BOWDEN – When Russ Sutherland climbed into Glenn Chong’s Bell 47G-4 helicopter last Aug. 1 at a veterans’ fundraiser in Mirror, a memory shot him back to a faraway place 69 years earlier.
The Bell chopper was eerily similar to the one he saw in 1951. But Sutherland was not in the cockpit then. He was strapped to a stretcher secured to its side. He was a Canadian soldier wounded in combat during the Korean War. He was flown out to a MASH unit.
Last week, the 89-year-old long-time Bowdenite told his full story for the first time, one of courage, all verified in old newspaper clippings. But he never wanted to be called a hero, just a guy doing his job.
“I suppose there is out there a heroic image, which I have no idea about but I am no bloody hero. I was scared to death from time to time,” said Sutherland.
Answering the call
Sutherland was a Saskatchewan farm kid from North Battleford who headed out to Ontario in 1948 to find work. Two years later, he went to a movie theatre to watch John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima.
“That just fired me up. I heard that the Canadian Army was enlisting for Korea,” said Sutherland, who was upset to be too young to serve in Second World War. “Where the hell is Korea? That don’t matter. I’ll go.”
Sutherland, then just 19, signed up. He was a soldier in the Canadian Army Special Force — 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) — responding to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. On Nov. 25, 1950 under the command of Lieut.-Col James Stone, the battalion sailed from Seattle on the USNS Private Joe P. Martinez to Pusan, South Korea.
Sutherland and his 1,100 comrades arrived 23 days later. It was evening. The front lines were visible. The sky was lit up with gun flashes. The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter was raging.
“There was just a little enclave left,” said Sutherland. The Chinese pushed everybody back. This was a huge rout for the Americans. They had their backs to the water.”
But Stone insisted his men needed eight weeks of mountain warfare training before engaging.
Convoy up the hill
The call for action arrived in February, 1951. Sutherland and his comrades convoyed up a mountain road to relieve an ally regiment. Along the way, they had to go through a massacred American engineering company, dozens of men killed in their sleeping bags.
“I think I must have been scared to some degree,” he said. “There were other things that happened later on that made me a lot more scared.”
They continued up the hill to relieve the allied regiment. They came under fire about halfway up. Only tree branches were hit.
“That night there was a lot of thinking by individuals,” he said, noting he and his countrymen had to dig a hole to sleep in and were ordered to stay put no matter what. Sleeping bags were forbidden. No Canadian complained.
"I remember the odd night standing guard when there was a nice moon light and looking at that moon," he said. "I thought, 'you know that is the same moon I would look at back in North Battleford. I wonder if I will ever see it again."
Canadians in battle
On Feb. 21, United Nations forces launched Operation Killer, a counter-offensive. Sutherland and his comrades were in the thick of it. The teen was soon engaged in multiple firefights.
“And after each one, I’d go and find a lonely spot and just have a cry. I’d try to forget some the things I did or didn’t do,” he said. “You don’t think much. Everything is taught to you in such a manner that you do it automatically. Should I do or should I do this? You don’t think that.”
And then came a massive battle. The Canadians were blasted by mortars.
“They were trying to take the hill back from us,” he said, recalling the sounds of bugles and trumpets. “Sometimes, I thought they’d never stop coming. Wave after wave.”
And then came a shot. Sutherland was sent flying. He managed to scramble behind a rock.
“I realized I was hit in the left leg. I lost my weapon,” he said. “I searched around a little bit for that. I don’t remember much else.”
Sutherland was one of the first Canadians injured in the Korean War.
A new mission
Sutherland was carried off the hill by stretcher to an advanced dressing station. He was then flown out by helicopter to an American MASH unit. He was soon sent to a British hospital in Japan for six weeks.
During his treatment, he was told his infantry days were finished. Sutherland was given a choice. He could become a truck driver, a cook, or a medic. He chose medic.
“I thought, ‘geez, I just spent six weeks having the best care of my life’ I decided to be a medic,” he said.
Sutherland was with the RCAMC – Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. After training, he joined the 25th Canadian Field Ambulance in the summer of 1951.
“I often wondered if I still had the jam to go back in as a medic. All of a sudden one day on the loudspeaker it came over, ‘we are looking for volunteers to go in and support the PPCLI,” he said. “They have to take this hill and they are expecting heavy causalities, so we are looking for medics.”
“Lo and behold, I saw my hand go up. I went back in. It was my old unit.”
For the next three months, he treated wounded soldiers.
By October 1951, the non-regular Canadian Army Special Force was sent home.
Sutherland decided to join the regular army as a medic. He continued that for the next 21 years in bases across Canada, helping others the way he had been on the Korean battlefield. By the mid-1970s he settled in Bowden, working a few years with inmates at the Bowden Institute and eventually getting married.
To this day, Sutherland still does not consider himself a hero. But he’s grateful he was able to become a medic.
“I think that was the saving grace for me quite frankly,” he said.
Next June, Sutherland will turn 90. He’s already been invited for another ride on the Bell helicopter. He resisted taking his flight last August, but later admitted he had fun. It was also a time to reflect on all the good that came out of what he did on the Korean battlefield.
“If I hadn’t gone to Korea and gone through those things, I’d have never realized how important it is to do the right from the wrong,” he said. “I think there was a modicum of doing right created in me at that time.
“That got me the first leg up, the first step up towards where I am now.”