Kapyong: the Battlefield 60 years later

Kapyong is not like Gettysburg or Waterloo or the Plains of Abraham; carefully marked with tidy monuments, neat paths, helpful signposts, manicured roads and a gift shop.

Unless you are an historian .. or a veteran … a visitor to Kapyong would find it a disappointing experience. It just doesn’t have the feel that anything important happened here.

Kapyong today is rough and wild, and remote, much as it was in April 1951 when 700 surrounded Canadians held off more than 5,000 Chinese. Except that now  the trees and shrubs are reclaiming the landscape. A few rough hiking trails wind through the rocky terrain where once exhausted young Chinese infantrymen struggled uphill while rifle and machinegun fire shredded their ranks and while grenades tumbled down towards them. But mostly these trails are just that, trails. For the hardy and the adventurous. Not for veterans now in their 80s. And not for the casual visitor who could make no sense of the scene.

There is a tenderly-kept memorial, but it is not near where most of the fighting occurred. The Canadian foxholes, now not-so-slowly filling in and vanishing from view, are in remote, isolated positions, very difficult to reach (then and now) thanks to the steep and treacherous terraine. There are no maps of any use to help a visitor find his and her way around. There are no wayposts indicating where you are or where anything is. There are no marked trails or walking routes. There is no indication where the battalion HQ was; no hint where the mortar and heavy machine gun crews saved their CO’s position  from being overun; no indication where Smiley Douglas lost an arm trying to save his platoon by getting rid of a loose grenade at their feet; no way of knowing where young Wayne Mitchell blazed away firing his machine gun from the hip while being repeatedly wounded; no trace of  where the slain Patricias went down together in two’s, trying to the end to protect each other. What happened here was so incredible it could be out of some Private Ryan movie. But to look around today, you could be anywhere.

A trip to of the position of the dangerously isolated D Company, where Lt. Mike Levy called in artillery fire on his own foxholes is out of the question for most vets. It is so remote and the ground so steep and wild only the most determined visitor would risk it. certainly few veterans, now easily in their 80s could make it.

And it would be an unusal tourist indeed who could make any sense of who was where and what happened.

And when the last Kapyong vet has gone, who’ll then be able to look out on the landscape and fathom how this battle unfolded?

If only …

Well, there is an “If Only.” Thankfully, there is Ivan Duguay.

Ivan is a Canadian teaching at a South Korean university and he’s made a hobby of hiking at Kapyong and exploring its crags and gullies and its remote and isolated features and photographing what he finds.

And Ivan is generous enough to share what he knows. Here’s a portion of an email he sent to me on what Kapyong looks like today, almost 60 years after the battle :
“It isn’t a very popular mountain amongst any but the most avid hikers because it is a challenging climb, so the foxholes are better preserved than in some other battlefields.  Since the mountain is covered by pine trees, there is very little humus that has formed since the war, which had to the relatively good condition of the foxholes. 

“You can still find old Korean tombs that must be at least 300 years old along the slopes, so I suspect the foxholes will be visible for many more generations. 

“The location of B Company’s positions is very easily accessible by road because farms are now located in the valley, so there is a paved road.  Someone has built what appears to be an inn (it doesn’t seem to be open yet) about 100m north of B company positions.  A dirt road leads up to the bottom of the hill and around it.  I have no doubt that the veterans who want to visit it will be able to at least set foot on that particular hill, maybe even climb it without too much difficulty.  It might also be possible to drive right up to the hill if some veterans are wheelchair bound.  The slope is a nice gradual walk from that side, maybe a 5 minute walk, nothing to taxing.   Some of the foxholes on this hill are very well preserved.  A particularly nice one that my colleague located on the north flank of the hill is made of white stones, maybe marble, that were stacked atop one another….

“We found a few .303 casings on the south side of the hill, the slope looking down on the road below, so we imagine that they had been taking shots at approaching Chinese troops as they were marching along the road several hundred meters downhill.   My colleague found a light green enamel cup  that appears to have been struck by a bullet or a piece of shrapnel at the bottom of this hill. 

” … The maps we have are not very accurate and it’s a huge hill.  677 isn’t the highest hill we’ve hiked, but it is certainly the vastest ridge lines we’ve tackled (it might be as much as 3km from one end of the horseshoe shaped valley to the other).  I imagine it must have been an incredible demoralizing march for the Chinese soldiers because just when you think you’ve reached the highest peak, another one comes up behind it.  It takes the better half of daylight at this time of year to reach the positions where we believe D Company were located, and that’s from starting the hike just past B Company’s positions, not the bottom of the valley as they would have done.  Based on our observations, B and D Company were positioned to the West along a particularly long and steep ridge.  It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the veterans to reach D Company’s positions from this path.   There is a much more gradual path with nice soft soil that cushions the footsteps to the East of the valley that leads first to C and then D Company’s positions that could be undertaken by the fittest of the veterans, although I wouldn’t recommend it … 

” … What we believe are C Company positions have been transformed into a training ground for South Korea soldiers.  The hilltop has been flattened to make an helicopter pad and slit trenches have been dug all around it.  Just a few foxholes that we believe could date from the Korean War remain on that particular hill.  We find a mixture of modern (Korean food ration packs, discarded radio battery packs) and Korean War era (mainly M1 Garand casings)  artifacts there.  As for D Company’s positions, we find casing after casing of American .30-06, even full clips.  Do you know if some members of PPCLI were using M1 Garands or if there had been a mistake committed during resupplying?  We suspect it was either that or those were left there by Chinese soldiers (they often used captured American rifles) because we also found a Chinese Mauser stripper clip there …  We also found the bottom part of a flare (looks like the head of a shotgun shell, but much larger) slightly behind what we believe is D Company’s hill, so we wonder if PPCLI used flares to signal their positions to the planes who dropped them supplies.

“Slightly west to the hill we believe D company was positioned, we found something quite astonishing:  a bayonet for a Lee-Enfield rifle.  A Mark 2 spike, we believe.  This is were we believe PPCLI was engaged in bayonet charges or where they may have pulled back.  There are foxholes dug along that particularly steep ridge, which leads straight down to the B Company’s positions …

“What struck us mostly was the very small number of Canadian .303 casings found on those hills (and the large number of food packs and cans of food (all American)…so many of them my friend quipped that all us Canadians ever do is eat and drink coffee).  Clearly, the PPCLI were very well dug in, disciplined, and accurate marksmen.  They certainly weren’t wasting their ammo.

“One of the most interesting aspects of our hobby is meeting the locals, some of which whose families have lived in the area for generations.  Sometimes they offer us some incredible insights, like one particularly hospitable family who helped us locate B Company’s positions.   I think they see themselves as the custodians, in a sense, of the PPCLI positions.  They may even own the land.  They were quite proud of the fact that they had hosted for a night a Canadian historian who visited the battlefield in the early 90’s.  Had it not been for their help, we would have never known that we could have driven up to B Company’s positions.

“The Canadian memorial is well maintained … It is just off the main road in the lower valley.   The PPCLI was located in the upper valley, just a few minutes away by car. It’s obvious that someone is taking care of it … It might be school kids or city employees.  South Korean veterans are also quite involved in their communities, sometimes serving as caretakers and security guards at parks on a volunteer basis. ”

To get the feel for what it was like for the Chinese struggling up the slopes 6 decades ago, here’s Ivan’s decription of his latest climb up Kapyong just before Christmas:

” It’s quite a hard climb, and I only had a light kidney pack to carry. I also had the benefit of modern hiking gear to keep me warm and dry without weighing and slowing me down, and yet I still had to stop to catch my breath a few times going up every little peak. Typically, these peaks would start off with a 30 degree incline and then gradually become steeper, up to a 50 or 60 degree angle.”  

Ivan has the eye of an archaeologist and the curiosity of a journalist. What a treat it would be to go walk with him over the  Kapyong ravines and hilltops. With his love of history and sense of adventure, you’d get insights into Kapyong  even those who were there at the time would have missed.


About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at: danbjarnason@gmail.com
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One Response to Kapyong: the Battlefield 60 years later

  1. Eric Foss says:

    Dan… this reminds me of the Falklands. Unmarked trails and fox holes scattered over a baron landscape with hidden reminders of battles more brutal than anyone imagined. It will be an interesting read for all. Look forward to the release of the book.

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