A Veteran's Battlefield Story A Choice To Live Or Die
The True Story Of A Battlefield Miracle
A few days ago as I was returning to my office ,after a short lunch, I was approached by a gentleman I had met a few times before at a local coffee shop. The man was carrying a large brown envelope, which he offered to me, and said "this is for you". When I enquired as to the contents he simply said " it some old military stuff that I had at home and somebody told me you would know what to do with it". I thanked him for the envelope and he quickly turned and walked away. I wondered, briefly, how the man found out about my "interest" in military research but the thought was fleeting and I remember being very pleased....that he had.
I have spent many years researching military records with the goal of helping people learn where their family members,who served in the military, had deployed while at the same time sharing any personal information that I learned during the search. Mostly my searches deal with WWI, WWII and Korea. I have also taken care of requests from many families who discover military items among the personal items ,after a soldier passes, that they do not know what to do with. They are usually interested in learning what the various pieces and mementos are while at the same time looking for any information that would fill in periods of time ,in their loved ones lives, that they knew very little about.
I really enjoy doing this for families of Veterans . It gives me great satisfaction when I can "fill in the gaps" about their soldier's life that they were unaware of. In most cases, the families usually approach me with their stories and requests and they always want to talk about their "soldier". They usually have a box, or an envelope, full of papers, medals, letters and other artifacts that they want me to look at. For me this is the best part of what I do. I am a private researcher and where one person might see only a pile of dusty, dirty and yellowing paper I see history and life and within every yellowing page......a real person.
I do my best to re-introduce this person to the family because, over the years, I have found that most veterans did not share their experiences with their family when they returned home from war. I really enjoy helping to fill in the gaps for the family and give them a better understanding of what their loved one experienced and endured . Many veterans are profoundly changed by their military service. Some soldiers, at least outwardly, show very little ill effects from their service while others undergo extreme psychological changes in their lives. Often times the information I find can provide the family with some answers to questions that have gone unasked , about their loved one, for a very long time..
When I got to my office I opened the envelope and took out the contents and placed them on my desk. I recognized most of the items very quickly and, from them, it was clear that this soldier had served in Korea. The envelope did not contain a lot of "artifacts" but there were some interesting and useful pieces to assist me in the search. The first items I looked at were a small collection of military script or "money" used by the soldiers during the war. There were Japanese yen, British Military Script and American Forces Script so at first glance I could not ascertain in what country's military this particular soldier had served.
The next interesting piece was a orginal "Safe Conduct Certificate" signed by General Matthew Ridgeway an American General who was the Supreme Commander of the UN forces in Korea. These were to be used by any Chinese or North Korean soldiers who wished to defect. These certificates were air dropped over the enemy positions by the thousands during the Korean War and many examples still survive to this day. The next piece gave me the detailed information that I needed to identify the soldier. It was a 24 hour pass and it contained the soldiers name, his unit, the date and the military that he served in.
He was a Canadian soldier and his name was C. Thompson. Thompson held the rank of Private and he was a member of the 2RCHA which stands for the #2 Battalion of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. This outfit served in Korea from 1951-1953 before being deployed to Germany in 1954. This one piece of tattered yellowing paper gave me the soldier's name, rank, serial number, his outfit and company, his commanding officers rank and name along with their military post location. Usually I have to search much more, in depth, before I ever get this much information but sometimes you get lucky!
I was feeling pretty good about about the progress I was making with this limited information. I knew that now I had enough solid clues to do a more detailed online search of the soldier's name and his military information that would, in time, lead me to discover more details of this man's service. Soon I would, hopefully, be able to gather enough data that would allow me to reconstruct this man's military life. At that point I could then help his family understand who he was as a soldier ,his experiences during the war, where he served, and hopefully provide them with some of the answers they were looking for.
There was , however, one last item from the envelope that I hadn't inspected. In the end it would be this particular item that would help me get to know and understand this man more than I could have ever expected to. It would be the catalyst for a life altering moment for Private Thompson that would, in some ways, changed him forever. This story is fascinating and, in the end, gives you hope in the human spirit even under the horrifying conditions of war.
The last item in the envelope was a Christmas card. It was a small card, no more than two inches by three inches, with a picture of colourful bells and holly on the front under the words "Merry Christmas". When I first saw it come out of the envelope I set it aside. During my years of research I have seen a lot of Christmas cards amongst soldiers belongings. It was something they tended to keep. They are interesting but rarely include any real useful information to the researcher. This one, however, was very different and led me in a direction I didn't expect.
On the inside cover of the card there is a verse that reads as follows:
"Whatever the color, race, or creed
All plain folks are brothers indeed
Both you and we want life and peace
If you go home the war will cease.
Demand Peace! Stop the War!"
On the opposite facing of the card contained the name of the "person" who sent the card. It reads:
Greetings from The Chinese People's Volunteers.....Korea 1951
It appears this Canadian soldier received a Christmas Card from the Chinese Army. An interesting twist to the story indeed. I knew the Chinese used propaganda, as did we, during the Korean War but I had never heard of the "Christmas Card". After doing some research I found some interesing information and in the end was startled at the conclusion. What follows is a true story and I think you will agree..... quite amazing.
The 2RCHA arrived in Korea in early 1951. After a short training stint they took their place at the front on what became known as The Jamestown Line. This was a static defense line that ran roughly north to south from just above the 38th parallel to within 30 miles of Seoul in the south. The UN forces which included the American, the British, the Canadians and the Australians made up the bulk of the fighting forces on the Jamestown Line. The history and details of The Korean War is not as familiar, with the general public, as WWI & WWII. Most people are surprised to discover that, for much of the conflict, the Korean War resembled the trench warfare of WWI France rather than the large rolling battlefields of WWII.
After the initial attack and invasion by the North Koreans, that was stopped by the UN forces, the ensuing counterattack pushed the North back across the 38th parallel. Unfortunately the consequences of that "UN" success caused China to enter the war, on the side of the North, with a million soldiers that resulted in devastating consequences for Korea and the allies. The UN forces managed to stop the Chinese and push them back but what resulted was nearly 3 years of trench warfare and static defenses where both sides suffered greatly. in the loss of men and material, for very little gain. Some have described the Korean war as a slaughterhouse. All sides took heavy casualties but it was the Chinese who suffered the most appalling losses of men during the course of the war.
The 2RCHA along with their "brother" infantry division the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, or PPCLI for short, were located in the area of HIll 355 the highest feature on the Jamestown line. It had been dubbed "Little Gibraltar" by the Americans .The Canadians faced the 569th and 570th Regiments of the 190th division of the Chinese Army. They saw continuous action throughtout the fall and early winter. The Chinese were constantly probing the Canadian line looking for any weak points. The were very adept at quickly getting through the barbed wire and into the Canadian trenches after a artillery barrage and because of this tactic much of the fighting was at extremely close quarters including hand to hand.
A couple of days before Christmas in December 1951 Pte Thompson was part of a two man detail who were in a forward observation trench . The weather was miserable and most of their time was spent trying, without much success, to use their ponchos to keep out the wind and rain . They had made their inspection of the perimeter and the barbed wire being careful to make sure there were no Chinese surprises waiting for them. The Chinese would often employ a tactic of placing a bangalore torpedo in the barbwire line to clear a path for a surprise assault. It was an effective and deadly weapon but this night the area appeared to be secure.
Seeing no activity the men settled into their routine. night duty was always a difficult and tough assignment. The fear was always at it's worse after dark when the shadows and the noises emanating from the darkness, which always seemed louder and closer than they really were after dark, were constant companions. The worst part for most of the men, on sentry duty, was the bugles and whistles the Chinese used sometimes to announce an attack and sometimes just for effect. Every sound and every perceived movement, which kept their nerves on a heightened sense of awareness, guaranteed a long and difficult night for the men. .
During this particular night Pte Thompson and his partner took turns keeping watch and keeping each other awake and alert. They traded stories and shared news from home willing away the hours but as always, especially when on forward duty, the nights passed slowly.
They were relieved to see the first signs of daybreak as the eastern sky brightened and with it the spirits of both men were lifted. They had not seen any enemy movement and other than a few bugles and whistles sounds the night all had been relatively quiet. They prepared to be relieved as their replacements would be along soon and both of them were looking forward to getting something to eat and catching a few hours of sleep.
While making one last visual sweep of the area Thompson noticed something hanging on the wire about 25 yards in front of their position. The object was swaying a bit in the wind but seem to be attached to, or caught on, the wire. Both men knew it was against regulations to leave the trench but their curiosity was too great and Thompson moved out of the trench and crawled out to the wire. Reaching the area he saw, what appeared to be, a small piece of paper hanging from the wire with a piece of tattered ribbon. He reached up and lifted the piece off the ribbon and put it into his pocket and then quickly turned back and returned to the trench. It was not a good place to be caught out in the open and Thompson knew he was pushing his luck.
When he got back to the trench and pulled the object out of his pocket both men were very surprised and a bit startled at what he had found in the wire......It was a Christmas Card. When they opened the card and read what was written inside they were shocked and quickly fear began to set as did the understanding of what had happened during the night. Looking at each other the two men knew they had been careless and it could have, and should have, cost them their lives. Anger came next as they both scanned the area before them looking for any intruders ready to shoot any target that presented itself. They made a promise to each other that they would keep this thing to themselves and tell nobody what had happened during the night. As their replacement detail arrived the two men made their way back to the camp. Both were shaken by what had occurred and the unpleasant possibilities of what could have happened to them were beginning to sink in.
Private Thompson returned home to Canada by the end of 1952. He did a short tour in Germany in 1954 and finished his military service in 1955. He returned home to his family in Nova Scotia and resumed his civilian life. He never talked very much about his experiences in Korea . That time of his life remained, for the most part, a mystery to his family. They knew he had endured many things during the war but he seldom shared any of those memories. The only thing Private Thompson's family was familiar with, from his Korean War service, was a tattered old framed Christmas Card that he would bring out each Christmas and place on the mantle in the front room. He told his children that a "friend" gave it to him during the war and that seemed to settle the issue for them. He did share the story of that night with his wife and his brother but no one else ever knew the true circumstances. behind the old Christmas Card.
The one thing , about that night, that Private Thompson could never understand is why the Chinese soldier, who left the card on the wire, didn't toss a grenade in their trench instead. The man had succeeded in getting within 25 yards of their trench line, undetected, where the two Canadian soldiers were hunkered down trying to stay warm. It would have been an easy kill for the Chinese soldier to make but instead he simply left the card and withdrew as silently as he had come. It was a question that, for Thompson, would remain, unanswered, the rest of his life. It was, also, the reason he kept the card and brought it out each Christmas. He would never know who that Chinese soldier was and why he was spared their lives but Private Thompson honored that choice and remembered that act of kindness each Christmas by displaying that old Christmas Card in his home.
As I sit here and write this hub I too am puzzled by the choice that Chinese Soldier made.Why didn't he kill the two Canadian Soldiers that night? What were his motives for sparing their lives and leaving the card? The truth is he could had left the card in the wire and still threw a grenade into the trench where Thompson was....but he chose not to do that and we are left with the same question Thompson carried with him the rest of his life.....why? I realize that I can never know the answers to those questions but every time I look at that card I will remember what occurred between these two men.
What of the card? That very card, from that long ago time, is sitting on my desk beside me as I write. At first glance it looks like any other ordinary, Christmas card but now that I know the story I know it has a very special connection to the lives of two soldiers. I know Private Thompson was changed by what had happened. I like to think the Chinese soldier was also "changed" by what he chose to do that night. What do I do with it? Is it rare....perhaps...... it is of any great value.....I don't really know and to me it doesn't matter. This card transcends value. To me it represents a choice that a soldier made a long time ago on a battlefield filled with unspeakable horrors that only war can visit upon the human experience. In all that carnage and death at that particular moment in time that Chinese soldier chose.......life over death and peace over war.
When Christmas comes this year I will have a new addition to the decorations that will fill our house with the joys of the season.........a tattered old Christmas card that someone will ask me about. My answer will be easy. I'll tell them it was a gift exchanged between two old soldiers from a long time ago and I am, humbly, honoring their memories.
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