This story was published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on 24 April 2013. I had travelled to Korea to research my book on the battle of  Kapyong, and the men who fought in it, during a time of ‘big’ tension between South Korea and North Korea, especially on the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ – the “Dee Em Zee”).I found the opposite – it was crowded with tourists.

I visited the Taepung Observation post  that overlooks the DMZ at Maryang San, where Australians fought their finest offensive battle of the Korean War in October 1951. I had been there before, in 2003, and took some ‘illegal’  photographs – they were much stricter on this visit. The smoke referred to in the story some from the land on the northern side of the Imjin River,  on the river flat below the peak of Maryang San – taken in 2003. The observatory has a small theatre where the battle and the border can be described – there’s also a diorama, but this was ‘classified’ in 2013.

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The day they felt like Anzacs

Smoke rises from a patch of ground across the Imjin River below the Taepung Observatory, one of seven keeping watch on the demilitarised zone. Here the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea is just metres away.

From the observatory I can see the peak of Maryang San, which the Australians of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, famously stormed in early October 1951, at a cost of 20 lives. The Chinese took the position back from a British unit a few weeks later.

To the left is another peak – Kowang San, also captured by 3RAR. It remains in South Korea. You can trace the Australian attack through the window of the small theatre. But no photos are allowed. An apologetic young South Korean soldier says it is because of the heavy tension along the demilitarised zone.

There is smoke on the North Korean side – what are they doing? It’s North Korean soldiers preparing the ground for a crop, maybe corn, says the soldier. This is not part of the heavy tension, they just don’t feed their soldiers much.

It’s slash and burn agriculture; the soldiers might be moving rockets around, but they have to live off the land, in their own country.

The soldier says in 2008 the North Koreans did shoot at ”us” from that post up the valley, but he thinks the prospect of action in the near future is pretty remote.

A few days before Anzac Day 1951, it was a different matter for the Australians of 3RAR. The Chinese launched a major attack aimed at capturing the South Korean capital Seoul for the third time. If Seoul fell, the war would enter a new and even darker phase.

Standing between the Chinese and Seoul on the traditional invasion route were Commonwealth forces including the 3RAR, the Canadian battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, a New Zealand artillery regiment, and a troop of US tanks.

3RAR had been fighting hard for six months and had just captured two important positions, codenamed Salmon and Sardine, after the British Middlesex battalion had failed to do so. The 3RAR commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ferguson said then: ”The British have been unsuccessful twice and all eyes are on the Australians. Don’t come back without it.”

They did, and on April 17, handed over to a South Korean division supported by the New Zealand artillery. The blokes were looking forward to time in reserve in an almond orchard at Kapyong, 120 kilometres from Seoul.

They were looking forward to sleeping in tents instead of on the rough ground; they were looking forward to doing their washing and having fresh food and a beer and a barbecue with the Kiwis and the Turkish brigade on Anzac Day. But the barbecue was put off when the Chinese launched their attack on April 22 with overwhelming force. The next day 3RAR and the Canadian battalion were ordered into blocking positions to allow the South Koreans to withdraw. But the South Korean withdrawal was a rout and on the afternoon of April 23, the Australians came under attack.

Through that afternoon and night, waves of Chinese soldiers attacked 3RAR’s forward positions on hills to the east of the valley and swarmed down it to attack the battalion headquarters. The Canadians were on a hill to the south-west.

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On April 24, the Australians fought off countless attacks. D Company, which was on the highest hill, was attacked more than half a dozen times. The Chinese would assemble with whistles and bugle calls and charge up the hill, only to be cut down by the Australians. Then they would do the same again, often without weapons, picking them up from fallen comrades.

There were many acts of courage and steadfastness that day, as the battalion suffered more than 90 casualties, including 32 deaths. Several awards for bravery and service were made: both the Australia and Canadian battalions received the US Presidential unit citation, and the Kiwis the South Korean citation – the equivalent of unit VCs.

But one individual event particularly resonates on the eve of Anzac Day, now known as Kapyong Day.

That afternoon an American spotter aircraft circled above the Australians and dropped a marker – a stream of smoke – on top of D Company, despite warning signals being laid on the ground. Then three other American aircraft swung to drop something on the Australians.

Don Woods, now 82, was D Company’s machine gunner and was there. Private Woods had been wounded in November 1950 at Pakchon, which is now in North Korea.

Woods describes the canister dropping through the sky as the slowest thing he’d ever seen fall – and then it hit with an explosive whump and a burst of intense heat.

It was napalm and the American planes had dropped it by mistake. The Americans didn’t see the markers indicating it was a UN/Australian position.

Fortunately, it missed the main D Company position by a few metres. Several soldiers were hit, either by the napalm or by the ammunition on the ground that exploded.

Stretcher bearer Private ”Nugget” Dunque, who had been wounded earlier in the day, was wounded again by the exploding ammunition. He was sitting stunned, sick and sorry. Woods recalls what Dunque, who died in 2004, told him about that day.

”I then saw the most appalling apparition. A man with no flesh – his hands were dripping flesh – completely naked,” Dunque said . ”As he walked, I saw these huge bloated feet. The sticks and stones came up through his feet. He sat down next to me. I didn’t know who he was. He looked at me and said, ‘Jesus, Nugget, you’re having a bad day’.”

The apparition was Lance-Corporal Harold Giddens – and he survived the six-hour withdrawal with more good humour and courage, an act regarded by his platoon commander as the most courageous he witnessed that day.

Dunque was awarded the Military Medal for his selfless work at Kapyong. He made six separate trips under heavy fire to bring wounded comrades out before the napalm incident. After his final wound he refused to be carried out and marched out himself in the six-hour withdrawal that night.

Dunque exemplified the reason why Captain Reg Saunders said that after Kapyong he and 800 others at last felt like Anzacs.

The fighting withdrawal on the night of April 24, while bringing out all the wounded, was an outstanding success.

The Chinese mounted strong attacks on the Canadians across the valley, but supported by the Kiwi artillery and US tanks, they delayed the Chinese by another day.

On April 26 the US 5th Cavalry finally arrived, but were not able to drive the Chinese back, and suffered heavy casualties. The Kapyong Valley was recaptured in May, but the actions of the Australian and Canadian infantry battalions, a regiment of New Zealand artillery, and a troop of US tanks had stopped a division of Chinese soldiers – and saved Seoul. Had they not, the war would have taken a different course.

On July 27, 1953 the armistice was signed at Panmunjeom, about 60 kilometres from Seoul. Negotiations for peace had begun in July 1951 at Kaesong and from October 25 at Panmunjeom. They continued for two years, while tens of thousands died.

These days, hundreds of tourists visit the Joint Security Area every day despite, or because of, the heavy tension on the DMZ.

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The ceasefire line runs through the bright blue building and the centre of the table in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission conference room.

UNCMAC supervises the armistice but since North Korea withdrew from the commission in 1994, the conference room is one place where you can step across the border. A guard stands astride the line, and another keeps a close watch on the door to the north.

The grey, forbidding North Korean building looms above the UNCMAC office. A lone guard stares back at the rigid South Koreans. Visitors are prohibited from making provocative gestures to the north as such ”provocations”, it is said, have been used by the north in the past to launch attacks on the south.

At the Dora Observatory near Panmunjeom a dozen buses disgorge passengers to look through binoculars at North Korea, at the Propaganda Village (no one lives there) and the Kaesong industrial park, which has been closed by the North.

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They descend hundreds of metres down the Third Infiltration Tunnel under the DMZ, dug by North Korea to give its army the jump on the South’s defences.

There are few signs of the war at Kapyong today – except the memorials in the valley below the fighting positions of the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian soldiers, and in Kapyong town where there is also a US memorial.

Two days before Kapyong Day, groups of South Korean soldiers were sprucing them up for the three commemoration services.

But the war, and our part in it, is remembered and appreciated by all Koreans. The Kapyong battlefields were only fought over for a few days, and there is little evidence today that such bloody conflict took place there. There are no trenches and the scars in the earth have gone back to nature. Trees grow where the napalm fell and around the positions taken and retaken on the hills above the battlefield memorials.

Tourists who hike through the area do not bring back fragments of bone or bullets – the Australian dead lie at the UN cemetery on the south coast at Busan. About 17,000 Australians served in Korea and 339 were killed, and 1216 wounded.

There is no tension at Kapyong of the sort that now hangs over South and North Korea today. It’s as if the war is over.