It was going to be a miserable Christmas.
Sixty-six years ago this month the geriatric rust bucket USS Private Joe P. Martinez puffed and wheezed and gasped its way to dockside in Pusan harbour.
It had been a wretched voyage. On the trip across the Pacific, the dazed passengers had been convinced they were headed straight for the bottom. Even the captain had been seasick. The food was putrid and of dubious origin.
Pusan itself was a smoldering, rotting nightmare. An aroma of decay had been picked up while the Martinez was still miles at sea. Bodies were floating in Pusan harbor. The landscape was a vista of ruined buildings, wrecked vehicles, rubble, decaying garbage, dead dogs, tin shacks, and orphaned kids in rags.
Smiley Douglas, who till now had never been away from his home in Elnora Alberta, took it all philosophically: “The ship wasn’t so bad. What the hell, it didn’t sink. It was the only holiday I’ve ever had on the ocean.”
Incongruously, on the dock a US Army band greeted the passengers with: “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked A Cake.”
Then, unsteady on their feet after stormy weeks at sea, the passengers began disembarking. The Canadians had arrived at their war. It was December 18th. By April they’d be surrounded by thousands of Chinese on a lonely hill, and fighting for their lives.
2PPCLI patrol, just before Kapyong / Photo by Hub Gray
There were about 700 of these new arrivals … all volunteers. They were members of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI), a special unit specifically formed to help defend South Korea which had been invaded by the North the past summer.
They were arguably the most effective soldiers Canada sent to the Korean War which would rage on for another two and a half years.
Aside from some of the senior NCOs and officers, most were total amateurs: cab drivers, insurance salesmen, farm boys, guys on the run from doomed marriages or sad love affairs, and some were kids just out of high school. They had absolutely no intention of becoming full-time, professional soldiers. They’d missed World War 2 … and Korea was their next chance at excitement.
Their favorite song started with the refrain: “We’re untrained bums. We’re from the slums.”
Their remarkable commander, Lt-Col Jim Stone, a distinguished combat veteran who’d fought in Italy, and no sentimentalist, said of his soldiers: “They were just a wonderful group of men … I believed in them and they believed in each other. Non-professional, half-trained, they were the flesh and blood of battle.”
After a few months of intense training, they became skilled at anti-guerrilla warfare. By April the Chinese launched a huge offensive, the Patricias found themselves on a hilltop near a village called Kapyong, surrounded and cut off. If Kapyong fell, the Chinese could press on to capture the South Korean capital, Seoul. But Kapyong did not fall.
The Patricias held on, repelled the Chinese mass attack, and, it is argued, saved Seoul. Five soldiers (including Smiley Douglas and Jim Stone) were decorated for heroism. The unit received a Presidential Unit Citation from President Truman, the only Canadians so honoured until the Afghan war.
The soldiers took it in stride. Don Hibbs said of Kapyong: “Hell it was just one more god-damned hill in a country full of god-damned hills”
The Patricias’ march to Kapyong began sixty six years ago, on December 1951, just before Christmas, when the Martinez docked. Few of these heroes are still with us. The senior NCOs and officers have passed away. The remaining private soldiers and junior officers are now in their 80s or 90s.
Smiley Douglas, who lost a hand trying to dispose of a hand grenade that landed among his buddies, still lives on his Alberta farm, as un-put-down-ably cheerful still, as he was back then.
2PPCLI –formed and sent off to Korea as an emergency fire brigade — still exists, much honoured and based in Shilo, Manitoba. It served with distinction in Afghanistan and generations later, its current members still wear the blue Presidential shoulder patch.
Sadly, outside the military, few Canadians today are aware of or care about our Forgotten War in Korea, let alone the magnificent stand made by our gallant amateurs at Kapyong.
And finally, the poor, much maligned Martinez that carried the Patricias off to their war, was mothballed by the US Navy, and then eventually scrapped in 1971. It was an unlamented passing.