Rich make money while poor do the fighting, says WWII and Korean War vet

Around the Nation

A column by Tom Van Dusen

Reg McIlvenna, 94, has a staccato delivery no doubt acquired from two years as a WWII reservist, a year on rotation in the Korean War, and several years after that in the regular forces.

His short bursts of comments and questions bounce around a table at Prescott Legion Branch 97 like ricochets.  When Reg wants to be heard and there’s too much random table talk occurring, he demands silence. And gets it!

His style is accepted as part of the no-nonsense approach that made him the first Canadian to join the American mission to Korea launched 70 years ago this June. Now he’s the last man standing connected to Branch 97 who was active in Korea and WWII.

Back in 1950, Reg went to the Ottawa recruitment office to sign up for regular post-WWII duty; while he was sitting there, Parliament decided to back the U.S. in Korea; Reg agreed on the spot to join the campaign.

He was assigned for basic training to Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. On the day he arrived, Reg recalled a large convoy at the CFB gate to meet and transport the new recruits… and he was the only one who showed up! He was soon joined by many others and, by the end of summer, 1950, troop trains carrying thousands of Canadians had arrived at Fort Lewis in Washington State to be shipped off to the front.

Branch 97 president Eric Place confirmed Reg’s record and status during a distanced and masked chat with the gruff veteran recently in the Legion bar. There’s certainly nothing delicate about this old veteran who looks like, if called upon, he could almost pick up his kit and hit the trenches again.

Eric Place (left) with Reg McIlvenna. Van Dusen photo, Nation Valley News

The Prescott resident isn’t showing a whole lot of signs of wear and tear usually associated with the aging process; his hearing is fine when everybody isn’t talking together, his eyesight as well. Reg is no warmonger. He doesn’t dispute the point the Korean War was and is seen by many to be as unproductive as the Vietnam War 20 years later.

“Is there any point to any war?” he said over his beer. “Poor people do the fighting and the rich make more money.”

The three-year Korean conflict began June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces backed by China and the Soviet Union invaded the south supported by the U.S. It ended in a military standoff which continues to this day. Some 26,000 Canadians fought and 516 died in what is often referred to as the Forgotten War.

With Remembrance Day right around the corner, the visit with Reg was organized by Fraser Laschinger, vice-president of the Grenville County Historical Society who’s preparing an article about the last man standing for the society’s Sentinel bulletin.

Like most veterans, Reg didn’t dwell upon the actual dirty bullet and bayonet business of war during the recent chat. But he did cover signing up, shipping out, his tour of Korean duty, and current national recognition of the conflict’s 70th anniversary which has been low key due largely to COVID-19 restrictions.

Nov. 11 events in Prescott as with other branches will be severely curtailed; members of the public are asked to stay away from the cenotaph during the pared down Remembrance ceremony, with no parade and no traditional reception at the Legion. Placing of wreaths will be limited and any observers that do show up are asked to remain behind a line.

There’s nothing in particular planned to mark the Korean War 70th, Place said, in which seven local residents served including Reg. The cautious guidelines have been set down by both the province and by Legion Central Command.

Reg is OK with the lack of fanfare. It’s all just politics anyway, the old vet grumbled before putting on his mask for a photo.

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