General (ret’d) Ramsey Withers is a graduate of both Royal Roads Military College and the Royal Military College of Canada. Commissioned as a lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (RCCS), he went to Korea as a replacement signals officer with 1st Battalion, Le Royal 22e Regiment. When the battalion rotated out of theatre, Withers was assigned to the 1st Commonwealth Division Battle School in Japan and trained incoming soldiers in preparation for the field in Korea. Following the Korean War, Withers had a long career in the armed forces, including as Chief of the Defence Staff (1980-1983).
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We all volunteered, of course, but we knew that we were destined for Korea. They told us in April at the [Royal Military] College that if you go regular army, you’ll go to Korea. Period. So all of us who were regular army graduated and then immediately headed for Korea.
In August of 1952 the [25th] Canadian [Infantry] Brigade was going back into the line. And the orders had come down, I think from the corps commander, the American corps commander, that we, the Canadians, were to sort of imitate the 3rd US [Infantry] Division. The idea was the corps commander wanted the Chinese to think that he had rather overextended the 3rd Division, to possibly goad them into making a probing attack and taking some prisoners. So we were issued American helmets and we changed attack signs and vehicles that were going to be forward, etc. – this great deception plan. And on the air we were to use American voice procedure, which was quite different from the whole Commonwealth procedure. The Commonwealth procedure, without going into too much technical detail, was a very secure single call system, a single call sign. The American system was different. You named the station you were calling and then said who you were. For example, “Hello, Pine Pine, this is Quick Quick.” That was different from ours. Now we were supposed to do that, and, I said, “It’s not going to work very, very well for us, is it? Because we speak French.” So we were going to say “Allo, Pine Pine, voici Quick Quick. Qu’est-ce qui ce passe avant de votre position, over?”* Unless you’re a battalion from Louisiana in the [United] States, you’re not very American are you? But they insisted we do it and it gave them all of 24 hours before the Chinese put up little signs across from us, “Van Doos** welcome back.”
The signal platoon provided the signalers to the company headquarters. And generally speaking, two or three to the company headquarters to maintain communications there. Each of the platoons had its own operator who was normally also the platoon commander’s batman. So that would be – the wireless set would be carried by that individual. Sometimes on patrols the platoon commander himself would carry the backpack radio to ensure that he had immediate control to call back for fire. And then what we of course did, when we had one going out like that, we had backup base sets that would be perhaps deployed at another company, or whatever, so there was always a backup. But it was always radio. You didn’t carry a line out on these patrols.
Line was extremely important. I’m not going to underestimate it. Actually our main system of communication was line, telephone, for quick reaction to – in other words to call for supporting fire. Every outpost was connected by line to its company and then back to battalion. We did what was called laddering. In other words, you wouldn’t just have a single line going from a company back to the battalion, you would ladder. You would put out another line, then put it through say the neighbouring company and then back, so that you always had a bit of flexibility and redundancy.
It wasn’t very fun for us to maintain the line, because through shelling and mortaring and Chinese patrols cutting things, we were at it all the time. And of course the only time you could work in that position was at night. Because otherwise we were overviewed by the Chinese positions on the four hills including [Hill] 227, which we called – the four hills, we called them the Apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and they could look down on us. And so if you were out there in daylight, the line crew, you got mortared. You had to do all the work at night. And at night it was also dangerous because of possible Chinese patrols. So it was a demanding task. There was this one piece of ground between Hill 159, which was our left forward company, and leading back to battalion, where that line would be, it was being shelled out practically every day. And it was very – we were constantly repairing it until our pioneer officer Hal Merrithew had a brilliant idea. He said, “What if we take the casings off the mortar bombs coming in – they are necked down at the top – what if I blow the bottom out with explosives and then two of them will fit together. Get a bunch of those and you can bury them and put the line through that?” And we did. That line never went out again. So that was good. That was 1952.
Now I want you to cast your mind forward to 1962 and I’m now the Brigade Major of 4 Canadian [Mechanized] Brigade [Group] in Germany and I’m at a divisional conference. And I meet a British staff officer by the name of John Ballington. And you could look at his ribbons, he was in Korea. And I asked him where he was and so forth. When the ceasefire was called, he was on Hill 159. And they were given – I forget whether it was 42 or 72 hours, to take all warlike things out of what was going to be the Demilitarized Zone, and 159 was in that zone, of course. This work was overseen by these international commissioners,*** or whatever they were called, who decided whether something had to be removed or not. Well, there was my little steel encrusted line and they said, “Oh, that has to come out.” And John Ballington said, “We had to work almost a full day to get that damn thing out! I wish I could find the guy that put it in there!”
Art Herman was a platoon commander in the battalion. I had been at his platoon, it was on Hill 210. And that was the other thing I used to do, is go around the companies and inspect their equipment to make sure it was all working properly. And so I had a regular routine of visiting and that was the day to visit his company and I went and things were fine in his platoon. And he said, “I’ll walk up to company headquarters with you.” And I went up and we got just up to the company headquarters and I was climbing into my Jeep to go back down to battalion headquarters, when the Chinese started shelling. Art said, “Oh God. There’s three of my guys – they’re all huddled together.” And it was a Y in the trench. Art’s platoon was the last forward platoon. One branch led there and the other went to the right forward platoon and he said, “I’ll go down and disperse them. We’ll see you.” And off he went, and off I went and I got down – literally, the battalion headquarters was only about 400 metres away - and I got down there and into the command post to report in, and people were looking at me with kind of stony faces and said, “Your friend’s gone.” A 122[mm howitzer shell] came in and got Art and the other three men [on 19 August 1952].
*“Hello, Pine Pine, this is Quick Quick. What is happening in front of your position, over?”
**Nickname for Le Royal 22e Régiment
***Military Armistice Commission