle exercises using our Lee Enfield .303s as props. They were very effective, both for arm strength and for getting to know our rifles.

Routine was from six in the morning six days a week, with two evenings educational instruction, at least one other on officer training, and every Friday was a Mess Dinner. Pay nights were lively. The wet canteen was always a scene of, to understate, boisterous activity. It was an educational experience for an eighteen year old like me to be duty officer and responsible for ensuring that damage was limited. One had to tread carefully through beer laden minefields. Another delicate time on duty was one morning when the civilian cooks who were on contract for food preparation slept in after a hard night. When the troops arrived for breakfast nothing was ready and they were understandably displeased. The duty sergeant that morning, fortunately, was Al Stevenson, a former lineman with the Montreal Alouettes, who hustled the cooks out of bed expeditiously. I boiled eggs and Al and I helped serve breakfast when it eventually appeared.

The battalion was initially slated to relieve the 1st Rifle Battalion in Hannover but this was changed and now we were to replace my old unit, 3RCR, in Korea. In the spring of 1953 we headed back to Wainwright to train at the company and battalion levels, which we couldn’t do at Ipperwash. Enroute we went by train to Ottawa where we paraded with other units on Parliament Hill for the Queen’s coronation. In those days troop trains could be lively. Troops always managed to stow drink in their kit and sometimes booze got out of hand. Tighter and tighter restrictions followed to keep the trains from being wrecked but soldiers quickly found ways to get around them. We junior officers had to inspect everyone beforehand, including ensuring that water bottles contained only water. Initiative and ingenuity invariably won out. A tied condom filled with rum topped with a bit of water foxed the most conscientious taster.

Three COTC cadets joined the battalion that summer for their summer training. All did moderately well in life. Charlie Belzile became commander of the Army; Lonnie Holland is a very successful investment manager. Lonnie tells me that the third, Robert Mundell, whom I don’t recall directly, was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics.

Training continued when we returned to Ipperwash and towards the end of the year I was told I would be part of the unit advance party for Korea, first to Vancouver for final medical checks then to Tokyo via the the Aleutians and next day to Seoul in a USAF Globemaster, more commonly, Crashmaster, where the RCR met us.

Korea was not a pleasant place at that time. Seoul was almost totally destroyed. The road north was not much more than a track with thick dust that made anyone unrecognizable after a kilometre or so. The smell of human feces that Korean farmers used for fertilizer enveloped us. The few small towns and villages on the way, Uijongbu comes to mind, had ramshackle dwellings cobbled together from flattened tins. Hills were formidable, but seemed familiar; whoever chose the area of the Jasper training camp had done well. The RCR battalion was based north of the Imjin River just south of the DMZ [demilitarized zone] that had been established at the Armistice. Companies were scattered around in tented camps sited below battle positions in the hills.

Colonel Campbell was very gracious in remembering me from my previous time with the unit and said he had tried, unsuccessfully, to have me back. I was “A” Company’s representative on the advance party and worked with my RCR counterpart to prepare quarters, stores and all and, as sports officer, saw what the RCR was doing for sports and recreation. One event that stayed with me was checking out the divisional detention barracks near Seoul. The Canadian Provost Corps ran that foreboding place. Prisoners lived a more than spartan life on the premise that it had to be sufficiently unpleasant so soldiers wouldn’t willingly choose it over the front lines. The solitary cell was carved into a hillside with a barred heavy door; winters were cold, summers hot. I later had a New Zealand driver who spent a month in detention and he seriously commented that he would go north to the other side rather than return for another sentence.

Each battalion in the Canadian brigade had around 125 Korean Army soldiers, KATCOMS, attached to it. The RCR had scattered them throughout their rifle companies but when we met the unit on its arrival by ship at Inchon Bill Matthews had decided to concentrate them all in one company in which I was to have a platoon. Commanding Koreans was an educational experience. Nick Fritz was my platoon sergeant and we also had a Korean sergeant to pass along our gestured instructions to the troops. The first morning when I spoke to one soldier about his kit the Korean sergeant stepped up and punched him in the face. Nick and I looked at each other wondering what we had got ourselves into; clearly we had much to learn about the culture of the Korean Army. Things smoothed out in time and we got along pretty well. The soldiers could conveniently use our linguistic inadequacies to ignore whatever they chose, but they were good in the field and knew the countryside around.

The actual shooting war in Korea had ended the previous summer with the Armistice that still prevails uneasily more than half a century later. The battalion was part of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade which, in turn, was part of the 1st Commonwealth Division. One of the other brigades was British, the other had Australian and British battalions. There were also New Zealand gunners, Indian medical units, and others. The division reported in turn to the US Army’s I Corps and Eighth Army. Our division’s task was to secure a large sector of our side of the demilitarized line. 25 Brigade was the divisional screen while the other brigades manned fixed defences in the Kansas Line. Our battalion task was to patrol the DMZ. Each rifle company in turn spent a week in the line sending nightly reconnaissance patrols to intercept line crossers and anyone else. It was a very effective patrol school, a good way to learn that dangerous trade.

Besides patrolling we spent our time training. The battalion had not completed unit level training before arriving so we did platoon, company and battalion exercises pretty much continuously. In retrospect we were fortunate that the shooting war was in remission as active operations would have been disastrous, another Hong Kong. The constant turnover of soldiers in the months before leaving Canada never allowed our battalion to complete the company and unit training that would have prepared us adequately for operations.

Within a week of the battalion’s arrival we were in the middle of our weekly dinner when the CO got a phone message with the code word SCRAM. This was an exercise triggered without notice by Eighth Army for all formations and units to man their main defensive positions. We never knew for sure whether the SCRAM was an exercise or the real thing, but the drill was the same; gather the troops, issue ammunition and head for our designated positions in the hills. Fortunately we never did have to fight off a real attack.

That summer I was sent to Brigade Headquarters, commanded by Jean-Victor Allard, as a liaison officer. This was one of a few outside jobs for junior officers. Neil Anderson went on one at around the same time, as an observer with a USAF squadron, and was killed when his airplane crashed a few months later. I was there just a few weeks when I was sent on to Divisional Headquarters as the Canadian LO.

The COMWEL Div Hq was a unique organization. The commander was British, initially Major-General Horatio Murray, and his chief staff officer was a Canadian, Mike Dare, my old CO at OCS. Under him were two majors, a Canadian intelligence officer and a British operations officer, Peter Willcocks. Peter had three captains; an Australian, Mac Grant, a New Zealander, Max Tebbutt, and a Canadian, Chuck Spencer. Finally were three LOs; a Brit, George Whittaker, an Australian, Alec Reynolds, and me. This was likely the last of the old British Commonwealth military organizations and a fine one that worked seamlessly, at least so it seemed to me looking from the bottom up.

When I learned that I would be moving, the first thing I did was consult the military staff bible of the time, Staff Duties in the Field. It was a very useful publication with all matter of sound advice and good sense. I wanted to find out what an LO was supposed to do and was taken aback to read that an LO should be an older, experienced officer who knew his way around people and affairs. I was barely twenty and looked perhaps sixteen. This may have led to an unspectacular start in my new job. A SCRAM alert came in and Peter went round the Ops Room telling us which brigade to inform. I assumed that I should phone the Canadians and did so but missed his instruction to alert the Australians. My mistake was noticed quickly when General Murray got a call from the brigadier who was asking why all the transport had arrived in his area. The transport unit had been informed but not the brigade. I thought that I would be packing my kitbag but instead Peter quietly suggested that I pay closer attention to what I was instructed to do. It was a fine lesson.

My main job was liaison with the 1st US Marine Division deployed to our left, to the west. I would take dispatches over to them regularly and bring others back. It was an amusing experience as they seemed not quite to know what to do with this uniformed kid who represented himself as the Comwel divisional commander’s personal representative. They were much more seriously minded, at least formally so, than us, wearing helmets all the time and expecting the war to break out next minute.

We LOs did regular shifts as duty officer manning the Divisional Operations Room. For routine work the chief clerk, a British warrant officer, a kindly and efficient man with a twinkle in his eye, patiently guided me through the intricacies of the staff system, moving files to the right people, filtering the important from the trivial. The Brits had a simple but efficient system before computers. A new letter would come on the file, all the correspondence held together by a string at the upper left corner, to explain its context. I would draft a response or channel it appropriately and the chief did his best to keep me from harming the war effort and myself.

The duty officer also manned the divisional radio network and kept the logs. Radio traffic was a challenge. It was hard to imagine that allegedly we all spoke the same language. With a Cockney, a Yorkshireman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Quebecois, an Australian and several others competing for dialect space the radio network could be a shambles, confusing to the point of unworkable. I imagine that Chinese radio intercept units listening to incessant “say again all after” transmissions were as baffled as we were.

Something new came up daily. One day it was a flap when one of the observation posts reported hearing tanks across the DMZ. I asked for confirmation from others OPs and alerted Peter Wilcocks who brought Mike Dare quickly to the Operations Room. He was particularly interested in any report of ominous tank movement but fortunately it was a false alarm. Another day a USAF lieutenant appeared in a radio jeep to conduct a close air support exercise, and I took him out in the mountains. He got radio contact with as yet unseen airplanes, asked me to throw out a smoke grenade and, sure enough, four fighters appeared overhead that he directed to the target area. Fortunately they hit the right hill not ours. It was a striking exercise in joint operations: a Canadian soldier in the Commonwealth Division, going up channels to an American Army Corps and Army, and an American airman calling in US Marine Corps fighters flying off a US Navy aircraft carrier.

The Officers’ Mess at the headquarters was British run and the meals were somewhat of a comedown from the unit where we had lavish US Army rations. In those days British catering was less than inspiring. The cooks did their best with what they had, but there was just so much one could do with custard powder which was on at least two daily meals. I scrounged welcome Canadian supplies. On one memorable occasion I was in Seoul and my New Zealand driver and I had milkshakes at a US Army PX. It was a treat that I can still taste.

I got over to Japan on two R and R (rest and recuperation) breaks. One day out of the blue a signal came in for me – from my Dad, who was on his way to Japan on a RCN ship, asking if I could get over to meet him. Peter Willcocks insisted I go, and I didn’t need much encouragement. I asked one of the artillery pilots at the headquarters to fly me to Seoul where I could catch a flight to Japan with an Australian Air Force courier. His artillery observation unit flew light single-engine, two-seat Austers. We got off alright and were still climbing to get over Kamaksan, the largest mountain between us and Seoul, when the pilot turned around and shouted that our engine had lost oil pressure and was likely to seize up, so back we went and landed just before the oil ran dry. He picked out another airplane and off we went this time without mishap. Out of the Auster and into the Aussie Dakota, an old twin-engine Dakota that had seen considerable service. We were half an hour into the flight when one propeller malfunctioned so back we went for repairs. Next morning we got away and made it to the Australian base at Iwakuni on the inland sea between the main Island and Shikoku not far from Hiroshima.

I’ll never forget the incredible difference between it and Korea. I arrived absolutely filthy, covered in Korean dirt that was impossible to get rid of. Occasionally we could shower in Korea at the Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit: drop dirty uniforms, walk into a communal shower that sometimes had water, and then pick up clean clothes. After an hour’s return jeep drive on dirt tracks with an inch of dust the shower was a distant memory and the clothes as dirty as before. Iwakuni was on a beautiful bay and the countryside unimaginably fresh, green and clean. I got a room at the Mess, a Japanese orderly took my grimy clothes away, and I had the first real shower in months. An hour later he brought back a uniform that I barely recognized, clean, starched, like new. A beer on the deck looking over the gorgeous scenery was a magical moment.

Next morning I caught a ferry over the inland bay for an hour or so to Kure. The ride was full of wonder, a traditional Japanese painting of water, mists shielding mountains and gentle trees. So peaceful. I took a train to Tokyo next day and met my Dad. We had a nice reunion and spent the day together looking around the city before he had to leave to get to his ship in Yokahama. I stayed in the city for a couple of days and, among other things, heard the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra play Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Then I caught a train going somewhere south, got off in a town whose name and location I don’t remember, possibly around Hamamatsu, where I stayed for the last few days of my leave. Somehow I found a place to stay, wore a Kimono and slippers the whole time, bowed a lot, attended the communal baths, ate something somewhere, and didn’t meet anyone who spoke English while there. It was a most interesting interlude.

After I got back I was shot at for the first and only time. I had to take messages and instructions to units in the east of the country, on training exercises at Nightmare Range. Enroute my driver and I were stopped by a Korean soldier manning a road block at the entrance of a long bridge. He waved his carbine at us while talking in Korean which we didn’t understand, became heated so we took off over the bridge and he started shooting. We ducked and floored the elderly jeep. Fortunately he was a bad shot.

Bill McAndrew on a visit to the 38th Parallel in Korea.

In the autumn of 1954 the Commonwealth military commitment to Korea was scaled back, the division to a brigade and the Canadian brigade to one battalion, ours. I was still at the headquarters and we had a new commander, Brigadier Geoffrey Musson. Our first task was moving to a new location to free up our present one for the Koreans. Our new ground was at the base of Gloster Hill where the British Gloucestershire Regiment had been very very badly beat up in a big Chinese assault a year or so before. Looking for something in our files one day I came across an interrogation report that the Glosters’ adjutant, Tony Farrar Hockley, made when he was repatriated as a POW. It was a fascinating document, so I borrowed, it, climbed the hill and used it as a guide to the battle. It was still fresh, positions that the report described in detail dotted with slit trenches and debris. I didn’t realize it then but it was my first battlefield study of which I did many more in later life.

Brigadier Musson was a kindly and tolerant man as I learned. I was still going back and forth with the Marines on our left and got to know their commander’s ADC (later he won a lot of money on a popular American television programme, The $64,000 Question that was subsequently found to have been rigged). Through him their commander invited Brigadier Musson over to watch a football game. With draftees, the Americans had a league on a high level university level. They sent a helicopter over to pick up Musson and I drove over in a staff car for the return trip. I misbehaved at a following reception, drank far too much and was loaded into the back of the car, the general in front with the driver. I assumed next morning that I was finished but Brigadier Musson only seemed highly amused when he asked after my health.

Early in December I returned to the battalion. By then we were camped out in what had been the Brigade Recreation Centre without much to do. We were due to go home early in the year, but the date was repeatedly delayed until March. In the meantime we did a bit of training and sports and packed up equipment. Our quarters had been upgraded from tents to quonset huts, six of us to a building in rooms partitioned with plywood. One night I wakened to the smell of smoke and found the hallway engulfed in flames. I went out through the window, the last to get out and barely before the building went up. Vip Vipond didn’t make it and we found his burned rib cage next morning. It was an odd feeling when the reality of the situation hit home at daylight. I had got away with just a few minutes to spare wearing the bottoms of my pajamas and those, along with my dog tags found in the ashes, were my sole and only possessions in the world. Back to basics. Very strange.

Part III – Return to Canada, Preparing for Egypt, and off to Germany

We welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.