A forgotten war no more

Forty years after the Korean war, Canadians who served there finally get to share their stories

A forgotten war no more

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

Capt. Mort Lightstone was too young to serve in the Second World War, as his father and brothers did. An industrious kid who grew up in downtown Ottawa, he delivered the Ottawa Citizen instead, and with his earnings later bought a bicycle to secure more lucrative work delivering telegrams. Sam, his father, was able to use his skills as a watchmaker to maintain aircraft instruments in the war; peace put him out of a job. Lightstone’s entrance into military life was therefore practical. “I had three older brothers,” he says. “I never got new clothes—they were all hand-me-downs.” He joined the Air Cadets and suddenly everything was new. “New boots, new shirts, pants, jackets, caps, raincoat, winter coat—amazing,” he says. “It made my life for me. It made my life.”

He’d thought of becoming a lawyer, but turned to the air force when his folks couldn’t afford university. By the spring of 1952 he’d earned his wings and was training as a navigator on the Canadair North Star, a four-engine transport aircraft with a dome permitting consultation with the stars—unlike radar, a navigation system that “can’t be jammed” by the enemy. Before long, at 19, he was charting a course for Tokyo as part of the Korean airlift, an important air support detail in the Korean War. On his first day he landed in Tokyo, unloaded personnel and supplies destined for Korea, and took off carrying American wounded and the nurses charged with their care. He found those nurses, in their starched white uniforms, very appealing; during the return flight stateside, he resolved to slap his flight cap on and visit with the troops in the rear. By the time he made the trek the nurses’ whites were splattered with blood. “The soldiers had arms missing, legs missing, pipes and gadgets holding their faces together,” he says in a video testimonial, part of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s Memory Project, which just launched a Korean War component to coincide with Remembrance Day. “That’s when the movie ended and the reality of war set in.”

Those few brutal moments left a deep impression on the young Lightstone. “I went back into the cockpit, strapped myself in and never went back into the main cabin,” he says. Yet such experiences failed to translate into recognition in Canada—despite the 26,000 Canadians who participated in the campaign and the 516 who died. “There weren’t a lot of fireworks for the folks back home, and so people basically forgot there was a war going on,” says David Bercuson, a historian at the University of Calgary. It was Lightstone’s fate to be a 28-year career airman during the most frigid period of the Cold War—when military conflicts seemed mysterious, inconclusive affairs to those watching from home. The Korean War, for instance, was a UN-sanctioned police action triggered by the invasion of South Korea by Northern forces, backed by the Soviets and China. Technically, it’s ongoing: the 1953 armistice ended hostilities but fell short of a permanent peace. No wonder it’s called the Forgotten War—it took four decades and intense lobbying for Canada to issue a distinctly Canadian medal dedicated to it. “Fighting a war when the population at home really doesn’t know what’s going on can cause real problems—as it has in Afghanistan,” notes Bercuson.

Lightstone retired in 1978, and his logbook is filled with exotic locations—he dodged anti-aircraft missiles in Vietnam and delivered aid to tiny, drought-struck Saharan villages. Yet, at 79, it’s Korea he dwells on: he speaks with 2,000 people a year to demystify that old conflict, one of the 1,500 vets who are part of the Historica-Dominion’s roster of speakers. “How long have we talked about Canadian history as boring?” asks Jeremy Diamond, the institute’s director. “Speak to Mort Lightstone.” Lightstone has a pithier way to put his wartime experience: “Hours of sheer boredom with moments of stark terror.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.