The Americans have developed a unique way of honouring heroism in war.
It’s in recognition of exception bravery bestowed not to an individual, but to an entire unit. It’s called the “Presidential Unit Citation.” You’d scarcely notice it … it’s a blue flash about the size of your little finger, worn on the right shoulder. It’s small, but represents great deeds. An American battle honour, that’s been won by Canadians.
Established right after Pearl Harbor, it’s been won by American units that fought in some of the worst fighting in their country’s history: Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Normandy, Battle of the Bulge. And on it goes …
To qualify: ”The unit must display such gallantry, determination and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart and above other units participating in the same campaign.”
The Presidential Unit Citation stands out because it’s awarded to formations … often battalions … and on occasion to non-American units who fight alongside US forces. The units carry the honour as long as they exist. No other country does this as far as I can determine.
For example in the Second World War, two units of the Free French resistance were cited. In the Korean War, among those receiving Presidential Citations were troops from Britain, Begium, France, and Turkey. A Dutch unit, the Regiment Van Heutsz, actually was given the honour TWICE. Those fighting in the unit at the time of the battle may wear the decoration permanently, no matter where they subsequently serve. New recruits — like those enlisting this afternoon, for example, can wear the flash as long as they are in that battalion.
Sixty three years ago this week, a Canadian unit won a Presidential Citation: the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. About 700 strong (all volunteers) surrounded and cut off, they fought off thousands of Chinese at a place called Kapyong, preventing the capture of Seoul. (Two other units were also honored at Kapyong: the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and an American unit, A Company, 72nd Heavy Tank Battalion.)
In a exquisite example of bone-headed pedantry, citing reasons of protocol, Ottawa refused to allow 2PPCLI to accept the citation. Five years went by before the government finally backed down and the Patricias were formally presented with their citation by the US ambassador in a ceremony in Calgary.
2PPCLI still exists, now based in Shilo, Manitoba and its members still wear that blue shoulder flash awarded six decades ago. 2PPCLI will wear it as long as 2PPCLI exists.
It’s often claimed this is the only time Canadian soldiers received a Presidential citation. Not so. Eight years ago, JTF2 — Canada’s super-secret, anti-terrorism commando force — was quietly (almost secretly) awarded a Presidential Citation by George W. Bush. The men were part of a multi-national unit called Joint Special Operations Task Force South for it’s fighting in Afghanistan. What battles, exactly? Don’t ask. No press were allowed at the ceremony and no details were ever made available on what the soldiers actually did there.
But the next time you spot a Canadian soldier with a little blue flash on the right shoulder, you’ll know you’re in the company of a lot of history.
And if you spot someone now in their 80s with a blue flash on his blazer pocket, you’ll know he was up to something remarkable on one cold, perilous night on a Korean hill 63 years ago this week.