7 November 2009

A Week of Remembrance: None Shall Pass

Today I will tell two stories. The first is the heroism of a lone soldier during the First World War, and the second is the tale of the courage of a battalion during the Korean War. Both are stories of how courage turned around hopeless situations, and how one, or a few, can overcome many.

"Here we fear nothing, except God."

Corporal Joseph Kaeble, aged 26, was born in Quebec and served with the legendary Vandoos. He had been a mechanic in civilian life, and for that reason was made into a machine gunner during the war. (At the time they tried to match trades with positions within the army. It was thought mechanics would be better able to clear a jam in a machine gun than other trades.) He had served since 1916, and often wrote home to family and friends. He wrote to one girl in particular, who may have been his sweetheart or even his fiance. He wrote of how he longed to come home and see his people again, but also accepted that he may never return. He once wrote: “I pray to God every day that I may see you again, but that does not prevent me from doing my duty at the front. We must fear only the Good Lord. Here we fear nothing, except God.”

His devotion to duty and his courage he displayed in full on the June 8, 1918. I will allow his citation from the London Gazette explain the events of that day:

For most conspicuous bravery and extraordinary devotion to duty when in charge of a Lewis gun section in the front line trenches, in which a strong enemy raid was attempted. During an intense bombardment Corporal Kaeble remained at the parapet with his Lewis gun shouldered ready for action, the field of fire being very short. As soon as the barrage lifted from the front line, about fifty of the enemy advanced towards his post. By this time the whole of his section except one had become casualties. Corporal Kaeble jumped over the parapet, and holding his Lewis gun at the hip, emptied one magazine after another into the advancing enemy, and although wounded several times by fragments of shells and bombs, he continued to fire and entirely blocked the enemy by his determined stand. Finally, firing all the time, he fell backwards into the trench mortally wounded. While lying on his back in the trench he fired his last cartridges over the parapet at the retreating Germans, and before losing consciousness shouted to the wounded about him: "Keep it up, boys; do not let them get through! We must stop them !" The complete repulse of the enemy attack at this point was due to the remarkable personal bravery and self-sacrifice of this gallant non-commissioned officer, who died of his wounds shortly afterwards.

Alone Kaeble had defeated fifty men and prevented his position from being overrun. Time and again, victory came down to the raw courage of just a few good men. Kaeble stands among the finest of the few.

The Spartans

The Korean War is rarely remembered today. It is the less interesting of the great trilogy of war that stained the history of the twentieth century. This is unfortunate and wrong. It, too, has a rightful claim to our memory. We should never remember our men who served there, and fought in places like Kapyong.

Kapyong is the name of a river and village that stands about 40 miles north of Seoul. In 1951 it was a place of a bitter lopsided battle between Chinese forces and the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry.

The battle began on April 22. American forces were forced to withdraw from a position north of Kapyong, leaving South Korean forces in their place. The Canadians, along with an Australian Regiment and supported by New Zealand Artillery and an American tank company, were ordered to establish a defensive line. The Commander, Lt-Col Big Jim Stone, reconnoitred the positions, and placed his four rifle companies carefully on a hill known only as hill 677. The men dug in, but the soil was rocky, and their trenches and holes were often only two feet deep. They laid booby traps and trip wires. They waited for news from the front.

On April 23 the news from the front came in an unexpected form. The valley below the Canadian was suddenly filled with the roar of military vehicles and the shouts of people. The road below rapidly choked with Koreans and units from the South Korean Army. In their panic some of the Korean soldiers ran towards the Canadian positions, only to hit the trip wires and booby traps, getting themselves killed or wounded, and depriving the Canadians of one of their defenses. To the men of the United Nations forces, the truth was very clear: They were now the front lines.

By nightfall, the area was quiet under a moonlit sky. Then at midnight the sky lit up as illumination flares lit up the Australian positions across the valley. Soon the valley was echoing with the sound of mortar and machine gun fire. The battle was on.

Throughout the night the Australians battled the Chinese. They regrouped and tightened their perimeter. With the dawn the Chinese regrouped and hit the Australians again. Running low on ammunition after 16 hours of battle, the Australians were forced to withdraw. Now the only thing between the Chinese and the road to Seoul was the 700 men of the Princess Patricias dug in on Hill 677.

At 10 o'clock on the night of the 24 the Chinese began their attack on the Patricias. The Chinese forced one company to withdraw, but the company only withdrew long enough to regroup and counter attack with bayonets, and take their position back. Around 1 am on the morning of the twenty fifth another company was under attack from three sides. The fighting degenerated into hand to hand combat. The company commander was forced to call for the New Zealand artillery to fire on his position. The Patricias ducked behind their shallow holes while the artillery cleared the Chinese from their position. The battle continued, and again the commander summoned fire upon himself. The battle continues throughout the night, the Chinese threatening to overwhelm the Canadians through sheer numbers. The Canadians held on, their excellent positioning paying off hugely, as was their experience in battle: many of the men were veterans of the Second World War.

By dawn the Chinese had withdrawn from Hill 677. The Patricias were low on supplies, and the Chinese held the supply route. Lt-Col Stone called for an air supply drop, and the US air force obliged. Resupplied, the Patricias waited for the battle to resume.

It didn't. The Chinese who had entered the valley had been badly mauled by the Canadians and Australians. They withdrew from the valley. The supply lines were cleared and reopened. The road to Seoul was never threatened again.

The casualties for the Princess Patricias were amazingly light for such prolonged and vicious fighting: 10 dead and 23 wounded. The Chinese dead numbered at least a thousand. The exact number of Chinese who attacked Kapyong is difficult to ascertain. Some sources estimate the number at 6,000. Others place the number much higher, at 20,000. By the minimum estimate, the Princess Patricias were outnumbered by more than 6 to 1. Yet they held firm, and protected the road to Seoul. Had they not have been such skilled soldiers under excellent commanding officers, the history of the Korean War could very well be very, very different.

None of the Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for this actions. But the Patricias as a whole received a very special recognition: they, along with the Australians and the American Tank Company all received a United Stated Presidential Unit Citation. The citation reads in part: "...in recognition of outstanding heroism and exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services..." The Princess Patricia Light Canadian Infantry remain the only Canadian unit to ever receive this honour. Rather than forgetting these good men and sweeping their story under a carpet, they should be celebrated and remembered along with our other good men as an important part of our rich history.

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