Staff Sergeant | Royal Canadian Infantry Corps
We brought back from the Border our Flag - 'twas never lost;
We left behind the land we love, the stormy sea we crossed.
Training for the 48th Highlanders halted abruptly in June 1940 when they were ordered to France with the first Canadian contingent overseas during the war and were among the first Canadians on European soil. They had been slated to move two weeks earlier, but the operation was cancelled in light of the congestion and ultimate evacuation at Dunkirk. Churchill insisted on defending the English coast and the Second British Expeditionary Force moved on June 13.
Among the Highlanders was a wiry private, an Irishman by birth who had immigrated to Canada in 1929. Hugh McNeill was an enterprising individual, leaving school at age fourteen to work and had been capitalizing ever since. Beginning with livestock transportation in Toronto, over the next few years he created a business with a partner, which he bought out before joining the Army full time in January 1940. Though he had only been in the service for six months, he was slighted that he was held back in the second echelon of the 48th and was not one to set foot in France during that first year – McNeill’s war came later in Italy. After the invasion of Sicily, Hugh received his promotion to corporal and worked as a transport driver for two months before another promotion and transfer on July 25, 1944 to the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade where he ran all vehicles in a battalion under the transport officer. From here he served though France and Holland where the war concluded and he returned home anxiously awaiting if orders would send him to the Pacific Theater.
After marriage in 1947 and their first child two years later, Hugh enjoyed spending time at home reading magazines and papers or listening to radio news programs. He worked briefly as a shipper for groceries, but missed life in the Army where he excelled as a competent soldier. A ringing in his left ear was a constant reminder of the dangers the service could bring, but it did not hold him back from reenlisting and qualifying as a parachutist.
While reluctant to leave his quiet home life and growing family, Hugh embraced the thrill of another war when the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment was called on for rotation to Korea in 1952. The battalion overlooked the Sami-ch’on valley and Hugh found it reminiscent of the sharp hills of Italy. There was little movement, however, and the men developed homes in the system of bunkers and trenches developed throughout the previous year. Hugh’s company, B Company, was credited with the most raids for the period shortly after their arrival to the front. As transport sergeant, he was spared from these daring nighttime patrols, but the action brewed plenty of emotion within the battalion, from the excitement of the action to mourning of losses to killed and wounded. The company departed the front briefly in June and July for guard duty on Koje Do island where they were responsible for guarding 3,200 prisoners with the 1 K.S.L.I. In autumn, Sergeant McNeill transferred to Brigade Headquarters and then to No. 25 Canadian Reinforcement Group in Japan for a period where his services were deemed more valuable. His years of experience in the army had made him a competent instructor and he tended to find himself in roles of responsibility training other soldiers. His transfer came just days before the savage attack on 1 R.C.R. at Little Gilbraltar which nearly wiped out B Company. While he was disappointed in 1940 to miss combat in France, he was thankful years later as he thought of his cherished family that he wished to return to.