Charlie Smith reflects on his time with the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
Charlie Smith doesn’t consider his time in the Korean War to be so exciting, but his efforts have brought Canada’s armored vehicles back into combat readiness after engaging with the enemy or falling in rice paddies.
Born near Davidson, Saskatchewan. in 1928, Smith was 22 when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, after the North invaded the South.
Smith was working on a farm when he realized that he would never be able to get ahead in life by doing this work. Fortunately, it was an army ad – “See a little of the world and learn a trade” – that piqued his interest and prompted him to enlist in 1950.
The farm boy eventually joined the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RCEME) as a heavy mechanic dealing with gasoline and diesel vehicles. He received the rank of craftsman.
“I could have been a corporal, but it doesn’t pay off,” Smith, 93, said. “You don’t get paid for the rank until you are a sergeant. And where I was, a sergeant was not included in the ranks.
Smith was sent to Kingston, Ontario. train for almost two years. While it was a good experience, he and other soldiers didn’t try to befriend the locals – or find girlfriends – as they knew their time would be short.
RCEME was sent to Korea by boat in April 1952. The Corps was attached to the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, as it was believed that the latter unit would move its weapons using tracked vehicles. However, engineers discovered that the artillery unit moved its weapons using vehicles fitted with tires.
Smith found himself about 40 kilometers north of Seoul, near the border with the Communists. They remained in this region for the remainder of the war.
“The Chinese have played games. They teased you (by firing artillery), ”he said. “I didn’t see any action. We were in the follow-up to show them that we were still there…. I didn’t shoot anyone. And everywhere I went, they (most of the time) didn’t shoot me.
Although Smith trained as a mechanic, he was given the responsibility of moving equipment and vehicles. This included moving tanks and heavy trucks that broke down or got stuck.
Many times it was not easy to move the vehicles as rice fields filled with water surrounded the roads. Still, anything wheeled or tracked had to stick to the main paths for fear of getting stuck while driving off-road.
“I never got stuck,” Smith said proudly.
Smith was limited in his travels in Korea and did not associate with anyone other than his comrades. In addition, he could not leave his vehicle even in friendly territory because the inhabitants generally tried to defraud the soldiers.
“You had to stay with your truck or else they would steal everything from you,” he laughed. “When you parked, someone was slipping; they would like to “sell” you a spare tire.
Smith never met someone famous in Korea, while he never joined guys who drank alcohol because he didn’t like those drinks. This did mean, however, that he was usually on call around the clock.
An interesting experience he had was over Christmas. On Christmas Day, the officers served food to their men as part of a long tradition. However, the commanding officer of Smith’s unit was not happy with the task and asked the staff sergeant how long it would take to send the crews in search of broken down vehicles. Two minutes was the answer.
“Before a vehicle moved, it had to have a work order of what it was going to do. (Staff sergeant) said it wouldn’t really be an emergency if you spent an hour looking for someone to sign a work order, so we got (the commander) signed for the whole month ” , said Smith.
Smith and his team missed Christmas dinner as they spent the day looking for wrecks and broken down vehicles.
The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953 with a truce between the Communists and the United Nations. Smith and RCEME were sent home in 1954, but first stopped in Yokohama, Japan, by boat. They had two hours to exercise while learning about Japanese culture and cuisine.
“It was a very nice experience,” he added.