Canada: Fighting for Alfie: A battle for brother's recognition in the Forgotten War - - PressFrom - Canada
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Canada Fighting for Alfie: A battle for brother's recognition in the Forgotten War

23:45  11 november  2019
23:45  11 november  2019 Source:   ottawacitizen.com

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a man sitting on a bench: Harold Hellam at the cenotaph in Veterans Memorial Park in Smiths Falls. His brother Alfie fought in the Korean War.© Bruce Deachman Harold Hellam at the cenotaph in Veterans Memorial Park in Smiths Falls. His brother Alfie fought in the Korean War.

As wreaths were laid, prayers spoken and anthems sung on Monday, Harold Hellam stood at the cenotaph in Veterans Memorial Park in Smiths Falls, leaned in against the cold and grey, and thought, as he often does, of his brother Alfie.

Pte. William Alfred Hellam was not among the 516 Canadian soldiers who died in what has often been referred to as the Forgotten War, but he just as surely gave his life for it. For despite coming back home to Canada from Korea in 1953, Alfie repeatedly found himself involuntarily hurled back there, in his mind at least, for the remaining 55 years of his life.

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As kids, Alfie and Harold were as close as bread and butter. Alfie was the oldest of nine Hellam siblings; Harold, just a year younger, was next, and the two were rarely apart. In 1940, Harold recalls, Alfie, then 9, got a red wagon with which he used to pull his brother all over Toronto. They’d walk by the psychiatric hospital at 999 Queen St. W. and make faces through the windows at the patients there. Or they would walk to the CNE grounds, at the time a staging area for troops waiting to be sent overseas to the battles of the Second World War. The soldiers would sometimes sneak the two boys under the fence and feed them in the mess.

Alfie was mild-mannered, Harold recalls, and so the entire family had misgivings when, in 1952, just shy of his 21 st birthday, Alfie joined the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry to deploy to Korea, where Canada sent troops under the United Nations banner.

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“I think it was the uniform,” Harold recalls. “Alfie was so proud of that uniform. He’d come home and just strut around the place. I don’t think that guys realize what war really is when they join.”

Their mother may have known. She told Harold that he would one day have to take care of his older brother, a warning that at the time seemed as far-fetched as it now seems prescient.

The Chinese soldiers, Alfie used to tell his brother, weren’t afraid of dying. They’d run up the hill, screaming, towards the pillbox that Alfie and three buddies were defending as U.S. troops retreated. Alfie would open up his machine gun against the onslaught. At night, Alfie said, enemy troops would silently approach on their stomachs, knives in hand. You might wake up to find one of your comrades dead beside you, his throat slit. To prevent this from occurring, the Canadians strung empty tin cans along the perimeter. If they heard one clanging, they’d send a flare into the night sky to light the ground around them, and Alfie would swing his machine gun into action.

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The pillbox was hit by mortar-fire one night, and Alfie caught some shrapnel in his legs. His three companions, his buddies, weren’t as lucky; all three were killed. Alfie convalesced in a hospital in Japan for six months, then returned to Korea, where he finished out the war working in a hospital kitchen.

“And when he came back,” says Harold. “There was no recognition that he was a soldier. There was no recognition for any of the Canadians in Korea. They were forgotten.”

Odd maintenance, taxi and janitorial jobs followed, but Alfie had difficulty holding any of them down. “He’d just be sitting somewhere, and then he’d be way off in Korea fighting the war again. He’d be talking war things: ‘Here they come! Get the guns! Put up the flares!’ He wouldn’t even know he was in the room.

“I knew he was physically wounded,” Harold adds, “but he was mentally wounded, too.”

One day, a misunderstanding with a convenience-store clerk who was unfamiliar with the arrangement Alfie had with the owners to buy cigarettes on credit led to a police intervention, and Alfie found himself at 999 Queen St. W. Harold and three other brothers forcibly got him from there, and Alfie, after a few more ups and downs, ended up moving in with Harold in Merrickville, where, Harold says, the whole village took care of him. Alfie led Merrickville’s Remembrance Day marches and, dressed as Santa, featured in its Christmas parades, too.

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But as the Korean War was technically a police action and not a war, Canada still failed to recognize Alfie as a soldier – no pension or dental care – and when he was refused admittance into a Legion one day, Harold decided enough was enough. “That was terrible of Canada. Not just Alfie, but all the veterans of the Korean war were treated horribly.”

Harold contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs, which, he says, led to a hearing in Ottawa in front of three judges. Alfie was awarded a pension with medical benefits and a cash settlement. All Canadian soldiers who fought in Korea were eventually similarly recognized. Cenotaphs, like the one in Smiths Falls, now honour Korean War veterans.

“When I think of Alfie, I think of all the soldiers in Korea and what a disgrace it was that they were not given the recognition they deserved.”

Although he died at the Rideau-Perley in Ottawa in 2008, Alfie Hellam lost his life in Korea in 1952. He lies buried beneath a military headstone in St. Pauls Cemetery in Sprucedale, near Parry Sound.

bdeachman@postmedia.com

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