The Korean War is sometimes called The Forgotten War because it does not always receive the remembrance of the First and Second World Wars. Canada had a huge impact on the Korean War and one of the biggest and most important battles was the Battle of Kapyong, fought from April 22 to 25, 1951.
The Battle was fought between the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and the United Nations Command Forces, made up primarily of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops.
The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Regiment had arrived in Korea under the command of Colonel Jim Stone in the last part of 1950 and things were slowly quieting down in the Korean War with the North Koreans being pushed back across their border. It was expected there would be little in the way of combat now but when the Chinse entered the war on the Communist side in early 1951, everything changed immediately.
By mid-April, the Chinese were withdrawing past the 38th parallel in an attempt to lure the UN forces into a situation where they would be subject to a counter attack. This was unleashed on the South Korean Army on April 22, 1951. The 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade, of which the Princess Patricia’s were attached to, were ordered to protect the South Korean army in their withdrawal along the Kapyong River in the Kapyong Valley. The Valley itself was only three kilometres across at its widest point but it would be a pivotal point in the Korean War. With the Canadians was the Third Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and both were tasked with defending Hill 677. The Canadians, who numbered 700 troops, were ordered to defend the west side and the Australians the east. The initial attack would hit the Australians, who would suffer 155 casualties and they were forced to withdraw. The Canadians were then ordered to dig in on the hill and prepare to repel a Chinese force that numbered 5,000 troops. Once the Australians had retreated from the hill, the Chinese began to attack the 700 Princess Patricia troops at 10 p.m. on April 24.
Most of the attacks by the Chinese were at night in constant waves using mortars, grenades and machine gun fire at the Canadians. One company of Canadian soldiers, numbering 100 men, were attacked by 400 Chinese soldiers. The attack by the Chinese would be pushed back through several brave acts by the soldiers. Private Wayne Mitchell would be wounded but while wounded he would charge at the enemy three times with his gun, pushing them back. For his bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In his citation, it is stated that Mitchell had been wounded two times and halted a Chinese assault nearly by himself, firing his gun from the hip to relieve a group of wounded men who were pinned down and thereby covering his own platoon’s withdrawal. He refused to be evacuated after four enemy assaults and he stayed at his post the entire night. By the next morning it is stated that:
At daylight, Private Mitchell could hardly stand for loss of blood
He would be flown out by helicopter to receive urgent medical care.
The Military Medal was presented to Smiley Douglas for his actions during the battle. His citation reads
“On the 25th of April 1951 during the battle of Kapyong, a party of Second Battalion Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry had moved into a dangerous defensive field of booby trapped grenades, tripping wires which set them off. Two men were close to a grenade which had been tripped and was smoking. Lance Corporal Douglas instructed them to lie down, rushed forward and attempted to throw the grenade away. It exploded in his hand, blowing his hand off. Lance Corporal Douglas, by his brave act and complete disregard for his own safety, undoubtedly saved the lives of his comrades.”
Douglas would survive the battle and be presented the medal by Governor General Vincent Massey.
D Company would almost be overrun by the Chinese and in an effort to save his men who were entrenched below ground, Captain Captain JGW Mills, the commander of the company, called for an artillery strike on his own position. The men in D Company would hunker down in fox holes as 2,300 rounds of shells crashed down on their position for an hour. None of the men were hurt in the attack and Lt. Mike Levy, who stayed with his men in the fox holes, was rewarded for his bravery with a coat of arms in 2003 by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Oddly, five of his fellow soldiers received bravery medals but Levy did not until half a century later. While there is some speculation that Levy being Jewish may have resulted in him not getting a medal, I don’t know if that is the case and can’t find anything to back that up beyond overheard accounts.
The artillery bombardment would save countless Canadian lives. One soldier would say later:
I was there. None of us would have survived if the artillery had not been called.
Another impressive act of bravery came from Private Kenneth Barwise, who was able to recover the lost Vickers machine gun position in D Company, grabbed the gun and took it back to his platoon. In the process, he killed six Chinese soldiers and would be awarded the Military Medal.
Colonel Stone would not allow his men to retreat because the hill was a critical point on the UN front and keeping it would stem the Chinese offensive. As they were being surrounded by the Chinese soldiers, air drops had to be conducted to provide the Canadians with supplies so they could keep fighting.
Eventually, despite outnumbering the Canadians at the start of the battle five to one, the Chinese began to retreat. The Princess Patricias would be relieved on the front line by the battalion of the First US Cavalry Division. By the end of the battle, 10 Canadians were killed, 23 were wounded, while the Chinese had suffered an astonishing 2,000 casualties.
Gerald Gowing would say afterwards
We were surrounded on the hills of Kapyong and there was a lot of fire. We were pretty well out of ammunition and out of food too. We did get some air supplies dropped in but we were actually surrounded. That was a scary moment, let me tell you.
Michael Czuboka would say years later, “when we left Kapyong, we felt very grateful that we had survived, because the British to the west of us, the whole battalion was wiped out by the Chinese. There were 50 or 60 survivors out of 700.”
The holding of Hill 677 would have a massive impact on the Korean War and it would allow the UN to consolidate their troops for the next stage of operations. The success of the battle would also lead to the defeat of the Chinese offensive against the South that spring, keeping Seoul from being occupied and allowing the South Koreans to retreat. The entire Communist offensive of 1951 was halted for a week after the battle and the rest of the war would see a war of patrols and harassments, rather than large scale attacks.
The Canadians, along with the Australians, would receive the United States Presidential Unit Citation, the first time that a Canadian unit was honoured in such a way.
Corporal Raymond McCartney of Waskatenau, Alberta, would send in a letter home the citation that his battalion received from the Americans. It states:
“The Second Battalion PPCLI are cited for extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of combat duties in action against the armed enemy near Kapyong on the 24th and 25th of April 1951. The enemy broke through the main line of resistance and penetrated to the north of Kapyong. The units listed above were deployed to stem the assault.”
“With serene and indefatigable persistence, the gallant soldiers held their defensive positions and took heavy toll of the enemy. In some instances when the enemy penetrated the defences, the commanders directed friendly artillery on their own positions in repelling the thrusts.
In a ceremony honouring Korean War veterans, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would say of the battle that it “for 24 hours, there was intense hand-to-hand fighting and unimaginable bravery. When the smoke cleared, the Canadians held and the Communist invasion would go no further.”
Today, a monument to the Commonwealth Forces sits at Kapyong.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Veterans.GC.CA, ValourCanada.Ca, National Post, CBC, By River and Trail, Schools Of The Parkland, Strathconian, University of Alberta, The Gateway, Veterans Affairs