Canada and Australia at Kapyong: Differing Memories


Go to Google and type in “Kapyong” and “Australia.” You’ll come up with 36,000 hits.

Then Google “Kapyong” and “Canada.” You’ll get 6,540 hits.

What’s wrong with these numbers?

At Kapyong, Korea in April 1951 these two countries fought side-by-side (on adjoining hills), hugely outnumbered, on a remote and desolate bit of real estate. Australia’s story is widely known. Canada’s is not.

The 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, after unbelievably heroic resistance was finally forced to abandon its position, or be annihilated.

A few hours later, the Canadians next door, the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, were also attacked, but somehow hung on and repelled repeated mass Chinese assaults.

For their valour, both the Canadians and the Australians (and an American tank unit) received Presidential Citations from a grateful American government.

In Australia this is a well known tale. Here in Canada it is an invisible story inside the Forgotten War.

Down Under, the Australians celebrate what they call Kapyong Day, which honours and commemorates that country’s role in the Korean War. Not quite an official holiday, Kapyong Day nonetheless is widely observed not just among the military community but also by the broad public at church services, civic events and such. It’s a combination of elation and heartache. But it is not an obscure event. Here’s just a sampling of the breadth of internet interest in Kapyong in Australia:

Australian naval veterans mark this feat of arms by their Army.

And the Australian Land Rover Owners honour Kapyong:

Australian quilt makers apply their artistry to remembering Kapyong. For those caring to follow the doings of Aussie quilt enthusiasts, here’s a link to their Kapyong Quilt:

An Australian film company is producing a television docu-drama about Kapyong that will also include accounts of 2PPCLI’s role …including a dramatization of one of the Canadian heroes, Mike Levy.  So where’s the Canadian Korean War movie on all this?

Australia takes its military history seriously, and the Australian government believes in the power of the internet in telling its story. Among its creations, a superb website by Dr Peter Williams, examining the exhausting Australian campaign in New Guinea, in World War 2.

Dr Williams’ creative juices are now being applied to a new web history of Australia in the Korean War. It will be first rate. And will include aspects of Canada’s role.

Yet, Australian veterans of Korea will sadly tell you that their war is now little remembered down there and they’ve been neglected by history. They’re wrong, in my opinion. When compared to Canada, they are much remembered and honoured. Try typing that Australian/Kapyong exercise into Google — and then stand back.

But in Canada, outside of the Army and Korean veterans groups, the mention of Kapyong will draw puzzled stares, as if Kapyong was perhaps some new word game, or a choice on an exotic restaurant menu, as in “I’ll have a plate of sauteed Kapyong please.”

The Private Ryan movie generated a string of reflections, diaries, memoirs and essays by World War 2 veterans the world over.  The great Russian film director, Nikita Mikhalkov once told me that it was after seeing Private Ryan he too wanted to make his own movie of his own country’s World War 2 saga. But perhaps Canadian Korean combat vets are at last  having their own “Private Ryan moment” for their war.

As the April 24th date of Kapyong’s 60th anniversary draws closer, Kapyong memories are being stirred, as plans for the veterans’ return to Kapyong take form. It will probably be the last gathering for the victors of Kapyong to the scene of their triumph. And this summer in Winnipeg the Canadian Korean vets will be holding their own final annual reunion. They’re calling it “The Last Hurrah.”

Perhaps sensing the clock ticking, veterans are creating their own private (for now) histories.

Murray Edwards of Victoria wrote a charming and insightful personal Korean memoir, with photos, for his family and friends (and kindly allowed me to draw on his writings for my own book on Kapyong).

Mike Czuboka of Winnipeg, a member of the mortar crew that helped save his headquarters from being overrun, publishes a newsletter, called the Rice Paddy, on his Korean experiences.

Many such private reminiscences are emerging as veterans now in their 80s and 90s resurrect their memories. They write not of the big picture. Those are the stories that generals tell. These new little nuggets are history from the ground up, the stories of the young cab driver who “missed” World War 2 and was determined not to miss out again. Or of the bored farm boy who hitchhiked a ride on a freight train to the nearest city to join up. Or of the paperboy up the street who grew up and went off to fight beyond the horizon, never to return.

Kim Reynolds from Prince George BC, once told me he had no desire to ever go back to Korea. “I got on with my my life,” he said. But now he’s putting together a diary of his days there and he’s digging out his old photos. He’s pulling long forgotten buddies-in-arms back from the mists and returning them to history.

Kim took his camera to war and grabbed this quick snapshot while on patrol. The temperature was 105 F, he remembers. A few hours later, the two men on the right were killed in a Chinese ambush.

Chorwan Patrol / Photo by Kim Reynolds

Chorwan Patrol / Photo by Kim Reynolds

Below are two photos by Kapyong veteran and author Hub Gray of Calgary. The first shows members of the Kapyong Patricias patrolling near a shot-up railway station.

2PPCLI patrol about 2 weeks after Kapyong. Photo by Hub Gray

2PPCLI patrol about 2 weeks after Kapyong. Photo by Hub Gray

The next  photo shows the remarkable Mike Levy ( on the right, with the paratroops wings and Tommy gun) returning from a patrol.

Mike Levy returns from guerrilla hunting patrol about 2 weeks before Kapyong / Photo by Hub Gray

Mike Levy returns from guerrilla hunting patrol about 2 weeks before Kapyong / Photo by Hub Gray

Vince Courtenay, a tireless campaigner for Korean veterans and a PPCLI Korea vet himself, publishes a regular internet newsletter. The past few weeks he has been serializing his realistic historical novel “Love and Duty,” It includes an account of Kapyong.

Many of Courtenay’s characters are people from real life, such as Adrienne Clarkson, and Kapyong heroes such as Mike Levy, Ken Barwise, Hub Gray and Smiley Douglas.

Courtenay’s story ends on a melancholy note: a description of the UN cemetery at Pusan (now Busan). The ten Canadians killed at Kapyong, he writes, died with nothing in their pockets. They were buried, for a reason no one now knows, not together, but in two groups, one of seven bodies and the other of three. The men were wrapped, as was the custom, in tent canvas. Beneath the surface of each grave, a bronze funereal urn contains the details of each man’s military history: his name, age, serial number, scars, and so forth. There is a space on the forms for “other clues” to identity. Also in each urn are ink imprints of the soldiers’ fingers. Courtenay says in many cases, because of dehydration, the fingers were first injected with water to make a proper print. Unlike the modern practice, slain Canadians were not returned home.

In all, almost 400 Canadians lie buried there; killed fighting under a UN mandate, under a UN flag, defending principles proclaimed by the UN.

The UN has title to the cemetery’s land, and it is actually referred to as a UN cemetery. But virtually all the costs of upkeep and maintenance are paid for by the South Korean government. Not by the UN. The UN contributes nothing. It’s shameful. 

I’ll think about that every April 24th. And also every time I Google “Canada” and “Korea.”

Like the Australians, this country should have its own Kapyong Day.


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:
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