by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The eight-week period of training for the Second Battalion of the Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) in South Korea, insisted upon by its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James “Big Jim” Stone, continued until February 15, 1951, when the battalion moved into Changhowan-ni to join the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.
The United Nations (UN) advance northward continued through March and early April with the Patricias passing through American units and fighting ridge by ridge towards North Korea.
It was at this stage that Private Michael Czuboka saw for the first time battlefield casualties of the Korean War. Arriving near the village of Kudun aboard their half-tracks, his mortar platoon came upon 68, mostly black American soldiers led by white officers, who had been shot and bayonetted by the Chinese. The bodies were stripped of clothing and weapons and left to freeze solid in the cold.
Czuboka said he knew they were at war, but he wasn’t prepared for such a sudden and violent introduction.
By April 2, the battalion had moved into brigade reserve near the village of Sorakkae in the Kapyong Valley. They were about two kilometres south of the 38th Parallel. The Patricias halted for six days while the remainder of the 27th Brigade followed the retreating enemy into North Korea.
The enemy proved to be tenacious in its defence and by April 18 had managed to halt the advance of the United Nations forces and were once again on the offensive. The 27th Brigade was relieved by a Korean division and was moved into a blocking position with the Patricias on Hill 677 on the west side of the Kapyong River and the Australians on Hill 504 on the east.
Red Masses Surge Across 38th was the front page headline in the April 26, 1951, Lethbridge Herald.
“United Nations troops on the west-central Korean front withdrew again Thursday before Chinese Red masses,” read the article under the headline. “This extended their pullback in that sector to 27 miles in five days ... The new withdrawal wiped out every UN foothold on the western front north of the 38th Parallel.”
As other UN troops retreated to safer positions along the 38th Parallel, left to face the build-up of Chinese and North Korean forces and expected to hold their ground were a small number of Canadian and Australian troops, supported by New Zealander artillery (16th Field Regiment), with the troops of the British First Middlesex Battalion far to the rear, along with three platoons (five tanks each) of the 72nd U.S. Heavy Tank Battalion beside the main road dissecting the valley.
Lieutenant-Colonel “Big Jim” Stone, the commander of the Pats, issued this order to his men, “No
retreat, no surrender.”
“We were told we were supposed to hold the hill,” said Czuboka.
If the Canadians and other UN troops failed, a route would have been opened to Seoul and a Communist invasion of South Korea would be underway. Essentially, Kapyong was at that time in the Korean War, the most strategically valuable position on the front line.
During the Battle of Kapyong, 700 Canadian troops would face Chinese attackers who outnumbered them by about seven-to-one.
On the night of April 22-23, 1951, Chinese and North Koreans struck the western and west-central sections of the UN lines. At this time, the 1st and 9th U.S. Corps were ordered to withdraw.
The UN forces withdrawal was turned into a rout by the enemy. At 10 p.m. on the night of the 23rd, the first enemy skirmishing groups arrived, mixed in with the fleeing South Koreans.
In his book, Beyond the Close Danger, Hub Gray, a lieutenant who was second in command of the Patricias’ Mortar Platoon at Kapyong, wrote that “10,000 men of the South Korean 6th Division panicked and fled running south, leaving a 16 km gap in the front line.”
In was into this gap that two Chinese divisions comprised of 20,000 men flowed. In 36 hours, they travelled 40 kilometres to Kapyong, confronting the 1,700 badly-outnumbered men of the Patricias and the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR).
The 27th Brigade was in position to provide an escape route for the South Korean troops. The reserve was in the Valley of the Kapyong River near its junction with the Pukhan River. At this position, the valley was about 2,800 metres wide and to the north it curved and was dominated by hills which could control the entrance and exit to the valley.
Czuboka said his first inkling of what was to come was when the 6th South Korean Division began to push past their position on Hill 677.
“We knew then that we were in for it,” said Czuboka. “We didn’t think we’d ever get out of there alive.”
Later, Captain Owen R. Browne, the commanding officer of A Company, wrote in the PPCLI regimental journal: “It was then, about mid-afternoon (April 23), that the rumour of the collapsing front acquired a meaning. From my arrival until then both the main Kapyong Valley and the subsidiary valley cutting across the front had been empty of people. Then, suddenly, down the road through the subsidiary valley came hordes of men, running, walking, interspersed with military vehicles — totally disorganized mobs. They were elements of the 6th ROK (Republic of Korea) Division which were supposed to be ten miles forward engaging the Chinese. But they were not engaging the Chinese. They were fleeing! I was witnessing a rout. The valley was filled with men. Some left the road and fled over the forward edges of A Company positions. Some killed themselves on the various booby traps we had laid, and that component of my defensive layout became worthless . . . between 1530 hours and 1800 hours all of A Coy speeded up its defence preparations and digging as it watched, helpless to intervene, while approximately 4,000-5,000 troops fled in disorganized panic across and through the forward edges of our positions. But we knew then that we were no longer 10-12 miles behind the line; we were the front line.”
Fortunately, Hill 677 had steep approaches on all sides, giving the defenders an advantage over the Chinese attackers — the Patricias could fire downward and roll down grenades. And to counter the Chinese attack, Czuboka and the men of the 81-millimetre Mortar Platoon had managed with the help of the Pioneer Platoon to find a way to bring their American-built M3A1half-tracks up the slopes in order to haul up 12,000 mortar bombs and support the troops.
By four o’clock in the morning of April 24, the Chinese and North Koreans had sufficient groups in place for the first set piece attack against the Australians on Hill 504, which was slightly lower than and about 1,000 metres to the right of the Canadian position. Strategically, it was a less favourable and more difficult position to hold than the position defended by the Canadians.
The Royal Australian Regiment fought off one
attack after another, but by three o’clock in the afternoon, the battalion commander advised the brigade commander that he could no longer control the battle. Shortly after nightfall, a new Australian line was
Czuboka said from their position high up on Hill 677, the Canadians had “grandstand view of the battle.” The Canadians saw the Aussies take a terrible beating at the hands of the Chinese (Triumph at Kapyong: Canada’s Pivotal Battle in Korea, by Dan Bjarnason).
By the end of the battle, the Australians had suffered 33 killed and 58 wounded, a far higher total than the Patricias would incur when the Chinese turned to attack them.
The Patricias were dug in on the northern slopes of Hill 677. “With each man packing his personal weapon, several hundred rounds of ammunition, grenades, an entrenching tool, a full water bottle, and a 24-hour field ration pack — in addition to his personal kit — the soldiers in the Patricia rifle companies reached their positions utterly exhausted” (Recipe for Victory: The Fight for Hill 677 during the Battle of the Kapyong River, 24-25 April 1951, by Brent Wilson).
Lieutenant-Colonel Stone, who had a good eye for terrain, positioned three companies forward: A (Able) — right, C (Charlie) — centre and B (Baker) — left and slightly ahead of the others. D (Dog) Company was sited in depth, while the tactical headquarters was to the rear of A Company.
After the Australians had moved, the Patricias’ right flank was exposed, so Stone relocated B Company and told them to dig in on the right flank. As the battle unfolded, it became evident that Stone had made an extremely deft tactical decision.
“Stone's combat experiences in Sicily and, later, Italy, imbued him with an eye for vital ground — a tactical skill that is essential to the successful planning and conduct of operations in mountainous terrain. Stone's ability to identify vital ground would figure prominently in the Patricias' successful stand at Kapyong” (Recipe for Victory, by Wilson).
B Company could see an enemy build-up across the Kapyong Valley near the village of Naechon. The first attack against B Company came shortly after last light, around 10 o’clock on April 24, with a mortar attack. The enemy managed to overrun a section of 6 Platoon, but the remainder held fast and retook the position.
Canadian Press correspondent Bill Boss reported that “wave after wave of Chinese (were) repelled in
a knock-down, drag-out battle” in the vicinity of Kapyong.
Although he was not allowed at the time for security reasons to report what UN troops were involved and exactly where, Boss was relating the actions of the Second Battalion of the PPCLI, which was “in the thick of the Chinese onslaught.”
Boss described the fighting between the Chinese communist “horde” and the PPCLI as occurring “on a steep hill on this west central sector of the flaming Korean front ... They (Chinese) out-flanked and encircled these troops who until now had met with token resistance as they advanced northward.”
Boss wrote that the troops “fought on and by late morning had cleared the enemy from their rear, had beaten them off their flanks and held him on their front.
“The Chinese employed all their familiar battle procedures in the attack — whistles, bugles, a banzai chorus, concerted action on the word of command and massed assaults following one another in swift succession.”
The second attack came in at 10:30 p.m. The enemy was in battalion strength. They overran two sections of 6 Platoon, but the remainder of the company stood fast.
“They’re good,” Boss quoted one Canadian sargeant (his name was censored from the report) as saying about the Chinese. “They were on top of our positions before we knew it.
“They’re quiet as mice with those rubber shoes of theirs and then there’s a whistle. They get up with a shout about 10 feet from our positions and come in.
“The first wave throws its grenades, fires its weapons and goes to the ground. It is followed by a second which does the same, and a third comes up. They just keep coming.”
(Next week: part 3)