While we leaned over the parapets catching our breaths large rats scurried
through the bipods of the Bren guns. Occasionally the muffled noises of
other platoons moving into position rose on the chilled night air. The
clang of a shovel on rock rang clearly like an echo in an immense
Hill 187 was shaped like a horseshoe with Able Co. at the heel. On our
lower left Dog Co. was spread out on a ridge that turned like the crook of
a finger. Farther to the front the main part of Baker could be reached by
a road clearly visible by day to the Chinese.
Beyond Baker's command post was a long stretch of twisting crawl trench.
Still further stood one of the most peculiar sights of the Korean War. On
a point of land called the Songgok a lone tree draped with a tattered
piece of camouflage netting stood bruised, burned, shell scarred and
Across the horseshoe valley from the Songgok Charlie Co. occupied a
lowlying finger stretching into no man's land. Lieut. Banton held the
sharp end, about 270m from the Sami-ch'on River—gentle, meandering,
easily fordable at about 15 m wide. Beyond the Samich'on, hills seemed
to rise endlessly back into the shadowy north.
On May 2, one platoon went on a fighting patrol down through Banton's
position, along a narrow, dusty path, through a minefield gap—a place
where the barbed wire appeared to meet but passed without touching. The
patrol went left through the narrow gap, then jogged right and walked
easily into the Sami-ch'on Valley.
At 2130 hours it walked into 400 Chinese assault troops and was cut to
pieces with Russian burp guns.
Fire fights are brief encounters—30 seconds, a minute or two. The harsh
sound of the Chinese guns was followed by the brief clatter of a slower
Canadian Sten gun. A grenade exploded, muzzles flashed along the gentle
In so short a time most of the young ball players had been shot
and lay dead or wounded on the ground.Their brave
lieutenant was no more. The ones left alive clutched their machine-guns,
fingers on the triggers. They pressed their bodies against the ridge of a
rice paddy, waiting. The wounded bit the pain, bit off the whimper that
would give their lives away. In those moments, the glory of war, the
elation of winning, all the firsts and lasts on all the roads leading
nowhere became what they are—meaningless. They were alone, in the shadow
of death, far from home.
The heavy machine-guns began firing, sending bands of tracers across the
valley. The whine of artillery shells filled the night with terror.
Mortars popped behind both lines. Their bombs rose high in the sky, paused
and then began their deadly flutter to earth. Shells began exploding like
bright, bursting stars, setting small grass fires all over the treeless
In the midst of the terrible chaos Lieut. Banton's platoon left their
position on the sharp end. Banton made his way to the gap in the
minefield. The keener did what he had always done—he got there first. It
was not spectacular; it was no way to win a Victoria Cross. But to those
men caught between the Chinese and the minefield he was like a messenger
sent by God. Once there he stretched out his arms parallel to the barbed
wire and began to wave, shouting: "Come through! Come through
me!" It was all so odd and all so terrible. Some of the young ball
players would find their way back to our lines, but the light to the way
would quickly fade.
Lieut. Banton broke two rules of the battlefield: Never stand when you can
sit and never sit when you can lie. Lieut. Banton was cut down in a minute
and lay by the barbed wire.
I don't remember the name of the young Nova Scotian who went to get the
lieutenant. Too big to look like a hero, he was almost fat, yet strong,
and he lifted Lieut. Banton on to his shoulders and struggled through the
cross-fire. Reaching his crawl trench he
was about to drop in when a shell zippered open a piece of turf behind
him. Shrapnel hit Lieut. Banton and they both rolled heavily into the
trench. Lieut. Banton was dead.
At two minutes after
, Charlie Co. came under massive bombardment. For 20 minutes the hill
shook, crackling and burning a brilliant, jagged yellow. When the
artillery and mortar fire lifted, all the concertina wire on the forward
slopes had been blown to bits and the protective minefield had been
destroyed. The Chinese had fired 2,000 rounds.
Waves of their assault troops swept over the crumbled trenches, shining
lights into collapsed bunkers and taking stunned Canadians prisoner. In
desperation the remaining Canadians called artillery down on their own
position. The skies turned a glorious orange and the valley and hills
filled again with pretty death.
Later, the guns became almost quiet. Occasionally a machine-gun clattered
and we heard the carrr-ump of distant shells.
Dog Co. counter-attacked at dawn. Khaki-clad figures moved like phantoms
through the wisps of fog and cordite still hanging over the hill. But the
Chinese had gone. It was one of those battles meant to put pressure on the
United Nations negotiators at
. The Chinese had never intended to hold the hill.
As the mist began to clear under the rising sun the last stretchers were
loaded into ambulances. Small groups of soldiers, night reinforcements
from Able Co. and remnants of Charlie, were drifting back to the rear,
some of their faces blackened by gunpowder, some wounded, clothes torn,
some without weapons, beaten, frightened, a few no longer fit for combat.
By my reckoning between 25-30 of us were killed that night, about 65 were
wounded and 25 or so taken prisoner. My friend Eddie Nieckarz of Charlie
Co. thinks my figures are too high. At the time he counted between 40-50
Lt.-Col. Herbert Wood in Strange Battleground—the official Canadian
history—using what he calls the best available figures, says 26 were
killed, 27 were wounded and seven taken prisoner. Mr. Nieckarz says he can
count at least 10 who were taken prisoner and the proportion of dead to
wounded seems out of line.
None of the men I have written about ever received a decoration: Lieut.
Banton, the brave young ball players, Lieut. Maynell, or the young Nova
Scotian who carried Lieut. Banton back to our trenches.
A few years ago I went to a house party. When the hostess found out I had
been to Korea
she said she had gone to university with Doug Banton. "So
young," she said. "One day he was here; it seemed the next we
heard he was dead. Was it worth it?"
I stumbled over the answer. Should I say they were senseless men who had
labored in vain a short way from the peace light at Panmunjom?They were
hardly more than children. They played like
children. They hurt like children and were hurt. In the end they became children of nobility, not by birth but by the
spirit of their sacrifice.
Reproduced courtesy of Legion Magazine
Meagher went to
as reinforcement to the First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment and
finished his tour with 3 RCR.After
airborne training and the completion of his three-year military term of
engagement, he attended university—graduating from three different
including 21 years at an agricultural college.In
1991 he started a farm publication and book publishing company, now
managed by his son.