Bert Wiebe doesn’t really like to talk about the hill that he and thousands of others fought over.
He doesn’t really like to talk about the war much at all.
It’s been 63 years since Wiebe and other Canadians with the Royal 22nd Regiment, also known as the Van Doos, hunkered down on what would become known as Hill 355, the summit of which looked out over the front lines of the Korean War.
The conflict had drawn soldiers from across the globe in the first major Cold War struggle.
First in November of 1951, and then again 11 months later, Wiebe and the Canadians came under heavy and sustained barrage from Chinese forces, and engaged in combat that saw desperate fighting in the snowy, muddy cold.
“It was a bloody, bloody mess,” Wiebe says. “We fought and we got pushed back; we fought and we got up again. We finally took it.”
Wiebe thinks about the war a lot. He talks about it less often, particularly with reporters.
But although he joined the army with the unvarnished aim of fighting in war, that decision continues to haunt him.
At the same time, he says he has no regrets.
Born in 1932 in Enderby, B.C.,Wiebe was sent to a residential school in the area.
Like many others, he emerged angry – a feeling that led him to enlist in the army in 1949.
“I thought to join the army and get even.”
His religious parents were unhappy when they learned Wiebe had enlisted, but he had run away from home and by the time they found out, there was no turning back.
So Wiebe went to training camp in Regina, and when the army came looking for volunteers to serve in Korea, he stepped forward.
“I just wanted to serve in a war,” he says.
And when he got to Korea: “Then I got fighting.”
Wiebe and the Van Doos were deployed to Hill 355, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war. In two separate engagements, 34 Canadians would be killed, and another 79 wounded and 18 taken prisoner on that hill. They were among 516 Canadians who died in the conflict, 312 of whom died in combat. A total of 26,000 served in the war, which concluded in 1953.
“We knew what we were facing and we knew what we had to do,” Wiebe says.
He said he got “a little scared,” and was thinking, “Get this thing over with and go back home.”
But he doesn’t wish he had stayed home.
“That was my choice.”
When he returned to Canada in 1953, some of his experiences came with him.
“The memories are stuck in your mind,” he says. Six decades later, he continues to take medication for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Wiebe continued serving in the army beyond the war. Hewould later be deployed as part of Canadian peacekeeping missions in Egypt and Cyprus. Deployment in Cyprus, he said, was “creepy,” with snipers posing an ever-present danger, along with the knowledge that a shift in global politics could kick off a major conflict.
“You didn’t know what they were going to do.”
After 11 years or so, Wiebe left the military. He tried jobs on the oil fields and as a heavy equipment operator, then went back to school and became a social worker. Along the way, he got married and had children.
And he became a fixture at the Royal Canadian Legion, and in parades on Nov. 11.
On Remembrance Day, he says, “I remember my friends who got killed … It’s a sad day.”
Still, he’s glad that people remember the sacrifice of Canada’s veterans.
“It’s nice that we have that.”
After speaking to The News for this article, Wiebe’s mobility scooter was stolen. While the thief has yet to be caught, Chris Kehler and Coast Bathing Solutions donated a replacement scooter for Wiebe. See that story here.