Pearl Woods will be wearing a medal again this Friday that is particularly dear to her heart.
Although it was presented to her, the medal, she says, honours her late husband and the sacrifices he made to make the world a better place – not just overseas, but here at home.
Bernard Woods was not quite 20 years old when he answered a call for help in a country few Canadians had even heard of in 1950.
The end of the Second World War had stopped the fighting five years earlier, but it had hardly brought peace.
In Korea, a country that had existed under brutal occupation for decades, the tension between east and west, capitalist and communist, erupted into war. In the early hours of June 25, 135,000 North Korean troops surged across the 38th Parallel and marched toward the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Opposition by both the poorly equipped South Korean forces and the ill-prepared American forces, crumbled. Through the newly formed United Nations, the United States sought international support to stop the onslaught.
Canada was quick to answer the call.
And so was Bernard Woods.
Woods, who had lived on his own since he was 14, was from Tufts Cove, Nova Scotia. He joined a small contingent of 16 volunteers who boarded a train from Halifax, becoming the first group from Nova Scotia to sign up for the “Canadian Army Special Force” heading to Korea.
“Tell the Yanks we’re coming,” one volunteer told the local newspaper.
For Woods, the opportunity for adventure was irresistible. “I just want to see what’s going on the other side of the world,” Woods told the paper.
Their send off was a low-key affair, witnessed by only a “small knot of well wishers.” They were headed for Petawawa Ont. for training.
Like Woods, most of the young volunteers had little or no military experience. After Petawawa, the new recruits were shipped south to Fort Lewis, Washington for additional training that included live-fire exercises.
Canada’s sacrifice started early. That November, 17 soldiers died in a rail accident while on route to Fort Lewis.
The training was to last six months. But with the situation worsening in Korea, Canada couldn’t wait.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, 16 nations agreed to help. Canada had sent three navy destroyers in July – the first of eight vessels that would eventually serve in the area. Now, with Woods and his fellow Nova Scotians still training, Canada dispatched veteran members of Prince Patricia’s Light Infantry to help the fight.
Crisis had been averted earlier as UN Forces under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur outflanked the advancing North Koreans with a daring amphibious landing at Inchon. Canadian troops helped push back the invading army, but the war would drag on for three years.
Conditions were difficult and the fighting often confused.
“It was rough,” Pearl remembers her husband saying. The enemy – which since October of 1950 included hundreds of thousands of troops from the Peoples Republic of China – were well concealed in the hilly terrain around them. At times, Woods told her, it sounded as if they were surrounded. The enemy would emerge from a blind, fire into his patrol, then disappear again.
At one point, Woods, a Catholic, was assigned to drive the company chaplain to the front lines for a service. He was reluctant to go, preferring instead to stay with his unit in the thick of the fighting. The pastor assured him the fighting was not far from the site of their service – a message underscored by the thump of incoming artillery that sent everyone but the chaplain scrambling for cover.
The attacks took their toll. Of the nearly 30,000 Canadians who served in Korea 516 would die and over a thousand more would be injured.
Overall, nearly a million members of the UN Forces were killed, wounded or never seen again.
And yet, reflects Pearl, Korea is often called Canada’s “Forgotten War.” Despite the scale of the conflict, few Canadians were ever aware of the sacrifice.
That was something Pearl’s husband was aware of as he settled into civilian life. After the war, Woods was stationed to CFB Chilliwack where he met Pearl and married her in 1953. He became a plumber by trade, never far from the military life as he served as foreman on base. He remained active in the Royal Canadian Legion and in the Korea War Veterans Association.
The war, said Pearl, gave him a new perspective on what so many people take for granted. “I think he really appreciated things a lot more.” He was also proud of the economic success South Korea has enjoyed since the war and felt a part of it.
In the end, it wasn’t the bombs or the bullets that took Woods’ life. It was cancer.
Nonetheless, two years ago a letter arrived, advising Pearl that she was being presented the Memorial Cross for her husband’s service to Canada. She hadn’t asked for it, but was grateful for the recognition. The first time she pinned the medal on, she admits, was difficult. The couple had been married 57 years and her loss was still fresh.
“It was kind of hard on me,” she says.
But she is also proud to honour “her man” and share the sacrifices he and so many other Canadians made in the cold and muddy fields of Korea.
Every year she lays a wreath on his behalf at the All Sappers Memorial Cenotaph at Vedder Crossing.
She’ll be there again this Friday, a small silver cross pinned above her heart.