Alex is pouring scotch when George arrives; 10 floors up in a hotel room overlooking the bursting city of Seoul, South Korea.
Outside, rays of light explode from automated signs, creating late-night exclamation marks above streets that resemble run-on sentences in the ultimate story of growth. Westerners and Easterners alike call it The Miracle on the Han, after the massive postwar reconstruction effort that sprang up along the river running through the city which now boasts more than 10 million people, and contributes immensely to the country’s domestic and global economic success.
It was so different back then—during the Korean War—when Alex Sim and George Skelly and thousands of other United Nations troops helped beat back the communists who had invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) on June 25, 1950, occupied Seoul on the 28th, and by early August had swept south to confine UN forces within a small perimeter around the city of Pusan on the peninsula’s southeastern coast.
A few days before sitting down with their single malts, Alex and George—both veterans of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry—were waiting to board a bullet train to Pusan for a rainy and wind-swept remembrance ceremony at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery. Today, the burgeoning port is known as Busan. Standing nearby—beneath one of the massive domes in the modernized train station—was another visiting Patricia—Donald Landry of Middle Cornwall, N.S., who served with the 1st and 3rd battalions of the PPCLI.
While ignoring the swirl of fresh-faced commuters around him, Landry stares into the past where Seoul is a pile of mud and rubble, with brick dust hanging over the heads of starving people whose ragged clothes could not hide their bloated bellies. He recalls his wartime journey north in 1952, marked by dead people swinging from railway trusses in various states of decomposition, and groups of communist collaborators—with straw blindfolds—on their way to be shot. “They went by and you could hear the shots…. I don’t know whether they were spies, guerrillas or North Koreans. I was 19.”
At Busan, another Patricia—Ronald Shephard, also of the 2nd Bn.—stands in front of a grave; the glint of his medals visible through a yellow rain slicker; his tears mixing with rivulets of rain on his cheeks. “To this day I owe him my life,” he says of Corporal G.R. Evans. “I always promised I would come back and thank him from the bottom of my heart. My conscience is now clear, but somehow I don’t feel relief, just sadness that I lost a good friend…. He was my section commander…. He looked after me; he knew all the main things you had to know in the infantry—concealment, taking care of your weapon, and most of all, taking care of each other. The man who serves with you in the trench is your buddy…you watch his back, he watches yours. He was one of a kind.
“We were at Kapyong—on Hill 677—and Evans was in the trench when he died fighting. I was a Bren gunner, two slit trenches down from him, with 6th Platoon, B Company. When we found him he had a Chinaman embedded on his bayonet, and he was embedded on the Chinaman’s bayonet—both locked with rifles in hand,” added Ron, who was wounded in the April 1951 battle.
Alex and George raise their glasses and smile knowingly at one another; appreciating how good it feels to finally be back at the hotel after a full day. They talk about the Korea of today, and the time they’ve shared with the 42 other Canadian Korean War veterans who—along with dozens of comrades from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom—were invited back as “heroes and honoured guests” of the government of South Korea. Over many years, Alex of Kamloops, B.C., and George of Sun City West, Ariz., have destroyed more than a few bottles of scotch and Drambuie, and so once again they toast their seriously long friendship and the others they served with under the United Nations flag in a war that is well remembered here, but largely forgotten at home.
All told, 26,791 Canadians served in the Korean War, and another 7,000 served on the peninsula between the signing of the Korea Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, and the end of 1955. Fatal and non-fatal battle casualties for the UN forces, including South Korean forces, were approximately 490,000. Of these, 1,558 were Canadian, including 516 whose names are inscribed in the Korea Book of Remembrance in Ottawa. The cemetery in Busan is the final resting place of 378 of them. Sixteen other Canadians are listed on a stone memorial. Each of them died in Korea, but has no known grave.
The April 19-26 revisit, grandly hosted by the South Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs with great assistance from Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and United Kingdom defence attaches, lasted a week, but was far-reaching. In addition to the ceremony at Busan, the main events included 60th anniversary ceremonies at Kapyong and in the Gloster Valley south of the Imjim River. There were also ceremonies at the Korean National War Memorial and Korean National Cemetery in Seoul, and guided visits into the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone or DMZ separating the two Koreas.
The Korea Veterans Association of Canada contingent, which had the number of participating veterans raised by 10—thanks to fundraising efforts and vacancies secured by Senator Yonah Martin—was led by KVA National President John Bishop. A former defence attaché and military representative to the UN Armistice Commission in Korea, Bishop is impressed every time he visits the country. “It is only the Dutch who give a comparative thank you,” he said, commenting on the high level of respect and admiration shown to Canadian veterans by the South Koreans. “The relationship between Canadians and South Koreans is one of mutual respect, especially when you look at the number of casualties they had. For Canada, the Korean War was our third bloodiest conflict in history. Only World War One and World War Two had more.”
The admiration and respect were clearly demonstrated immediately after the Canadian ceremony at Kapyong when the bus carrying the veterans and their caregivers was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers, and later as the veterans of the Commonwealth forces marched through streets lined with ROK soldiers waving flags from the respective nations. “This is simply overwhelming,” said veteran Guy Vachon of Ottawa who served with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. “They really know how to make a guy feel great.”
“I’ve always been proud to be Canadian, but what these people showed today brings tears of joy to my eyes,” added veteran Ted Hughes of Brockville, Ont. “There were children—two and three years old—waving at us.”
For Bishop and the other Canadian veterans, the week’s centrepiece was the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Kapyong; a commemorative service that was remembered within the larger context of the battle and the 1950-53 war.
The Korean War was primarily a land war—fought at the pointy end by young soldiers—mostly in their early 20s—on hills, valleys and rice fields through the scorching heat of summer and deep-freeze of winter. There were flies, snakes and rats, water-filled slit trenches, muddy roads and treacherous slopes covered in snow and ice. The enemy’s movements were aggressive, but also silent. And despite its enormous size, enemy forces made excellent use of the jungles, hills and valleys often to unleash wave after suicidal wave of infantry.
The belief that the Chinese had unlimited ground personnel was borne out by peak strengths reached prior to the end of hostilities. Total manpower on the communist side was estimated at 1,155,000 of whom 858,000 were Chinese. In addition, there were some 10,000 Soviet troops in various non-battlefield roles. The strength of the UN Command, meanwhile, was 272,000 South Koreans, plus 266,000 from the 16 nations represented in the coalition.
But unlike the First and Second World wars, there was no surrender—no victory parades for the veterans. It ended in a stalemate—and the heavily fortified DMZ, roughly situated along the 38th Parallel, continues to experience violent outbreaks. In March 2010, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk off the west coast, with a loss of 46 sailors. Investigators concluded the ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. That November, North Korean artillery targeted South Korean soldiers and civilians on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.
In his 1999 book Blood on the Hills: the Canadian Army in the Korean War, historian and Legion Magazine columnist David J. Bercuson compares the stalemate in Korea to the stalemate on the Western Front in the First World War. He notes that the latter was the result of a balance of force coupled with the Allies’ inability to re-establish a war of movement in the face of enormous German defensive firepower. The stalemate in Korea, he writes, was the result of a political decision by the UN Command, once the armistice talks began, to fight a defensive war. “That political decision made a world of difference on the Korean front line. It determined that Canadian and other UN soldiers would essentially be live targets until the other side—which bore no responsibility to its citizens for its actions—decided that its political interests were best served by ending the killing.”
“That was after the peace talks started, when they were trying to figure out where the demarcation line should go,” recalls George. “Everybody was jockeying for positions on certain hills. When we got to this one hill we wired ourselves in with barbed wire, and dug deep slit trenches and established bunkers. It was a defensive war, much like World War One. They would attack and try to put Bangalore torpedoes under our wire at night, and blow them up. We would shoot them down and call in artillery and defensive fire, and so forth.”
The war also marked the first time in history that an international organization—the UN—had intervened with a multinational force to stop aggression. And while much of the war’s hard slogging fell to the infantry, it was also fought with air and sea operations.
The Royal Canadian Navy contributed eight destroyers, joining forces with UN and Republic of Korean forces to maintain a blockade of the enemy coast and prevent amphibious landings. Canadian ships also screened aircraft carriers from the threat of submarine and aerial attack, supported UN land forces by bombarding the enemy coast, and participated in the famous Train Busters Club, targeting and destroying eight North Korean supply trains. One ship, HMCS Crusader, had four to her credit.
Harry Allison Bell of Ottawa was a Canadian serving as a flight deck engineer on the British aircraft carrier HMS Glory. “Our operational area was generally the west coast of Korea—about 50 miles out, from the south to the 38th Parallel. We supplied aircraft sorties over the peninsula—between 30 and 35 a day.”
The Royal Canadian Air Force also got involved early when 426 (Thunderbird) Squadron was attached to the United States Military Air Transport Service. By June 1954, when the four-year assignment ended, this unit had flown 600 round trips over the Pacific, carrying more than 13,000 passengers and three million kilograms of freight and mail without loss. Twenty-two RCAF fighter pilots and many technical officers served with the U.S. Fifth Air Force, and Canadian airmen were credited with 20 enemy jet fighters destroyed or damaged, as well as the destruction of enemy trains and trucks.
The first item on Alex’s to-do list after arriving at the Kapyong Monument near the village of Naechon was to take another look at Hill 677, situated to the west. It was up there where 2nd Bn., PPCLI fended off a massive Chinese force that had rolled like mercury into the river valley from the north, in pursuit of conquest and on the heels of thousands of fleeing and terror-stricken refugees and soldiers from the Republic of Korea’s 6th Infantry Division. “We moved in on the night of April 23, under cover of darkness. We didn’t get in there until 10:30 or 11. We took a position that was later occupied by B Company. It was on the right flank of the battalion, overlooking the Australian position approximately five kilometres to the east, across the Kapyong River valley, on Hill 504.”
Alex remembers few, if any trees. Cover was below ground, in narrow slit trenches which the men dug into the rock after being ordered to form defensive positions atop the narrow and perilous ridgelines.
The 3rd Bn. of the Royal Australian Regiment was dug in on the forward slopes of 504, supported by a company of the 72nd United States Heavy Tank Bn. Further south was the British 1st Middlesex Regt. and the guns of the 16th New Zealand Field Regiment, all part of the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.
In some places on Hill 677 the ground was too hard to dig and the men settled for shallower trenches behind parapets. Alex recalls the night of April 23-24, trying to sleep with one eye and one ear open. It wasn’t cold, but even if it had been, sleeping bags were nowhere to be found; a single blanket was the most that was issued by battalion following the massacre of dozens of American soldiers—all of them killed in or around their bedrolls.
“We were a kind of strange group of people,” remembers Alex. “We had started off as the Anti-tank Platoon. Our job was to destroy tanks with 17-pounders. But after we arrived in Korea we discovered that you couldn’t use the 17-pounders because there ain’t no way of getting them up the hills. The battalion’s commanding officer, Colonel Jim Stone, decided that if we can’t use them, then we would become his scout platoon. So we became the guys who wander out front whenever the commanding officer decides he wants to know what’s out there; find out where the enemy is and get some idea of his strength and what his plans might be. Our first patrol took us to that village where we discovered the dead Americans. We heard they had been sent in to do a recon and had gone to sleep in their sleeping bags. It was mid- to late-February 1951—around the time of my mother’s birthday. That was a real shock to a lot of young Canadian soldiers who had never seen such a thing. We had seen all kinds of stuff in World War Two—dead Germans, dead horses, dead everything. But here we just drove around the corner and there they were—down in the flatland, lying frozen on both sides of the road. At one count there were 98, but I’ve heard reports there were over a hundred.”
George did not share in the grisly discovery, but remembers the edict that followed. “The colonel said at the time that there will be no sleeping bags in this battalion. ‘You will not sleep in sleeping bags. You will sleep in something you can get out of.’ So we had blankets. The other thing he said was no more parka hoods. Our hoods had to be rolled down.”
At 5:45 a.m., on the morning of April 24, Alex met with corporals Nobby Clarke and Sterling MacAulay, giving orders to lay out defensive positions and dig in on Hill 677. That was when a section of Chinese medium machine-gun opened up from the rear. “We were totally exposed on a rear slope. We had no defences….We weren’t even dug in. We were hiding behind shrubs. I was hiding behind a C-ration box. I had that alongside my head, and the only thing I could think of was they can’t shoot me in the head. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do at that point. One guy that remains a very good friend is Hub Gray who was also participating in the revisit. He was a lieutenant, our mortar officer—and the one who called in the mortar fire to destroy the enemy machine-guns. If it hadn’t been for Hub my life and the lives of a lot of people in our unit would have been lost.”
George was not in the Battle of Kapyong, but became Alex’s platoon commander immediately after, as a reinforcement officer. Donald Doan was among the other veterans of the 2nd Bn. found staring up at the hill on the day of anniversary. “All three of us served together and we are the last three of what remains of Constant Force, the nickname we gave to our reconnaissance platoon after Lieutenant Rick Constant,” explains Alex. “Don was our wireless operator and George’s batman, and I was the platoon sergeant.”
“They were all really good soldiers,” adds George. “Doan was my driver and he drove a damn good jeep. Alex was an excellent platoon sergeant—lots of experience. I was very, very inexperienced as a platoon commander and without a sergeant like him directing me I wouldn’t have accomplished as much.”
About a month before the Canadians took their positions on Hill 677, the Chinese armies began a general withdrawal from the UN forces. Their decision was in keeping with a well-established Chinese communist military strategy to withdraw in the face of strength, regroup and then launch a massive hammer blow.
The night before Alex and his men were fired upon, the Chinese attacked in force—further to the north—with the aim of splitting IX Corps on the right from I Corps on the left. Their plan was to pour through a gap in the mountains and outflank the capital of Seoul. In the IX sector, the 6th ROK Div. took most of the heat. The South Koreans tried to consolidate their position but by midday on April 22 they were desperate; soldiers and vehicles—mixed with thousands of refugees—retreated south through the Kapyong River Valley.
The Canadians, therefore, were barely dug into Hill 677 when this human mass began streaming between their position and the Australian position to the east. On the evening of April 23, the Canadians watched as the Aussies were attacked and forced to withdraw from Hill 504, but only after making a tough stand. As the Battle of Kapyong raged on through one grisly scene after another, the Chinese attacked the Patricias, charging up and over the difficult terrain in fiery waves that were only metres apart. Armed mostly with Lee Enfield bolt-action rifles and a number of Bren guns, the Patricias, who had already experienced two restless nights, fought for 24 hours straight, amid vicious close-quarter fighting. More than once the Canadians called for artillery fire on their own position to ward off attacks.
Bill Chrysler, who is now 80, was a half-track driver with the battalion’s Support Company. Each half-track had a .30-calibre and a .50-calibre mounted machine-gun. “We had taken the mortars off and down to where we could direct them,” he recalled. “The .50-calibre was my honey. Another fellow was on the .30-cal. You could swing it any way you wanted. The .50 was in the front, and I could slip right out of the driver’s seat and right up into it. It was a noisy bugger. When the enemy started to move up they were trying to get in back of Baker Company. They didn’t know we were there waiting for them, but up they came in the dark…. I just opened up on them. There were so many you couldn’t count them—wave after wave after wave. It was like a big gully and we were at the top of it, in behind that rifle company. We were looking right down onto the road, and when they met the .50s and the .30s, we slaughtered them. I don’t know how many or what…but there had to be a pile of them…. One bullet could go through three, maybe four men….
“We remained there and kept watch…the whole night stood out. You never knew whether they would come back. I don’t know if I was scared or nervous. It is hard to say what I felt like because I was all tensed up.”
There were many individual acts of bravery during the battle, which ended with more than 2,000 enemy killed or wounded. The Patricia’s lost 10 killed and 24 wounded. “The 2nd Bn. of the PPCLI played a key role in halting the Chinese advance at a rate of 40 kilometres in only 36 hours. In doing so the Chinese could no longer pursue or annihilate the South Korean Division, and the capital of Seoul was spared communist occupation for the third time,” explained Captain Rick Dumas, the regimental adjutant of the PPCLI who was among some 40 serving Patricias who participated in the anniversary commemorations and hiked up Hill 677 for a better look.
A Military Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal and two Military Medals were awarded following Kapyong. The MC went to Captain Wally Mills of D Co., while the DCM was awarded to Pte. Wayne Mitchell of B Co., who despite being twice wounded, charged the enemy three times with his Bren gun. Earning the MMs were Pte. Ken Barwise of D Co., and Doug Smiley who lost a hand while trying to defuse a grenade.
Amazingly, it took five years for the Government of Canada to authorize the PPCLI’s acceptance of the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the first Canadian unit to be so honoured. And it would be several decades before Canada would recognize its Korean War veterans with a Canadian Volunteer Service Medal for Korea.
That reality still hurts, but for those who keep coming back to remember old comrades and be in the places of their youth—the results of what they and the other UN land, sea and air forces accomplished 60 years ago is everywhere. The war did end with a ceasefire, but many also believe it led to victory for South Korea, a democratic country that’s per capita income has risen to roughly 17 times the level of North Korea. Where the south is thriving and very much a part of the global economy, the north remains a “hermit kingdom,” run by a communist dictatorship while many of its citizens starve and suffer through abject poverty.
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