AT KAPYONG, A FORGOTTEN MOMENT OF CANADIAN HEROISM
The 60 th anniversar y of one of this country’s greatest military victories is coming this Easter weekend. Sadly, it will be little noticed by most Canadians.
On a hill near Kapyong in South Korea, on April 24, 1951, about 700 outgunned and surrounded Canadians stood off a major night attack by about 5,000 Chinese infantry. It remains one of the most perfectly fought defensive battles in history. Kapyong is unknown to most Canadians; indeed, the very conflict itself is famously called the Forgotten War.
When North Korea i nvaded in the summer of 1950, an American-led, 20-country United Nations force (minus the U.S.S.R. and its satellites) was sent to defend the South.
Canada, already committed to NATO in Europe, did not at first send regular troops, but instead raised a special volunteer force specifically for Korea to serve an 18-month stint. About 27,000 men eventually served. More than 500 never came home.
The first unit sent was the newly minted 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. In Ottawa, the army leadership felt uneasy with these men. Among the army brass, there was great distrust of recruits who joined up simply to fight.
In the beginning, it was a conflict of movement and manoeuvre, but eventually bogged down into stalemate and attrition. The Patricias became an aggressive antiguerrilla force and took the fight to the enemy, leaving the roads and going into the hills, sleeping with only their blankets for weeks at a time.
In mid-April, 1951 the Chinese opened another offensive aimed at the South Korean capital city of Seoul, a few miles away. The Patricias were quickly rushed to Hill 677, near Kapyong, a strategic point beyond which lay the city. The British, Australian and South Korean units along the line were driven back. The Canadians were alone and cut off. If the Canadians stood their ground, annihilation seemed likely. Yet commanding officer Jim Stone deployed his troops, sat back in a chair with rifle in hand and said, “Let the bastards come.”
For 10 hours, the Canadians and Chinese fought brutal, confusing battles, sometimes hand to hand. The same few defensive positions were captured and recaptured by both sides. In the final attack, fearing that his unit was about to be overrun, a young lieutenant named Mike Levy called down artillery fire on his own position. This act of incredible bravery was ignored by his anti-Semitic superior, who vowed “not to award a medal to a Jew.”
The hundreds had prevailed against the thousands. It was a Canadian Thermopylae
The Chinese were driven off. By dawn, the attacks had ended. Seoul was saved. The hundreds had prevailed against the thousands. It was a Canadian Thermopylae.
No one knows with any certainty, but as many as 5,000 Chinese may have been killed. Incredibly, Canada lost but 10. It had been a masterpiece of defensive fighting.
The Kapyong Patricias remained in Korea until the fall. The war ground on until July, 1953. Other Canadian units came and went in rotation and fought similar battles, some with higher casualties. But it is Kapyong that resonates with students of the conflict. William Johnston, an historian with the Department of National Defence, called those 700 men the most effective fighting force in the entire war.
But few Canadians cared. It was not until the early 1990s, almost four decades after war’s end, that Ottawa got around to creating a veterans’ service medal for the Korean campaign.
Americans paid us more attention. For its stand at Kapyong, the unit was awarded a Presidential Citation by president Harry Truman, the only Canadian military unit ever to be so honoured. Ottawa rejected the gesture because Washington had not asked permission first. It took five years before Ottawa relented.
And finally, in 2003, 50 years after the war’s end, governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, when she learned of the injustice to Mike Levy, granted him a coat of arms for his valour at the forgotten battle of Kapyong.
Canadian soldiers, laden down with heavy packs, operate in the countryside during the Korean War.
Private Jon Hoskins on patrol in Korea in 1951.