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TV special uncovers Canada's 'forgotten war'

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TORONTO -- Before bullets flew, the taunts exploded.

"I heard a voice shouting: 'Canada boy, tonight you die!"' Korean War veteran Ed Mastronardi says, recalling the night of Nov. 2, 1951, in the new History special 28 Heroes.

"And I shouted back: 'Come and get it! As it turned out it was a full attack. And I had 28 men."

Director Paul Kilback says the battle of Song-gok Spur -- which saw a small Canadian platoon fight a battalion of 800 Chinese soldiers -- is a little-known conflict from Canada's forgotten war that should be recognized.

"It always struck me that it's not in any of the history books," Kilback says of the extraordinary battle, in which Mastronardi's unit fought against all odds to maintain a key outpost in the face of repeated Communist attacks.

"Even for the people who do know about (the Korean War), Kapyong is the big thing or it's Hill 355 and never have I seen anything but a paragraph about this action."

Kilback came across the story while working on another documentary about the Korean War that introduced him to Mastronardi.

He returned to Mastronardi years later to do 28 Heroes, which creates a moment-by-moment portrait of a relentless assault that haunts the former lieutenant to this day.

In the special, the white-haired Ottawa resident pauses as he looks over a tattered sepia-tinged photo he recovered from one of the Chinese soldiers he shot. Depicted are two men in uniform, staring straight into the camera.

"I keep it just to remind me," he says. "There's two sides to the war."

Although eager to tell his story, Mastronardi seemed to have difficulty relaying that heart-rending anecdote, says Kilback, who spent about four hours with him and three hours with another veteran, Red Butler.

"You know, he's proud of what he did, he's proud he served his country and he's a very proud man about being a good soldier and keeping his men alive, but I think he also struggles with the fact that he killed people as part of it," says Kilback.

"It was his job, and he knew it was his job and he did it well, he did it efficiently, but you can tell that he has some regrets in that sense. That these are not just some faceless enemies, 'This is actually another human being who is there for the same reason I'm there, they're just protecting their home and their family. And I killed them.'"

The documentary includes an interview with Chinese company commander Li Yinjun, who Kilback says was just as eager to share his story.

"He was very proud of what he did, he believed in what they were fighting for, he continues to to this day," says Kilback.

"It's interesting how different but how the same they can all be. And that's why we felt it was important that we had at least a Chinese perspective onto what it's like to fight in Korea."

The battle killed hundreds of Chinese soldiers, and just one of the Canadian defenders. About half of the Canadians were wounded.

The incredible story is not widely known, says Kilback, in large part because for many years the general public seemed to express little interest in learning the ugly details of Canada's third deadliest conflict.

"It wasn't the kind of war like World War II where you came back to parades and victory. There wasn't a lot in the news ever about it, nobody really ever knew why anybody was fighting there. And it's such a complicated, political war -- there's no kind of 'good' or 'bad,' it wasn't easy to define," Kilback says of the war, which began June 25, 1950, when the military forces of North Korea crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea.

"It really kind of fell off everybody's radar. So these guys don't think anybody wants to hear about it. I always find that incredible, that they've never spoken about these events before."

More than 26,000 Canadians served in the three-year war, and of those, 516 Canadians died in service, according to Veterans Affairs.

Kilback had trouble tracking down survivors from the battle of Song-gok Spur. But he was surprised to suddenly be contacted by Butler, who was a private at the time of the conflict.

The Manitoulin Island resident caught wind of the project through the Royal Canadian Regiment and said he had photos to share.

"We're like, 'Are you crazy? You were there? We need to talk to you!'" says Kilback, who shot the doc's dramatic recreations at CFB Meaford near Owen Sound, Ont., using actual Canadian soldiers as his actors.

"We were about to finish editing the film and then we found him and then I re-edited the film once I found him."

Kilback says it's important to get these war stories on the record before it's too late. He notes that fewer and fewer veterans are around to share their experiences, recalling feelings of dismay when tracking down real-life tales for Greatest Tank Battles.

"As I would go through production, every couple months I'd get, 'So-and-so's passed away.' They pass away constantly now so it's like those stories are being lost forever."

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and the Canadian government has declared 2013 the Year of the Korean War Veteran.

Also debuting on History this weekend is the documentary Sector Sarajevo on Sunday, which recounts a brutal Canadian peacekeeping mission to Sarajevo in July 1992. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Canadians were sent into a volatile war zone where they managed to secure the airport and bring in aid. Under constant fire, they endured snipers' bullets and standoffs with warlords, eventually breaking the rules of peacekeeping by fighting back.

Meanwhile, there's the second season of War Story, which began Friday and continues Saturday, Sunday and Monday. This year, stories include: Canadian servicemen who survived Japanese slave labour camps during the Second World War; Canadian airmen imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp; twin stories of the Vietnam War, told by Canadian volunteer combat veterans and U.S. draft resisters; and first-hand experiences of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Other programs on the schedule include Dieppe: Uncovered, D-Day to Victory, Passchendaele, The Great Escape: Secrets Revealed and Storming Juno.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 G3

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