Ray Croker was the first to see the battle coming.
And he was the first to see the nature of the peril.
And he was first to sound the alarm.
And then when it started, he missed it all. Well, most of it. At Kapyong, a Chinese sniper almost took Croker’s foot off. And yet he’s not listed among the official casualties in Canada’s most famous battle of the Korean war.
Ray Croker, a kid from Stoney Plain, Alberta had just turned 20 on April 19th, 1951 … six days later he was at centre stage in the struggle for Kapyong.
It was Croker, a lowly lance corporal, who discovered that he and his comrades in 2PPCLI, digging in atop their rocky hill, were surrounded. It was Croker who broke the stunning news to his commander, Colonel Jim Stone. It was Croker’s news that helped Stone map out his brilliant strategy to defend Kapyong.
I tracked Croker down at his home in Chilliwack, BC this week, to hear his amazing story. In 60 years he’s scarcely talked about his war. Now, as the Kapyong anniversary arrives, he let me peek into history he helped make.
Croker was a signalman, that is, a radio. operator. He was eavesdropping on messages being sent from other units — American, British and Australian forces — in the area, to higher command back behind the lines.
It was dawn of April 24th.
He was hearing estimates in those scattered radio reports of enemy numbers and of weapons.
“They were giving map co-ordinates whenever they spotted Chinese moving into positions,” he told me. “For two hours I plotted those positions with pins on my map. When the last report came in, I studied it.”
What at first seemed mere random markings slowly morphed into a meaningful shape. Croker saw the pattern of his pins was becoming a circle. And 2PPCLI was at its centre.
Croker snapped: “Get Colonel Stone!”
“Why?” someone asked.
“Never mind,” he barked back. “Get Stone! Quick!”
Stone arrived, asking what was up.
“Sir,” Croker said, “We’re surrounded!”
“What do you mean were surrounded?” Stone asked in disbelief.
Stone then double-checked the map co-ordinates himself, re-plotting them all. He didn’t say a word for a few moments and then to no one in particular, murmured:
“By God, We could get knocked off (the hill).”
Says Croker today: “We were always aware the Chinese were around us somewhere … but not ALL around us.”
Stone had yet to deploy his soldiers into a brilliant defensive layout that would be later studied as a masterpiece. That deployment would come in the hours ahead. His immediate priority was to make sure his vehicles would not be taken in a sudden Chinese onslaught.
“Take the lids of the Jerry tins (gasoline cans),” Croker remembers Stone’s sharp orders. “Get them off the vehicles, put them in front and put matches on top of them. If you see Chinese coming over the hill, light them.”
The torching wasn’t necessary. It was a close run thing, as Wellington would say after Waterloo, but Kapyong held.
Thanks to Croker’s imagination and initiative, Stone was given an early warning of the nature of growing peril.
And with that, as Croker puts it now: “I sort of faded out of the war.” At about 7 a.m., he goes off duty, covers a few yards; and is shot in the foot by a Chinese sniper.
The Chinese mass attacks on the Patricias’ hill were still about 12 hours away, in the night. (this April 24th, as the sun goes down a world away, sixty years away, pause and think for a moment about what was happening at that moment to these young Canadians.)
His war ended quickly, driven in a field ambulance to a medical team from India, and then evacuated by helicopter to an American MASH unit. Unlike the lunatic MASH gang in the TV series, in real life soldiers like Croker, treated and saved by these remarkable outfits, describe them as simply “wonderful.”
“Emergency surgery was all they had time for,” says Croker. “They were treating friend and enemy alike. Friend or foe, it didn’t make any difference.”
Recuperating in Japan, the army wanted to send him home. But Croker wanted to go back to his unit. The army won; home it was. No Canadian uniforms were available in Japan so they dressed him in Australian kit someone found, and when he finally arrived back in Edmonton, no one recognized this strange man in the strange uniform.
Ironically, Croker is not officially listed as a casualty in the battle . The figure of 10 killed and 23 wounded accounts for those hit between the evening of the 24th and about 9 the morning of the 25th. Croker, the man who first saw the Chinese attack taking shape, was shot a few hours before the official tally begins.
He stayed in the army for 25 years and then became an Evangelical minister. He is now 80. His health will not allow him to return to Kapyong for the 60th anniversary.
Until recently his family – including a daughter who’d served in the army herself — knew virtually nothing of his war in Korea. Many concluded from his silence that the war apparently had little impact on him. They are wrong.
Kapyong, he says now, “has meant something to me all my life.” He’d simply guarded it through the decades as a private memory.