Kapyong Anniversary: Tragedy Today, Amid the History

In the invisible battle inside the Forgotten War, it’s satisfying that notice is now being taken of genuine heroes and their unbelievable saga.

My sense is that most readers are finding Triumph at Kapyong to be a thrilling tale and chock full of heroes. Canadian heroes. Here are two recent reviews.

The first is by Olivia Ward, the Toronto Star’s foreign affairs specialist.

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/991365–book-documents-canadian-heroic-moment-in-korean-war

The other is in the Winnipeg Free Press by Ron Robinson, a well-known broadcaster, whose father served in the Patricias in World War Two.

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/entertainment/books/sights-sounds-smells-capture-kapyong-story-120533399.html

Such kind reflections are basically tributes to those who fought there and the story they have to tell.

And now, six decades after the event, 2PPCLI are at it again: coming to rescue people in peril. Not in South Korea this time, but only a few miles from their home base at Camp Shilo, Manitoba.

The Battalion had spent months preparing to celebrate this anniversary of their most famous battle. The Patricia’s invited me to attend and I was honoured. There was a curious combination of  emotions at Shilo: elation honouring this remarkable battle; and solemnity in paying tribute to the men slain in the fighting.

The day was the 24th of April (it should be as well known to us it is in Australia, where it is virtually a national occasion known to every school kid. But don’t get me going on that.). At Shilo, 2PPCLI held their Kapyong commemorations with that typically Canadian knack of pride without bravado. At the main ceremony in the morning, there was the usual stuff of military ceremonies: bugles, drums, flashing swords, salutes exchanged, orders barked, and of course saluting the  colours,” the battalion’s battle flag with series of  small pieces of cloth sewn on, noting its major engagements dating back to  World War 1. Among them: Kapyong.

It’s a ritual that most civilians find mysterious, but it’s life blood to those in uniform. Tradition and a sense of  what those who came before have accomplished is what
enables soldiers to carry on when every measure of  cold logic suggests there is no hope. Every sailor hunting U-Boats in the North Atlantic felt the hand of Drake and Nelson on his shoulder. For American Marines today it is Iwo Jima. For Russians it is Stalingrad. Each Patricia on patrol on Afghanistan knew they were not alone but had the spectre of a Kapyong rifleman at their side.

At Shilo it was this sense of history that was being played out. For soldiers, tradition is not some stuffy, stuck-in-the-past notion. It is history that never ends. It is alive at this very moment. This new generation of soldiers still wear the blue patch on their shoulder, the Presidential Citation, awarded to 2PPCLI by the Americans six decades ago. The battalion will wear this honour as long as the battalion exists.

Some of the soldiers at the Shilo events – including Padre Kevin Olive — had just returned from ceremonies at Kapyong itself. On hand also were a half dozen or so of the men who were actual Kapyong Patricias, including Mike Czuboka, who 60 years ago jumped a freight train to travel to Winnipeg, and lied about his age to volunteer for the Korean Special Force. Czuboka ended up in a small mortar/machine platoon that saved the battalion headquarters from being overrun.

The Australian army sent to Shilo members of their famed 3RAR battalion, the unit that fought on an adjoining hill at Kapyong. Everyone always falls in love with the Aussies with their carefree style, khaki uniforms and dashing bush hats.

In the background of these celebrations and commemorations ticked a time bomb. The Assiniboine River was remorselessly rising. Nearby, Brandon was a city under siege, ringed with dikes constantly being expanded and strengthened and being monitored around the clock. Out at Camp Shilo, a half hour’s drive away, as the Kapyong events unfolded, everyone was on standby. Finally, earlier this week, the civilian emergency agencies could no longer cope. The Patricia’s were sent in to beef up defences.

It was a fight that had become deeply personal. The rising floods had been accompanied by unseasonal snow and freezing rain. The night of the 24th, an SUV was carrying four young soldiers back to their homes in Brandon. Only hours earlier, as the weather worsened, I had driven on this same stretch, thinking: “I wouldn’t want to be doing this later tonight.”

Somehow, their vehicle slid out of control, in the darkness, on the ice, in the storm, and flipped over into flood waters at the road’s edge. Three young Patricias died.

It was a particularly cruel and ironic blow for a unit that has taken losses in combat in Afghanistan, only to have still more soldiers killed back in Canada, in an accident as they drove along a remote country highway to be safely in their homes with their families.

As Padre Olive told me: “Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience with death.”

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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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