A Toronto filmmaker who has revived the story of a pivotal, against-all-odds victory by Canadian soldiers in a 1951 battle in the Korean War is making the case for Kapyong to take its place alongside Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach and Queenston Heights in the annals of great Canadian military triumphs.
To be broadcast Friday as part of History Televisionâ€™s Remembrance Day documentary series War Story, the film by Emmy-nominated director Barry Stevens â€” Kapyong: Forgotten Battle â€” features Canadian veterans recalling their terror as an entire Chinese division advanced toward them in the Kapyong Valley in April 1951.
Surviving members of the badly outnumbered men of the Second Battalion Princess Patriciaâ€™s Canadian Light Infantry also recall the horror of the human carnage as they stopped the massive communist invasion force from overrunning the valley and â€” in the view of many historians â€” ultimately re-capturing Seoul, the present-day capital of South Korea. (Seoul was initially captured by the North in the early days of the war, retaken by MacArthurâ€™s Inchon landing counter-attack and came under pressure again when the Chinese entered the war.)
â€œWho knows? Maybe the Americans would have thrown another 10 divisions in. I donâ€™t know. But as it happens, they did stop them,â€� Stevens says of the successful Canadian stand at whatâ€™s known as Hill 677 at Kapyong. â€œNext time youâ€™re watching a Samsung television or driving in a Hyundai or dancing to Gangnam Style, you might just give a thought to those guys and the fact that Seoul is not under the North Korean regime.â€�
Chroniclers of Canadian military history have highlighted the significance of Kapyong. Last year, former CBC television correspondent Dan Bjarnason â€” who describes the Canadian action on April 24, 1951, as â€œone of the most perfectly fought defensive battles in historyâ€� â€” published a book about how the 700 2PPCLI soldiers halted the invading army of about 5,000 Chinese infantrymen.
The key battle from the 1950-53 Cold War conflict â€” which was also fought at nearby sites by Australian, British and other allied units â€” has not gone unnoticed in official Canadian circles. Last year, at a ceremony honouring Korean War veterans, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described how, â€œfor 24 hours, there was intense hand-to-hand fighting and unimaginable braveryâ€� shown by Canadian troops facing â€œhuman wavesâ€� of hundreds of enemy soldiers.
â€œBut when the smoke cleared, the Canadians held and the communist invasion would go no further,â€� Harper said at the time.
Kapyong, however, doesnâ€™t rank high in Canadiansâ€™ collective memory of the countryâ€™s most noteworthy battles of the 20th century.
And Stevensâ€™ film doesnâ€™t resound with pure triumphalism.
One of the veterans interviewed for the documentary describes firing a fatal round at a Chinese soldier who â€œscared the hell out of meâ€� after appearing suddenly in a skirmish at Kapyong.
â€œWhat was I going to do?â€� recalled Don Hibbs. â€œ(He was) probably a father, probably he has kids â€¦ These thoughts go through your mind and all of a sudden youâ€™re feeling sympathy towards this human being thatâ€™s dying in front of you.â€�
The film also includes an interview with Chinese veteran Xun Shun, now living in Taiwan, who recalled that he was among thousands of soldiers pressed into battle at Kapyong under brutal conditions in the Chinese army.
â€œEven if you donâ€™t want to attack, you donâ€™t have a choice,â€� he said, speaking through a translator.
â€œIf the enemy doesnâ€™t kill you, your officer will.â€�
Stevens told Postmedia News that the painful stories from both sides of the battle were aimed at ensuring the film doesnâ€™t amount to glorification of war.
â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s quite the same thing as wanting to be a â€˜warrior nation.â€™ If you listen to these accounts of war that are in our series, you might actually think maybe we should be very, very careful about getting into a war,â€� he said. â€œDo not go into that lightly. Thatâ€™s my view of remembrance, which is perhaps a little different from celebrating a warrior nation.â€�
Another Canadian veteran of Kapyong, Kim Reynolds of Prince George, B.C., grows tearful remembering fallen comrades in what he called a â€œmassive Chinese attack.â€�
Still, the Canadians prevailed â€” with only 12 of their own killed â€” thanks to the defensive strategy co-ordinated by PPCLI Col. Jim Stone, carefully chosen artillery positions on the prized height of land and a crucial barrage of fire from nearby New Zealand gunners when the Chinese, at one point, appeared likely to overrun the hill.
At least 300 Chinese soldiers were killed in the main assault on the Canadian position, and hundreds more died in the associated clashes.
â€œIt was quite quickly clear, when we started doing just crash research, that this was an extraordinary battle, an extraordinary engagement â€” and really important in terms of the outcome of the war,â€� said Stevens, whose 10-part series of War Story documentaries â€” including fresh accounts from Second World War airmen who served in the controversial Bomber Command â€” is broadcasting Thursday through Sunday on History Television.
He suggested the name Kapyong wouldnâ€™t register with most Canadians because â€œCanadians donâ€™t think itâ€™s of high value to teach their own historyâ€� in school and beyond.
â€œAnd I think there was a certain amount of exhaustion coming off the Second World War,â€� Stevens added, pointing to the â€œforgotten warâ€� label often attached to the Korean conflict. â€œPeople wanted to build the new Canada. They didnâ€™t want to know about this.â€�