'The experience I had, I tell you, you grow up fast. You’re not a teenager anymore'
TRURO - As a frontline soldier involved in hand-to-hand combat during the Korean War, returning to civilian life was a breeze, Randell Fortune says.
“After being overseas and getting back here, everything’s a banquet,” the Truro resident said, of life’s more normal trials and tribulations. “I can handle anything after that.”
Fortune, 80, was only 16 and living in New Brunswick when he signed up for military service.
By age 18, he found himself on Korean soil where he would spend 16 months embroiled in front-line action.
“My father was in the army, I would imagine that is probably why,” he said, of his decision to join the Canadian infantry.
It wasn’t long after he arrived in Korea, however, that Fortune began to wonder what he had done.
“What did I get myself into?” he said, of his thoughts at the time. “There were all kinds of things going through my mind.”
And one sure thing about war, Fortune said, it causes one to mature much faster than they normally might.
“The experience I had, I tell you, you grow up fast. You’re not a teenager anymore,” he said.
“Petrified. You’re petrified. You know what I mean? And it just was not pretty. You can just imagine, people being blown up and parts of people (scattered about). Ugh.”
One of the more memorable battles that Fortune was involved in occurred at midnight on the night of May2/3, 1953 in a severe firefight that became known as the Attack on Hill 187.
“Twelve o’clock sharp. Bang, she started,” he said.
At that point, Fortune was actually in a valley portion of the area, “doing what I didn’t want to do.
“Think about it. We were overrun … there was approximately 2,000 Chinese, North Koreans and Mongolians came in on the attack.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Fortune’s battalion, which consisted of about 90 soldiers, and the two battalions located on each side of his, began receiving fire from other Canadian artillery and ships that began lobbing shells right into the midst of the battle.
“Real intense,” he said, of the shells that were coming from “everywhere.”
“They called it pork chop hill. I can just tell you it was hell. We we’re pinned down with machine gunfire for a time and it was hand-to-hand stuff, I tell you,” he said. “There was people running around with grenades in their hands. They (had) lost their weapons and they had grenades with the pins pulled … The shells were hitting like machine gun fire. The bombs, the shells. It wasn’t friendly but they call it friendly fire.”
It was about five a.m. that Fortune made it out of the valley, dazed, shell-shocked and with the hearing in his left ear permanently damaged.
“I was the last man out of that valley. I didn’t realize (at the time) but I came through a minefield. I don’t know how I got through it.”
Others didn’t. The night’s activities ultimately claimed the lives of 26 Canadian soldiers, while another 27 were wounded and seven were taken prisoner.
Besides the damage to his hearing, Fortune also suffered injuries to his back and one knee. He later developed malaria (because he had never been issued a mosquito net) and ulcers.
And Fortune believes he still suffers to a degree from post-traumatic stress disorder, although that term was not in vogue at the time.
“It did affect my life when I got home” he said. “I wasn’t that happy guy I used to be. And I was more on the defensive than I used to be.”
And to this day, Fortune said he remains extremely jumpy if someone brushes up behind him or merely touches him on a shoulder.
“It never leaves you,” he said.
Still, Fortune said he has no regrets for having participated and he believes too many Canadian do not realize how fortunate they are to live where they do.
And as for the fact that the Korean War has become known as ‘The Forgotten War’ and that many who served there have never received the same recognition as soldiers from the First and Second World Wars, it is not a subject that Fortune has spent much time dwelling on.
“I’ll be honest and truthful about this. It doesn’t bother me in the least whether we’re recognized or not,” he said.
“I know what I did and I know why I did it and I know it was a very good cause for sure.”