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Korean War: getting there was no fun at all.

One famous steamship line, to encourage travel on its vessels, coined the motto "Getting there is half the fun!" The thousands of Canadians who traveled from Seattle and other North American ports to Korea between 1950 and 1953 would certainly disagree.

Most Korean war veterans have horror stories of their three-week transit to Pusan or Inchon.

Visions of luxury cruises soon dissipated when the members of the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, set eyes on the Private Joe P. Martinez in the United States Army Transportation Corps Ocean Terminal, Seattle, on a rainy 25 November 1950.

The Martinez was one of the Kaiser Corporation's Liberty and Victory ships which was built by the hundred during the Second World War; these vessels were so cheaply constructed that if a craft made a single Transatlantic crossing it was considered to have paid for itself. Martinez was a typical example. The vessel was rusted and battered; the cargo space replaced with four-tiered bunks. Conditions were cramped, privacy non-existent and, later, as the voyage progressed, the effects of seasickness added the stench of vomit to the miseries. Altogether, 900 Canadians and about twice that number of U.S. servicemen endured this 20th Century Noah's Ark on the voyage.

On another ship, Bill Turner, a former Strathcona, recalls that the shock set in even before leaving the dock. As part of a draft on the Balue, he had been herded aboard the vessel "like so many sheep" when a hubbub occurred on the dockside. In Turner's words:

"What happened next no Canadian would understand. A convoy of three buses escorted by MPs in jeeps turned onto the dock. The MPs surrounded the buses, with shotguns at the ready. An officer and senior NCOs marched the soldiers from the buses up the gangway, onto the ship and down to the bottom deck. The Canadians couldn't understand what was happening -- we were already three hours late in leaving.

"The MP officer and his staff explained that these soldiers had been court-martialled and had already served some of their sentences for AWOL, desertion and other, more serious offences. They were called into court again and told that the rest of their sentence would be served in Korea -- the more serious the offence, the worse place in the front lines they would be serving."

Besides the cramped, unsanitary conditions, one of the biggest gripes concerned the food. Despite the ever-present mal de mer some troops made a point of attending every meal. In his memoir, The King's Bishop, John Bishop recalled that, "the dirty weather was exceeded only by the foulness of the food, and only a few soldiers were able to keep their food down. I threw up every meal that I ate during the three worst days."

Menus included watery soup with a few crackers, skinny slices of poor-quality beef, an occasional potato and, on one vessel, "dinner" consisted of a few turnips. Only two meals a day were served; with the large number of passengers, the mess was forced to operate on a 24-hour basis.

As members of formed units, the Canadians probably fared better than their U.S. travel companions. Reluctant soldiers were driven from their stinking troop-decks and made to participate in physical training. That, and the enforced exposure to fresh air, may not have been appreciated, but in retrospect helped to keep them in a little better condition. As the chief (and almost sole) form of recreation was gambling, several members who may not have suffered physically, no doubt suffered financially.

Some were lucky. Bill Olson, a photographer, was able to assist the ship's X-ray technician and, in exchange, had a cozy berth in the medical quarters. Don Eager, on the Marine Adder, developed a toothache and was sent to the sick bay. Although his dental abscess disappeared, he remained quiet and spent the rest of the trip in the comfort of the sick bay.

The journeys were broken by a "run ashore" in Honolulu. This turned out in most voyages to be a short march around the dock to restore "land legs." However, with the typical ingenuity of the Canadian soldier, a few enterprising troops somehow managed to acquire a bottle or two of liquor while ashore.

Some troops were lucky enough to spend a few hours sampling the delights of Yokohama, where they were at last able to let off a little steam. As booze, hookers and just about anything else could be obtained by barter, many Canadians returned to their vessels lacking many items of their uniform. Then it was on to Pusan, disembarkation, and the comparative comfort of the Korean railways.

Surprisingly, for once the underpaid, underfed British troops had a better time of their trip to Korea. The troopships (such as Empire Orwell, Empire Fowey), were especially designed for this purpose. Space was far more adequate (double bunks were the norm on the troop decks) and well-run mess halls served three good meals daily. Shore leave in Port Said, Aden, Columbo, Singapore and Hong Kong made the voyage a luxury cruise compared with the Seattle-Pusan trip.

Responsibility for the shipping of troops and material from North America to Korea fell to the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, which not only organized cargoes of unwilling troops but about a million tons of cargo monthly. They quickly developed from a make-shift no-warning operation to an effective system of logistics. About half a dozen Canadian vessels from our rapidly-shrinking Merchant Navy participated in the sealift, with some crew members qualifying for the Korea War Medal.

Happily, most Korea veterans recovered from their seaborne experiences. I am constantly hearing of luxury cruises to the Caribbean and other exotic areas, but I suspect that the conditions are significantly different from those of a half-century ago.
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Author:Peate, Les
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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