7 November 2015

Remembrance continued: Our Spartans

The Korean War is seldom remembered today, and few times it is remembered, it is as the least 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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