By Major (ret'd) Bob Near, President Ottawa Branch, The RCR Association
The Royal Canadian Regiment is known for its quiet professionalism. Its cardinal principles of Pro Patria and Never Pass a Fault reflect a regiment whose soldiers are dogged and tough, and who can be counted on to get the job done with minimum fanfare. Stolid and good natured, as well as competent and thorough, RCR soldiers are very much an embodiment of the Canadian personality. Perhaps no one in The RCR manifested these qualities more than Ed Mastronardi.
The panorama of Ed’s life was a remarkable one. On his father’s side, he was of Italian extraction, a Florentine whose ancestors were the masters of arms for the city’s armoury and allied with the great Medici clan. Ed’s mother, Thérèse Viau, was a descendant of Jacques Viau, a soldier in the Carignan-Salières Regiment who had married one of the Filles du Roy, or daughters of the King — young women sent to New France to become wives for the men of the colony. It was from this hardy gene pool that Ed came into the world on November 2, 1925. Growing up among Toronto’s immigrant community, Ed attended Duke of York Public School and Jarvis Collegiate. He excelled in sports, especially track and field and football and was captain of the school’s Army Cadet Corps, winning the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association’s gold medal for best cadet marksman.
During the Second World War, Ed finished high school before joining the Royal Canadian Navy in 1944. Sharp in math and science, Ed trained as a radio-telegraphist, serving on board the frigate HMCS Victoriaville, doing convoy escorts on the North Atlantic. One of Ed’s most memorable navy moments was in May 1945, when he was on the boarding party that took over U-190, the last German submarine to surrender to the RCN. Ed’s job was to go below and get hold of the sub’s code and signal books, which he did, at the same time “liberating” a fine Luger pistol. Ed kept the pistol for many years, and only handed it over to the police when he came within a quick trigger pull of blowing away a drug dealer working his neighbourhood.
After discharge from the Navy, Ed enrolled in the University of Toronto, graduating with an Arts and Science degree. He had also joined the Canadian Officers Training Corps, becoming a reserve lieutenant in the Canadian Intelligence Corps.
In August 1950, Ed was instructing at Camp Borden when it was announced that a Canadian Army Special Force would be established for service in the Korean War. Hearing the news over the officers’ mess radio, Ed and his subaltern buddies, after a few beers rumination decided, what the hell, they would sign up and see what adventure awaited. With his Second World War credentials and Intelligence Corps commission, Ed was immediately taken on strength of the newly forming Second Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, as the Intelligence Officer, with Scout Platoon and the unit snipers under his command. For train-up preparations, 2 RCR joined the rest of 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade for five months in Fort Lewis, Washington, where under Brigadier “Rocky” Rockingham, the troops underwent a constant stream of forced marches, live-fire and toughening-up exercises.
On May 5, 1951, Ed and the rest of 2 RCR disembarked from a U.S. Navy transport at Pusan harbour — a foul place you could smell even before seeing it. Three weeks later, the battalion was in action, tasked with capturing a hill feature called Kakhul-bong and the village of Chail-li just beyond. Ed and his snipers provided what help they could to D Company, assigned to take the summit. But enemy artillery and machine-gun fire was intense, preventing any forward movement and forcing the depleted remnants of the company to withdraw back down the hill. It was a true baptism of fire with seven Royal Canadians killed and 29 wounded. But it would steel Ed for an even more difficult fight to come.
The Song-gok Spur, overlooking the Sami-ch’on Valley, was a near-perfect piece of ground for a platoon defence, except for one thing: It lay 600 yards forward of 2 RCR’s main defence line and could only be partially supported by the companies dug in on the ridge behind. Holding the spur, however, was key as it blocked the only tenable route by which the Chinese could infiltrate into the main Canadian defensive position. If they broke through, they could then roll up the defenders from the rear and flanks.
On the night November 2–3, 1951 the Chinese attempted such a manoeuvre. Occupying the spur was 2 Platoon, Able Company — the “Flying Deuce” as they styled themselves — now commanded by Ed. The Deuce was a good platoon. Its troops liked Ed, affectionately calling him “Boss.” But they were down to 28 men. Ed had no sergeant, just two corporals and a lance corporal to do the myriad of tasks that go with defending what was the Battalion’s key terrain.
The Chinese attack began just before 2100 hrs on November 2 — Ed’s 26th birthday. Before it was launched, the Chinese initiated a verbal exchange, shouting out, “Canada boy, tonight you die!” Ed’s response, to his men’s delight: “Come and get me you son of a bitch!” But Ed knew the Deuce was in for it. So did the troops, but not a man flinched.
For the next eight hours, a full Chinese battalion, supported by artillery and blowing bugles, came in waves in an effort to swarm the Deuce. If you’ve seen the movie Zulu, you get the idea. Through it all, Ed was dashing from trench to trench, shouting encouragement to his boys, and calling in his SOS defensive fire tasks. Ed’s command bunker was over-run. Facing his Chinese attackers, he shot two with his 9-mm Browning and a lit up a third with his Very pistol. Ed’s men performed similar acts of cool courage. Eddy Bauer received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Jack Johnson the Military Medal for breaking up repeated Chinese assaults with the platoon’s Bren guns.
In the thick of it, Brigadier Rockingham got hold of Ed on his wireless, telling him that he and his platoon were the “cork in the bottle” and, by all means, they had to hold. The Deuce did hold, right to 0330 hrs, when Ed was given the order to withdraw. Ed was the last man to leave the position, leaving no one behind except Pte Joe Campeau, killed in the fighting. He would recover Campeau’s body the next day.
Using artillery to cover the withdrawal and carrying out his 15 wounded plus all the platoon weapons, Ed and his boys successfully made the 600 yards back to the battalion’s main position. Badly stung, the Chinese did not pursue, nor did they occupy the spur. For 2 RCR, it was a major victory with grievous damage done to the enemy. For Ed, it was the most momentous event in his life. Had he been killed with pistols in hand, it’s probable he would have been awarded the Victoria Cross. But The RCR are not known for their liberality in recommending honours and awards. Ed received the Military Cross.
In April 1952, the battalion rotated back to Petawawa and into garrison routine. At a mess function Ed met an attractive, vivacious girl by the name of Margaret Marion. Within short order they married, producing a son. The marriage was Ed’s firm base and he remained lovingly devoted to Margaret for 63 years, until her passing in April 2016. Ed’s army life at that time, though, was stagnating. Promoted to captain and airborne qualified, he was made 2 RCR’s jumpmaster, assigned to the Rockcliffe Air Base in Ottawa. But after Korea, this was mundane stuff. Moreover, Ed’s driving interests were intellectual and scientific.
When the Army turned down his request to do post-graduate studies, his RCAF friends stepped in, offering to make Ed a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force’s technical stream, with a promise of further education. Ed accepted. After a stint at Centralia, he was selected for the Royal Air Force Technical Staff College in England. Graduating in 1961 with a degree in Advanced Weapons Systems Engineering, Ed became one of the RCAF’s top missile systems specialists, in the rank of squadron leader.
When defence dollars dried up and the projects he was working on were cancelled, Ed left the Air Force for more challenging work. Joining De Havilland Canada, Ed became their chief of engineering sales and manager of operations. Although he enjoyed the private sector, Ed still felt called to public service and, in 1968, joined the Treasury Board Secretariat. He worked there for the next 19 years, ending up as the assistant secretary to the Board. Ed finally went into full retirement in the mid-1990s.
It was in his retirement phase that Ed’s life came full circle. The expression “once a Royal Canadian always a Royal Canadian” proved its truth when Ed joined the Ottawa Branch of The RCR Association, and was once more enjoying the company of soldiers. At the same time, a new post-Cold War generation of serving RCR appeared on the scene — young officers and soldiers who took a keen interest in the Regiment’s Second World War and Korea veterans.
So it was that in his final years, while residing in the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre, Ed found himself once more deep in The RCR fold, cared for and loved by the Regiment. The highlight of this golden time was Ed’s visit in 2014 to 2 RCR in Gagetown, as a guest of honour for the Battalion’s commemoration of the Song-gok Spur Battle. Accompanying Ed was Red Butler, the only other living veteran from that action, and John Woods of the Kakhul-bong fight.
Ed revelled in this renewed regimental connection and took to writing novels and short stories that mirrored his own life experiences. This included Mock The Haggard Face, a gripping war novel based on Ed’s time in Korea. It’s a wonderful tale, in reality a thinly disguised account of Ed’s experiences as a young officer.
In taking up writing, Ed kept his head sharp while avoiding the soul-destroying ennui that afflict so many of the elderly in extended care homes. His regular attendance at the Ottawa RCR Association’s monthly beer calls, coupled with being hosted by The RCR’s battalions in Petawawa and Gagetown, further kept Ed mentally sharp and intensely proud of being a Royal Canadian.
On October 9, a Sunday morning, Ed was making his way to the Perley-Rideau’s chapel for mass. Suddenly and without warning, he was struck down by a fatal heart attack. He was wearing his full regimentals — RCR blazer, maroon beret, medals, and the recently awarded Korean Taegeuk Order of Military Merit. It seems that Ed sensed his time had come. Only the day before, he told the Centre’s chaplain, Father Tennyson, that he had written his last book. He was getting ready to re-join the soldiers of the Deuce. And passing through the sentry gates of heaven, he would be properly attired as befits a Royal Canadian.
Pro Patria, Ed. God bless and rest in peace. You have earned your heavenly reward.