Nothing beats being there.
I’ve read tens of thousands of words on Canada’s epic battle at Kapyong, Korea. I’ve mined diaries, personal journals, letters, books, and official documents.
And I’ve talked with dozens of veterans, asking them simply what it was like? Who was where? What did they hear and smell and see? And mostly, how did they do it anyway?
How did they actually manage to pull it off? How did a few hundred out-gunned, surrounded, Canadian amateur soldiers ever manage to drive off perhaps 5,000 superbly-trained Chinese combat veterans.
I’ve studied the terrain maps from the time; and have spent hours examining the personal detailed maps drawn by Hub Gray, who actually fought in the battle. But for someone who wasn’t there, it still remains hard to translate those elevation contour lines, the sweeping red and blue arrows and the military markings into a picture in the mind of what it was like. And I’ve poured over Google Maps on my laptop computer. It’s a marvellous tool, but still don’t quite give you a feel for the place. Despite all this, I still can’t quite picture Kapyong.
There are no pictures of the actual fighting that anyone has discovered. It was a night battle and who in their right mind would be popping off flashbulbs (remember them?) with Chinese infantry storming the positions? That aside, when the Patricia’s were rushed to the front to deal with the unexpected Chinese assault, the battalion photographer, by chance, happened to be off in Tokyo on leave (and thus, missing out on the photo op of a lifetime). Some of the soldiers had their own small cameras, but they were busy fighting for their lives. One Patricia, Corporal Mike Melnechuck from Kamloops, BC, (who died last year) is said to have taken a 15-minute home movie during the fighting, sent the film home to Kodak in Canada for processing, only to have it vanish somewhere along the way. It was never seen again.
A few returning veterans and some historians, have taken general photos of the area and at the memorial to the battle. But none really puts you on the ground, out among the rocks and in the foxholes; looking out and down to where they Chinese were, charging up and towards you. In this Forgotten War, Kapyong is the invisible battle. Aside from those who were there, few know what it looks like, as the riflemen saw it.
So nothing really beats being there, as any reporter could tell you. I’ve been to scores of battlefields, such as Normandy, the Little Bighorn, the Falklands, Gettysburg and El Alamein. No matter how much you read, unless you walk the ground you never really grasp why people did what they did. Or failed to do.
But what if you can’t be there? What if it’s just not possible to walk in history’s footsteps? Then photos are all we have left.
Sadly, few of us, will ever go to Kapyong. Hardly anyone does. And realistically, after the passing of the last Kapyong veterans (now in their 80s and 90s) it hard to imagine anyone ever returning, to this wild and remote spot. Except for Ivan Duguay. He does so, often.
Ivan, as I mentioned in my last blog, is a Canadian teaching at a South Korean university and has made a hobby of exploring Kapyong. The weekend before Christmas he went back to scene yet again, this time specifically to take dozens of photographs so I could absorb what it must have felt like to be there. What a Christmas present!
They are a treasure trove for those who study this Canadian triumph of the few against the many.
At the time of the battle, there was scarcely any foliage or trees. The only cover were the foxholes the Patricia’s scraped out of the rocky ground, all the while with the clock ticking. The photos show how truly isolated and exposed the positions were; and how tough most are today to reach for even the fittest of hikers. It’s hard to believe anyone goes there now. Ivan Duguay’s photos show why.
Here is a sampling. They show the steep approaches of the PPCLI positions, and the wild, remote countryside where the men made their stand. The battle was fought in April. The daytime temperature was in the 80s (F) and there was no snow. These photos were taken December, 2010. All are copyrighted by Ivan Duguay and Daniel Morris:
As the phone company used to tell us in those old ads about long distance calls, these remarkable photographs will simply have to serve as “the next best thing to being there” for most of us.
Gazing at Ivan’s Duguay’s eerie Kapyong images feels like being in a darkened theatre after the play is over. And you peer up there at the empty stage. There’s only you. The characters in the drama have all quietly left and gone home.