Remembering a dark clash of two armiesThe Korean War is sometimes called the forgotten war. Vietnam is remembered; Iraq will probably be remembered.
The Korean War was bigger and bloodier than either of those. Yet, it was forgotten because its result was unclear. The Americans claim they won. The Chinese claim they won. The Koreans believe they lost.
Much of what we “know” about that war is wrong, current historians say. Remember Chinese “human waves”? Barefoot peasants thrown recklessly against UN guns? Not so, apparently: human waves were an efficient tactic. A wave of soldiers would advance, firing rapidly. Before the opposing side could take aim, all hit the ground. A second wave rushed past them, then dropped. A third; then the first again. It actually avoided casualties.
The bright sunshine of “M*A*S*H” reruns is from California, not Korea. The Korean War was fought in darkness. The Chinese favored night fighting for tactical reasons. Their soft shoes made little sound ― hence, perhaps, the “barefoot” legend.
A rumor spread: the Chinese were commanded by a woman. A beautiful woman in black. Someone occasionally saw her in the distance, long dark hair under her military cap. One shot her on a ridge. All in darkness. A hallucination oddly like one in Stanley Kubrick’s film “Full Metal Jacket” where love and hate, sex and death intertwined.
Such fantasies perhaps preyed on the soldiers of Canada’s fearsomely named Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry at 9:30 p.m. April 23, 1951. In reserve, behind the lines, they nevertheless found themselves in action.
The Chinese, suddenly pouring in waves over the Imjin River, were seeking to take Seoul. The 6th ROK Division, on the left, broke. On the right, Britain’s Gloucestershires were practically wiped out, while the 3d Royal Australians were pushed back. The bold Patricias (no really, that’s their name) were almost surrounded, attacked on three sides. Ammunition was low.
They had the Chinese right where they wanted them.
The Canadian author Margaret Atwood theorizes that Canadian culture is bound by one theme: survival. It comes from knowing the Canadian winter. Real Canucks scorn a sport without serious risk of bloodshed.
So the Patricias did what any Canadian would do, surrounded, faced with three-to-one odds and outgunned.
They called in artillery fire on their own position.
This same act, but ordered by high command, is the pivotal war crime in Mr. Kubrick’s other war classic, “Paths of Glory.” Yet it was a lieutenant in the Patricias, Mike Levy, himself in the trench, who called for and directed the fire: 2,300 rounds in 40 minutes. The guns glowed so hot they became transparent. Shelling continued at a slower pace for another five hours. At dawn, the Patricias were completely surrounded and almost out of ammunition, but they still held their ground.
The Canadians, dug in and knowing the bombs were coming, suffered fewer casualties than the Chinese who were in the open and caught by surprise.
For three more days, the Patricias hung on, supplied by air drop. On the 26th, in a fitting end, they were relieved by the U.S. Cavalry. The Chinese attack had been stemmed.
Other armies in Korea showed comparable valor. Such courage doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Gapyeong, the site of this battle, is on the Gyeongchun (Seoul-to-Chuncheon) rail line. The actual battlefield is 7 kilometers north (4.4 miles), among apple orchards.
Around Memorial Day, the apple blossoms blow; that marks their places, row on row ...
by Stephen K. Roney
Steve Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, Canada.