For The Want Of A Medal A War Was Forgotten
November 4th marked the 60th anniversary of the Second Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry’s (2PPCLI) withdrawal from the Korean War. In the 11 short months this Battalion had been in Korea they had not only thwarted Communist China’s attempt to re-capture Seoul, but won a Presidential Unit Citation in the process (the only Canadian military unit to have done so). While the war was far from over, fighting continuing on the peninsular until March of 1953, the most decisive battles had already been fought by the time this weary and heroic battalion returned home.
The Battle that made 2PPCLI’s name and earned this citation was the Battle of Kapyong. With ‘the Glorious Glosters’ (1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment) having been wiped out almost to the man the previous day (not before inflicting something in the region of 10,000 fatalities on the Chinese Army) and the third Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment being forced to evacuate their position, all that remained between over 10,000 Chinese soldiers and Seoul were less than 700 men of the Princess Patricia’s 2nd Battalion.
The Battle of Kapyong appears at first glance to be something of a 20th century reincarnation of Rorke’s Drift (a battle made famous by the Michael Caine film Zulu). The annihilation of a British Battalion the day before and the survival of a hopelessly outnumbered force facing a seemingly fearless and innumerable foe are but two similarities that spring to mind. However, while a record 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the men of the South Wales Borderers in 1879, not a single one was awarded at Kapyong. To add insult to injury, the United States Presidential citation granted to the Battalion was not recognised by Ottawa until 1956; three years after the war ended.
In late August of this year the Memory Project went to Winnipeg for the Korean Veteran Associations reunion (the Last Hurrah). Now working as a researcher on a documentary series for History Television (partnered with the Memory Project) I was involved in interviewing the various Kapyong veterans that attended. Privy to these harrowing firsthand accounts of the battle a picture of those few desperate days started to form. Of all the experiences recounted, two incidences were constant in each veteran’s account: the embittering experience of receiving no welcome when they returned home, and the events on the night of April 24th when Lieutenant Mike Levy took it upon himself to call down an artillery strike on his own position. A decision which turned a potential catastrophe, as Chinese forces threatened to overrun Canadian defensive positions, into a resounding victory. For his actions Lieutenant Levy received nothing.
A number of veterans interviewed asserted that, in their opinion, Levy should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. His actions certainly seem to suggest a recommendation.
The rest is history; yet, one cannot help wonder if Canada’s attitude to the Korean War would have been different if one of their own had received this most coveted medal. When the remnants of the 1st Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment returned home to Britain it was to an overwhelming rapturous response. Referred to as ‘the Glorious Glosters’ for their efforts, the hill where they died forever more ‘Gloster Hill’. The Gloucester’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel James Carne, captured at the Battle of Imjin River, missed these celebrations. However, when he finally returned home some two years later he was no longer Lieutenant Colonel James Carne, but Lieutenant Colonel James Carne VC.
In actual fact two VC’s were awarded to the 1st Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment for their efforts at Imjin River. Lieutenant Phillip Curtis receiving it posthumously