THE BATTLE OF KAP'YONG - 50TH ANNIVERSARY
40 km northeast of Seoul, Republic of Korea, and south of the Demilitarized Zone, the Kap'yong River loops southward to join the Pukhan. Near the confluence of the two rivers is the sprawling town of Kap'yong. About five km north of the town following the snake-like curves of the Kap'yong River Valley is a two-km series of interconnected ridges known during the Korean War as Hill 677.
Fifty years ago Hill 677 was a defensive position held by Canadian troops. The fighting that took place there was one of a multitude of battles across the Korean Peninsula in an attempt to stop a major offensive by the Chinese Communist Forces. In the years that followed, the hill became a focal point in reference to Canadian military operations during the Korean War. It was known as the Battle of Kap'yong.
On April 22 the CCF commenced their 1951 spring offensive, ramming heavily into United Nations Forces along the front line from the west coast to the Soyang River in the east. One of the main thrusts by the Chinese was toward the Kap'yong Valley, a direct route to Seoul. This sector was held by the U.S. 1 and IX Corps. Under heavy pressure the Americans withdrew, leaving two regiments of the 6th Republic of Korea Division to block the enemy drive. The South Korean troops were hit hard and forced to withdraw. Four days earlier the Calgary- based 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (the first Canadian infantry unit to see action in Korea) had moved out of the line to a rest area near Chongchon-ni, 25 km south. On the morning of April 23 the Patricias were shocked to learn the front was collapsing. They were ordered to immediately establish defensive positions on Hill 677, a feature within corps reserve, 20 km behind the lines.
By mid-afternoon Lt.-Col. "Big Jim" Stone, commanding officer, 2nd Battalion PPCLI, had deployed his four rifle companies, battalion tactical headquarters and supporting arms on the hill. Able, Baker and Charlie Companies faced the main east-west curve of the valley. Dog Company occupied the left flank. Because of the terrain, interlocking fire support between companies was limited. The platoons in each company supported each other, with gaps between the companies fire-tasked by battalion machine guns and mortars as well as by a New Zealand artillery regiment. The 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, supported by a company of the U.S. 72nd Heavy Tank Battalion, held high ground five km across the valley to the east.
The men on 677 dug in. It was a tough task. The soil was rocky and this resulted in many slit trenches being only two to four feet deep. Rock parapets were built for extra protection. Potential enemy assault routes were trip-wired and booby-trapped with grenades and mortar bombs.
Capt. Owen R. Browne, officer commanding Able Company, later wrote in a 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 Kap'yong 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 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 4000-5000 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."
The evening was quiet, the sky clear, a moon rising. The Patricias watched and waited. Just after midnight the sky suddenly turned bright with illumination flares drifting over the Australian positions across the valley. Rifles, machine guns, mortars, and artillery simultaneously smashed the silence. The Chinese had struck. The first phase of the Battle of Kap'yong had begun. All during the night the RARs fought the enemy on the hill slopes and in their trenches. They regrouped and tightened their perimeter. At dawn April 24, the Chinese withdrew then attacked again. In the late afternoon, after battling wave after wave of Chinese assault troops for 16 hours, and running low on ammunition, the Australians were ordered to withdraw.
Now the only infantrymen left to stop the Chinese advance through the Kap'yong Valley were the Patricias on Hill 677. They were alone.
With the withdrawal of the RARs, Lt.-Col. Stone moved Baker Company to his right flank overlooking the abandoned, thatch-covered huts of Naech'on village and facing the former Australian positions. It proved to be a tactically-sound decision.
About ten o'clock that night enemy mortar bombs showered Baker Company and machine-gun tracer bullets pierced the darkness with fingers of light, indicating the enemy assault route. Amidst the cacophony of Chinese bugles, whistles and exploding mortar bombs, the enemy stormed Baker Company's forward platoon throwing grenades into the trenches as they advanced. The stutter of Chinese burp guns and the scream of flying shrapnel added to the din. The air hung heavy with the acrid smell of battle. The defenders fought fiercely, but overwhelmed by numbers, the platoon withdrew farther into the company perimeter and prepared for a counterattack which was ultimately and successfully executed.
While Baker Company was under fire a party of 100 Chinese attempted to probe tactical headquarters. The battalion’s 81 mm mortars combined with withering fire from .50 calibre and .30 calibre machine guns drove them off the hill.
Elements of the CCF attempted to ford the river below the Canadian positions. They were easy targets in the moonlight. Over 70 died and bloodied the waters of the Kap'yong.
The men of Baker Company held their positions while the Chinese kept coming, hundreds at a time. With fixed bayonets the Patricias desperately fought on through the night.
About 1 a.m. April 25, a Dog Company platoon was attacked from three sides by large numbers of enemy troops. Two Patricias manning a Vickers machine-gun where killed. Waves of Chinese spilled into the company area. It was hand-to-hand-fight-for-your-life combat. Dog Company was on the verge of being overrun. The company commander, Capt. Wally Mills, requested that artillery be fired on his own positions. The New Zealand gunners obliged. The defenders hugged the bottom of their trenches while artillery shells roared in overhead. The shells scoured everything above ground level, driving off the Chinese. But they returned. More artillery fire followed. 2300 rounds hammered Dog Company positions.
There were many acts of heroism that night. Pte. Ken Barwise single-handedly recaptured the Vickers machine gun lost to the enemy early in the firefight, then took down a number of the enemy advancing towards him. Pte. Wayne Mitchell, a Bren gunner, used the light machine-gun with devastating effect on the enemy. Despite being wounded twice, he fought on even though weak from loss of blood. He was eventually evacuated. L/Cpl. Smiley Douglas, attempted to throw a live grenade out of harm's way to save injury to men in his section. He wasn't quite quick enough. He lost a hand. Ken Campbell, a Dog Company section commander at the time, was severely wounded in a firefight with Chinese swarming his positions. First, three burp gun slugs hit him in the shoulder. He fell, then took two more in the back. One bullet lodged in the lining of his heart; two others collapsed a lung. He eventually recovered.
Before first light April 25, the CCF ceased their assault on Hill 677 and withdrew. The day dawned clear and quiet. The supply route to the rear was held by the enemy. The battalion was cut off from other UN troops and their reserve supply of ammunition and rations were depleted. An airdrop was requested. Six hours later, at 10:30 a.m., four U.S. C-119 "flying boxcars" lumbered over the PPCLI positions at 200 feet and jettisoned parachutes bearing supplies.
With supplies replenished, the battalion prepared for the resumption of fighting. However, the two regiments of the CCF — totalling 6,000 men — that had entered the Kap’yong Valley had been badly mauled by the Australians, Canadians and their supporting arms and they did not return to Hill 677. The Battle of Kap’yong was over. Supply lines were opened and UN Forces subsequently re-established its lines and pushed the CFF farther to the north. Seoul would not be threatened again.
The PPCLI casualties were amazingly light – 10 killed, 23 wounded – considering the viciousness of the fighting and the Chinese troops’ overwhelming numerical advantage. Post-battle military analysis and historian hindsight determined that the PPCLI success at Kap’yong was due to a number of factors. Many of the 2nd Battalion officers and NCOs were battle-experienced Second World War veterans. As a battalion they had trained hard in Canada as well as in Korea and had been blooded in action prior to Kap’yong. The men were in excellent physical condition, well-disciplined with good morale and, determined to maintain the traditions of their regiment that had won battle honours in the First and Second World Wars. The Chinese, although having numerical superiority, entered killing grounds of Hill 677 through valleys, re-entrants and other approaches which were inter-locked by machine gun, mortar and artillery fire tasks. Also, by the time the Chinese entered the Kap’yong Valley in their rush to recapture Seoul, they had outdistanced their supply lines. This, coupled with heavy casualties, no doubt reduced their will to continue fighting at that time.
The actions of 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, A Company 72nd U.S. Heavy Tank Battalion and, ultimately standing alone, 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, prevented the Chinese Communist Forces from exploiting their breach of United Nations lines. These three units under UN Command were each awarded a United States Presidential Unit Citation.
The award reads in part: ". . . recognition of outstanding heroism and exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services . . ."
The PPCLI is the only Canadian unit to ever receive this award.
Today, the valley of the Kap’yong is much the way it was half a century ago. No urban sprawl extends from the town of Kap’yong. The ridges once known as Hill 677 are dense with pine. Rowan, catkin, linden and plane trees grow in the draws, re-entrants and slopes where the Chinese Communists tried in vain to defeat determined defenders. Rhododendrons splash colour where once were the scars of war. The lower slopes of the valley are verdant with rice paddies, fields of vegetables and grain. On the valley bottom in view of the former battleground is the Kap’yong Memorial, an acre of ground ceded to Canada, and lovingly maintained by local caretakers.
The Kap’yong Memorial and the battle which took place there symbolizes the courage and valour displayed by all Canadian troops who fought in that far-off land a half century ago.