The Peace­ful Sol­dier

In 1952, Alphonse Pel­letier was ready to leave Canada to serve on the bat­tle­fields in Korea. What he wasn’t will­ing to do was carry a gun.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY STÉPHANIE VERGE PHO­TO­GRAPH BY RICH­MOND LAM

In 1952, Alphonse Pel­letier was ready to leave Canada to serve on the bat­tle­fields in Korea. What he wasn’t will­ing to do was carry a gun. STÉPHANIE VERGE

Alphonse Pel­letier was weeks from the front lines when he re­al­ized he’d never be able to kill any­one.

The pri­vate, a sol­dier in the Royal 22e Rég­i­ment, had en­listed in the Cana­dian Army on Novem­ber 28, 1949, at the age of 19. On that day, he hadn’t been think­ing about guns or war or the pos­si­bil­ity of ship­ping out to the Korean Penin­sula. He’d been think­ing about friends, about fam­ily, about be­long­ing.

The army had given him, a lonely youth, a place to land. Af­ter two and a half years of train­ing and teach­ing, it had be­come his home. Now he would have to ex­er­cise his con­science and risk it all.

THE VINGT-DEUXIÈME was founded in 1914 and was Canada’s only French­s­peak­ing unit in the First World War. Al­most four decades later, it set off for East Asia, one of three Cana­dian in­fantry reg­i­ments to de­fend demo­cratic South Korea against in­vad­ing North Korean and Chi­nese forces. Col­lo­qui­ally re­ferred to in English as the “Van Doos,” an an­gli­cized pro­nun­ci­a­tion of “vingt-deux,” the bat­tal­ion could be rec­og­nized by its beaver in­signia and reg­i­men­tal motto, “Je me sou­viens.” Its mem­bers were also fa­mous for their brav­ery—and brav­ery’s close rel­a­tive, row­di­ness.

Young Alphonse Pel­letier was just about as far from rowdy as one could get. Born the last of six boys in TroisPis­toles, Que., he had moved around a lot as a child: to his ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents’ home af­ter the death of his fa­ther, to an or­phan­age fol­low­ing his mother’s per­ma­nent hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for me­mory loss, to an agri­cul­tural col­lege when he was 12 years old. At 16, no longer a ward of the state, Pel­letier worked as a farm­hand in sum­mer and, come win­ter, in lum­ber camps as a cook’s as­sis­tant. This peri­patetic and of­ten soli­tary ex­is­tence made him crave com­pany. He found him­self miss­ing the ca­ma­raderie of the or­phan­age and the sup­port he’d got­ten there. “It seemed to me that, in life, one needs a gang. That’s why I en­rolled,” says Pel­letier. For him, it was as sim­ple as that.

In short or­der, the lanky, baby-faced teen earned the af­fec­tion­ate nick­name “Ti-Père” (“Lit­tle Fa­ther”) for his se­ri­ous man­ner and his stance on drink­ing and gam­bling (fine for his fel­low sol­diers, but not for him). Come pay­day, be­fore settling in for a pro­tracted ses­sion of beer and cards, his bud­dies would each hand him $20 they’d put aside. Qui­etly sip­ping on a Coke or a 7-Up, Pel­letier would hang on to their money un­til the morn­ing, when he could dis­creetly hand them back their funds in the sober light of day. “I had a good rep­u­ta­tion. I had friends,” says Pel­letier. “En­rolling did me a world of good.”

A mem­ber of the Vingt-deuxième’s first bat­tal­ion, Pel­letier trained as a parachutist and got his wings in June

1950. He was then asked to teach those same skills to new re­cruits be­fore send­ing them west to Van­cou­ver for fur­ther train­ing and south to Seat­tle to board boats headed for Korea—a trip Pel­letier and his co­hort would take in 1952.

As his de­par­ture date grew closer, Pel­letier be­came in­creas­ingly pre­oc­cu­pied: “I started to think it over. Tar­get prac­tice is one thing—not a prob­lem. But aim­ing and shoot­ing at a per­son, or killing them, is some­thing else al­to­gether.”

He be­gan by talk­ing about his con­cerns with his broth­ers-in-arms. They liked and re­spected Ti-Père, and his moral quandary rang true, but they were well aware that a re­fusal to fol­low or­ders was a ticket to prison. Pel­letier knew it too, but he also knew he couldn’t keep his con­vic­tions a se­cret from his su­pe­ri­ors. When he did bring his dilemma to their at­ten­tion, the con­ver­sa­tion went as ex­pected.

De­ten­tion it would be.

IF NO CHARGES ARE LAID within 24 hours of im­pris­on­ment, a sol­dier must be re­leased—a fact Pel­letier was quick to men­tion to the sergeant on duty come morn­ing. But Pel­letier’s overnight stint in the brig had served a dou­ble pur­pose for his su­pe­ri­ors, as it had given them time to mull over his case. Their con­clu­sion: the in­sub­or­di­nate pri­vate would have to fight. And they’d clearly need to send in their most per­sua­sive ad­vo­cate to ex­plain that to him.

Pel­letier’s first vis­i­tor was the mil­i­tary chap­lain, known as the padre. He took a hard line im­me­di­ately, call­ing the young sol­dier a cow­ard, a traitor,


a bad friend. Had he re­ally thought this through? How could he be okay with let­ting down his bat­tal­ion? Pel­letier knew the padre—he’d helped him serve mass and had gone to him for con­fes­sion. He de­cided to be equally frank. “Would you kill, Padre?” he asked the older man. “Would you kill some­one on the other side?” He ex­plained that just as the padre’s vo­ca­tion and faith pro­hib­ited the priest from killing, his own Catholi­cism kept him from do­ing so.

It was a very short con­ver­sa­tion— chas­tened, the apolo­getic padre sent

Pel­letier off to the bat­tal­ion’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer to ar­gue his case.

Lieu­tenant-Colonel Louis Fré­mont Trudeau had taken charge of the Vingt­deux­ième in 1949, fol­low­ing six years in Great Bri­tain and on the grind­ing Ital­ian cam­paign dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. When faced with the in­sub­or­di­nate pri­vate, his first ques­tion was, “Is this be­cause you’re scared?”

“I mean no dis­re­spect, Com­man­der,” an­swered Pel­letier. “I know one doesn’t go off to war singing. One doesn’t go off as if headed for a night out,” he con­tin­ued. “I’m no more afraid than you are—I’m just as afraid as you are.”

Trudeau looked at him for a mo­ment be­fore pro­ceed­ing. “Would you like to come to Korea?”

“Of course. These men are my com­rades and friends. But I won’t kill.”

Trudeau made Pel­letier a stretcher­bearer. Once on the front lines, Pel­letier’s gun would stay at camp— be­tween the pa­tients and the med­i­cal sup­plies, he wouldn’t have room to carry it any­how.

EACH STRETCHER-BEARER and driver was as­signed to an am­bu­lance, a can­vas-cov­ered Jeep with a back area the length of one stretcher and the width of two. When Pel­letier and his unit landed in In­cheon, South Korea, in April 1952, they set about get­ting their bear­ings. Pel­letier was meet­ing with his out­go­ing coun­ter­part from the sec­ond bat­tal­ion when a call came in.

The driver and the stretcher-bearer headed off and had been gone about eight min­utes be­fore a re­quest was made for an­other am­bu­lance. The first ve­hi­cle had been hit and its crew killed by a mor­tar shell. That’s when Pel­letier learned an im­por­tant les­son: you could die on your very last day of duty.

But Pel­letier didn’t die. He served out his year in Korea, fer­ry­ing pa­tients from the front lines to the med­i­cal tents, patch­ing up wounds in the field, re­cov­er­ing bod­ies. The me­mory from that time that has re­mained most vivid in­volves a miss­ing sol­dier. The in­fantry­man had been con­duct­ing a night pa­trol of no man’s land and never re­turned. A month later, an­other pa­trol, alarmed by the stench, stum­bled upon his corpse. Pel­letier came to col­lect the dead sol­dier. “He had been there the en­tire month of July, through­out the heat waves and tor­ren­tial down­pours and ev­ery­thing else. When you carry back a body like that, you think you’re never go­ing to be rid of those im­ages, those smells.”

He was, even­tu­ally—by lock­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence away. “I’ve al­ways been a bit closed off, no ex­pla­na­tions,” says Pel­letier now, at the age of 88, with a soft smile. “Other peo­ple pre­fer to talk, but I just do my thing, off in my own cor­ner.”

“Thank­fully, we have enough room for that small cor­ner,” adds Ros­aline, his wife of 54 years. She doesn’t dis­pute her hus­band’s quiet na­ture, but she does take is­sue with his claim that he’s kept his worst rec­ol­lec­tions of the war at bay.


“He was peace­ful ex­cept when he slept. Then it all came out. This went on for decades. He’d kick me in my back; one time he punched me in the face. I’d tell him, ‘Alphonse, it’s like you’re on a bat­tle­field.’ And the screams, al­ways at night. In the morn­ing, I’d ask him what had hap­pened and he had no idea.”

Af­ter Pel­letier was hon­ourably dis­charged on Au­gust 13, 1953, he spent much of his adult life work­ing as a cloth­ing presser in the gar­ment in­dus­try. He mar­ried Ros­aline in the spring of 1964 and they set­tled in Sher­brooke, Que., and had four chil­dren: three sons and a daugh­ter. When the kids were young, Pel­letier brought them to

Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies and gave them mock para­chute lessons in the base­ment, but he told them very lit­tle about the war.

This dis­mayed their sec­ond old­est, Louis-Marie, who, as a child, was anx­ious for de­tails of his fa­ther’s coura­geous ex­ploits in Korea. One day, in a bid to find out more, he asked his dad which side had been vic­to­ri­ous. “We wanted so much for him to tell us it was him—that he had won the war,” says Louis-Marie, laugh­ing. “But he told us it was the bankers who’d re­ally won. What a bor­ing an­swer! Still, he wasn’t wrong.”

At the age of 48, Pel­letier took a job as a porter at Saint-Vin­cent-de-Paul Hos­pi­tal, trans­port­ing pa­tients to and from their ex­am­i­na­tions, treat­ments and oper­a­tions. He loved the job: it paid bet­ter than press­ing clothes and he could be of ser­vice in the same way that he had dur­ing the war—with­out trou­bling his con­science. He worked there for the next seven years, un­til his bad back and knees edged him into re­tire­ment.

PEL­LETIER RE­MEM­BERS many of the men he served with, now all dead or lost to him. He still thinks about one young spe­cial­ist, a sig­naller who used games of Rus­sian roulette to stave off the re­lent­less stress and bore­dom of life in a com­bat zone. One day, the bul­let was in the wrong cham­ber and Pel­letier was called to get his body.

In Sher­brooke, there is a large al­bum, put away for years but now in a bed­room book­case, com­mem­o­rat­ing Pel­letier’s year in East Asia. There are pho­tos he took of life on the front, of timid Korean chil­dren and grin­ning young sol­diers barely out of child­hood them­selves. There’s a pen­cil sketch of Pel­letier at 23 years old, drawn by a street artist on April 29, 1953, dur­ing a stopover in Ja­pan on the way back to Canada. There are cer­tifi­cates of recog­ni­tion and ac­knowl­edge­ments for dis­tin­guished ser­vice. And there is an of­fi­cial procla­ma­tion, signed by the min­is­ter of pa­tri­ots and vet­er­ans af­fairs for the Repub­lic of Korea and kept in a plas­tic sleeve. Awarded to vets who served in Korea, it thanks Alphonse Pel­letier for his work in “restor­ing and pre­serv­ing free­dom and democ­racy.” Most tellingly, per­haps, it thanks him for be­ing an “am­bas­sador for peace.”

Alphonse Pel­letier (crouched, bot­tom right) and the rest of the med­i­cal team in Korea, in June 1952.

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