Remember

By Bryan • military • 11 Nov 2005

You probably haven’t heard of Gapyeong.

Located in northwestern South Korea, Gapyeong is well known for its natural beauty with mountains cliffs reaching 700-800 meters above sea level, straddled by lush green valleys and lakes. On the fringes of Koreas’ industrial ring, Gapyeong maintains a robust agricultural economy and is renowned for producing Korean White Nuts (pine-nuts), apples, grapes, and mushrooms. Three times a year, the residents of this sleepy county get jiggy and host several folk and flower festivals which attract many visitors each year.

No, you probably haven’t heard of Gapyeong, and if someone mentioned that name too you, it is likely that instead of pine-nuts and mountains, you would be thinkin of goofy kids dancing against white backdrops modelling the latest in tween Gap fashion.

Gapyeong wasn’t always called Gapyeong.

It was once called Kapyong. And it was to become a piece of Canada’s forgotton history.

In September of 1951, United Nations forces, spearheaded by US Marine units under the command of the famous World War Two General Douglas MacArthur staged a brilliant amphibious landing an Inchon. The landing severed the North Korean supply lines and turned what could have been a disastrous UN defeat at Inchon in the south, to an unstoppable steamroller plowing into the North. Many in the west, including General MacArthur, thought that continuing into China was a good idea. President Truman did not share these sentiments, concerned over broadened conflict which might include nuclear weapons. Despite being issued orders of caution when approaching the Chinese border, MacArthur, true to his reputation, ignored these.

Hardly blind to the conflict brewing along their border, the newly formed Communist Chinese government had issued warnings that they would react if the UN forces encroached on the frontier at the Yalu River.

On October 19, 1950, 380,000 ‘volunteers’ of the People’s Liberation Army, under the command of General Peng Dehuai, crossed into North Korea in a massive assault which sent UN and ROK forces scrambling back the the 38th parallel. Chinese involvement, despite the obvious warning, caught the UN forces completely by surprise, as war between PRC and the US led UN forces had not been declared.

So devastating was the Chinese assault that Seoul was recaptured in January, although reorganized and equipped UN forces managed to retake Seoul several months later. For the next two years the conflict spiralled into a war of pushes and patrols, largely reminiscent of World War One, with both sides taking heaving casualties and gaining little ground.

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The Patricia’s were in reserve in the valley of the Kapyong River near its junction with the Pukhan River. To the north, the wide valley narrowed and curved, and was surrounded by hills. From these hills, the exits and entrances to the valley could be controlled. Dominating the whole area was a feature west of the Kapyong River known to Canadians as Hill 677.

Twenty-one year old Private Curt Hayes of Dunbar, Ontario, took advantage of the brief rest period to write a letter to his sister in Ottawa. It was the last letter his family would ever receive from him.

“Dear Maddy, received your letter the other day. God was I ever glad to hear from you. You don’t know how happy it makes me to know that you still miss me. As for things over here, we are just waiting for word to go over the 38th parallel, and believe me Maddy, I sure as hell don’t want to go over it because, if we do, we’ll never get home. It will take years because there are too many of them. Oh, yes, did you get any pictures done of yourself and Ginny Lee? Sure hope so as I like to see how my girl is. You know how much I think of her, don’t you? Please write soon. Your loving brother, Curt.”

Just before midnight, April 22, 1951, less than a week after the Patricia’s went into reserve, a renewed and massive Chinese offensive began 20 miles to the north. Defending South Korean troops were forced to flee southwards down the Kapyong Valley.

The following morning, Monday, April 23rd, Colonel Stone and his battalion were ordered to take up positions on Hill 677. Against the flow of retreating South Korean soldiers, the Canadians moved up.

By night fall, they began digging their trenches. The battalion covered the north face of Hill 677. The Kapyong valley was the direct invasion route to the South Korean capital. The Canadians were to stop the Chinese and hold the withdrawal route open so that the South Korean Division could escape.

The 3rd Royal Australian Regiment dug in on Hill 504, across the river on the east side. Behind and to the south of the Patricia’s was the British 1st Middlesex Regiment.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the battle of Kapyong began. The Chinese, who had been right on the heels of the fleeing Koreans, attacked the Australians first. From their higher vantage point across the valley, the Patricia’s watched and waited. By next morning, the Australians were forced to withdraw. The Patricia’s were alone now, their position exposed to enemy attack.

Wayne Mitchell was a 19-year-old Bren gunner with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Iinfantry. He remembers how different the hills looked back then, stripped bare of trees, just scrub brush and rock. For him, those two nights on Hill 677 seemed like an eternity.

I can remember on the evening on the 23rd, the Company Commander, Major Lilley, had come up to our forward position which was 6 Platoon Baker Company and he says, “We’re here on our own now so get over there and dig in deeply, we don’t have much time.”
Mitchell and the others in “B” Company moved their forward position farther south to a location where they could observe the enemy build up across the valley of the Kapyong, near the village of Naeochon.

You’d seen the enemy moving up from the valley, you’d seen them coming across, thousands of them actually. And then at night a mortar shell comes in, they know where you’re at. It explodes and the bugles start and everybody’s yelling “here they come.” You’re trying to hold off on firing so you can see something which is pretty hard but hopefully you’ll get close enough.
The Chinese moved forward in waves through the darkness. Some would fall, but there were others who came on. One minute the Canadians were firing at shadows in the brush in front. The next moment they were fending off bayonet attacks from the rear. As the Canadians remembered it, the air was filled with machine gun chatter, screams, shouted warnings, and, yes, even prayers.

Then the mortars just keep coming in, the fighting goes on. They get in, they get in very, very close to us and I remember Don Morrow was in the slit trench on my right, he took a piece of mortar through the face.
I don’t have the memory of fear. I have a memory of being cornered and a feeling that we have to keep going.

Lieutenant Ross had to call in the section that was holding over to our left of platoon headquarters and two of them came up. They were dragging their Corporal with them. Corporal Evans. He had taken a grenade in the head and was scalp less; the top of his head was off. So we dragged him into the platoon trench and he asked for a cigarette. That was the last thing he asked for.

It was getting 2 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning. I’m yelling for more mags all the time because the boys that are down in front of me and over on my left and right were calling for cover fire, and you’re trying to do the best you can with that, and it just seemed time, I don’t know, you ask me time, time don’t mean anything.

“B” Company was partially overrun and short of ammunition. The order came to pull back to the main company position where they could re-organize into a counter-attack force. In the following confusion, several Canadians were wounded. One of them was Curt Hayes, the young private from Ontario.

Curt Hayes took his last breath on Hill 677. Mitchell himself was lucky to survive the night. Wounded twice and losing blood, he stayed at his post. Finally, after it was safe to do so, an American helicopter flew him out. Later, Private Wayne Mitchell was awarded the coveted Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Meanwhile, “D” Company, in its exposed position to the north-west, was attacked by the enemy in large numbers from two sides. The company commander called for supporting fire on top of his own position and succeeded in stemming the enemy advance. The attacks that continued through the night were driven off by Canadian artillery fire.

By morning, April 25th, the Battle of Kapyong was over. From their lonely stand on Hill 677, the Patricia’s had managed to hold their positions and re-open the supply route despite tremendous odds. The Canadian action at Kapyong stopped the Chinese advance in this sector of the front for the rest of the war.

During those two days and nights of bitter fighting, 10 Canadians died. Twenty-three suffered serious injuries.

Allan Hayes made the trip to Korea to visit for the first time the grave of his brother Curt, who died in the arms of Wayne Mitchell at Kapyong. He is buried here at the United Nations Cemetery in Pusan alongside his fellow Canadians and soldiers from the other nations that sacrificed their young men for the freedom of South Korea.

Allan was 15 when he heard the tragic news about his brother.

“When I came home from school, it was in the afternoon around 4 o’clock. My mother called us in and I was getting ready actually to go out on a paper route, and delivering magazines. And she called us in; my other brother, my other sister, and she said that she received a telegram that our brother Curt was killed over in Korea.
At that time, being very close to my brother like I was, I left the house and got on my bike and I started delivering my magazines. I had to go 10 miles to another town up around Morrisburg. I was very upset when I heard the news. I stayed away most of the day. I didn’t come back until late that night. I’m still not over it. Curt and I were very close. Every where he went I went, if it was possible.”

Allan Hayes

The whole platoon, the whole company felt bad about Hayes. He’d just got a message that the woman he’d been living with prior to coming overseas had given birth to twins. That came in three or four days prior to the battle. We were all kidding and joking about how he was a papa. But that’s the way things go. He never got to see them, nor they to see him.

Less than two weeks after the Battle of Kapyong, the remainder of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade arrived in Korea from Fort Lewis to join the Princess Patricia’s in the U.N. forces’ third advance to the 38th parallel.

I wanted to mention Korea this year because of two things. One, being that it is often over looked conflict whose reprecussions are still felt in this region today, and the second being something someone in China told me once. “China is a very peaceful nation, we’ve never attacked anyone”. I receive blank stares when I mention that Canadian and Chinese soldiers once fought and killed one another in a place called Korea. The concept that Canada and China were once enemies…two nations fighting over a chunk of land that doesn’t even belong to them is an idea that is lost in translation.

“But Canada and China are friends”

“I know, but they were enemies, only 50 years ago”.

“But that was not Chinese people, that was the old government”.

“I know, and we are friends… and you didn’t even know we were once enemies…tell me why you hate the Japanese?”

“Because of what they did to China *explains the well-known atrocities*”.

“But that was not the Japanese today, that was the old Imperial Japanese government. Don’t you know those men are dead?”

*I received the standard ‘refusal to apologize/arrogance’ response*

I believe that Remembrance Day is not only about remembering the sacrifices made by others, but also about forgiveness. Relations between China and Japan are still defined to this very day by the actions of a generation which is now on the verge of passing into the sands of time. One doesn’t have to look far to see its legacy on the Chinese, and how it has become destabilizing nationalistic fodder to restock the void left behind by the departure Marxism.

Canadians once killed Chinese; Chinese once killed Canadians in a war which is all forgiven, yet almost all but forgotten.

Lest we forget. Forgive.

P.S. I in no form condone the actions perpetuated by Imperial Japanese Forces while occupying Chinese soil, nor do I condone official visitations to war memorials honoring class A war criminals. Sino-Japanese relations have evolved into a complex positive feed-back state which perpetuates the ongoing animosity between these two nations. To try to comment using all grievances issued by both parties is cumbersome and beyond my ability. That said, my opinion of the root causes and solution remains.

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One Response

  1. Bryan

    Oh yeah, I wanted to mention that November 11th is “Singles Day” in China.

    They’ve got their own Nov. 11 sometime in the Spring, I beleive.

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