Veteran field engineer remembers the tough terrain of North Korea

BARRY’S BAY – In the late 1960’s, Bob Atchison came to the Barry’s Bay area.

With no family in the region, Atchison had dreams of a long employment in the logging industry.
“I came up here, originally, because of underwater log salvage. I pulled quite a few logs out of Kamaniskeg. I did it myself. I had the salvage rights to JR Booth and McLaughlin logs. I pulled quite a bit of wood out of the water, and left it out there at the lake,” Atchison said.
After a long winter, though, Atchison realized that someone had sabotaged all of his hard work.
“Over the winter, all of my logs disappeared. I had no idea who borrowed them but that was two year’s work taken away from me,” he added.
Despite his shortcomings, Atchison decided to stay in the area and try his hand on the realm of upholstery.
“I liked the country and area. I had an upholstering trade and did flooring and carpeting too,” he noted.
Settling into the Madawaska Valley region, Atchison was content at that point, but remembers a less settled time of his adolescence; the Korean war.
At the age of 20, Atchison and a friend decided that they needed some discipline in their lives and enlisted in the army.
“I was such a bad nut as a kid, so I decided to do something that would straighten me out. I joined the army with a buddy of mine named Fitzpatrick. We went to school together, chummed around, went to dances together and fought together. We were a rowdy pair of characters, I’ll tell you,” he added.
With his military beginnings in Ottawa, the veteran remembers being shipped all over the country in such a chaotic time.
“I joined the army in Ottawa, and then went to Petawawa and took most of my basic training, but then they had shipped me out to Vancouver and to Chilliwack for field engineering. Then I came back home again and was shipped out again to take up being a machinist and fitter. Then after that, I was shot off to Korea,” he said.
Landing at Incheon, Atchison didn’t take too much notice of his surroundings and tried to stay focused.
“We got off the train and got on a truck, and went so far, and set up camp for the night until we found out where we were going. In Incheon, we didn’t notice too much. We came over in a boat. And there were a bunch of Americans with us,” he added.
After arriving in Korea, Atchison was mostly away from the frontlines, as he was busy either building roads or setting up minefields.
“Being with the engineers, we were doing field work most of the time and most of our work was done at night. We did very little frontline work. We were building roads and putting in minefields and fences and that sort of thing. Our boys never got into too much trouble,” he added.
Building roads, and placing the mines on a paper grid and mapping them out, Atchison remembers the treacherous terrain of North Korea.
“After a while, familiarity breeds contempt and then you just get careless, I’ll tell you. We were building roads on the hook for observation posts. The rest of the military people used them but they were mostly for our use. We had to wreck a lot of rice paddies to get where we were going. It made the work a little sloppy. We had to do a lot of ditching for drainage and all that. There was a lot of rain. There were a few nice days, but it was always predominantly cloudy. You could hardly work. You’d be soaked. You’d sit in the mud and have a few beers and wait it out,” he noted.
During the difficult and detailed work of plotting and setting mines, Atchison and his crew would fence off the minefields so that they would be detected by their own troops.
“We keep maps on record. After we set up a minefield, you’d put a fence around it. It sounds a little crazy. But you’d put a barbed wire fence around them, and then it would protect an area from the soldiers coming through, and they’d see it and stop. It protected the infantry. They’d have to go around it if they really wanted to go through it,” he said.
Dealing with such a volatile workspace, Atchison recalls a number of minefields that were accidentally breached.
“Once in a while they’d breach a minefield, blow it up and come across it. We often breached our own. You’d take a big roll of cordite to get a fuse, and get it burning, and it would go into the minefield and light it up just like rapid fire,” he added.
Staying back from the frontlines, Atchison didn’t encounter many enemy troops but still recalls the anxiety of the thought.
Story continues in the September 19, 2012 issue of The Valley Gazette.