On my recent visit to Korea, I was privileged to attend ceremonies at the Commonwealth, Canadian and Australia/New Zealand memorials in Kapyong on 24 April – Kapyong Day.

Veterans from Australia, Canada, New Zealand were in attendance at the appropriate ceremonies, together with Australian Ambassador to Korea Bill Paterson, New Zealand Ambassador Patrick Rata, Canadian Minister for Veterans Affairs Steven Blaney, Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Park Sung Choon, the US 8th Army Band and many others.

The ceremonies began at the Commonwealth Memorial in Kapyong town – a somewhat plain white obelisk highlighted in April by flags and magnolia’s in full bloom.  The Commonwealth Memorial is located close to where 3RAR Headquarters was in April 1951.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Korea, and Kapyong in particular, must be one of the few places, outside the Commonwealth itself, where ‘Commonwealth’ means something.

The Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and British were part of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade at Kapyong and Koreans old enough to remember the war, or who were children at the time do remember that we weren’t Americans.

But there was a US tank unit at Kapyong too, which played an important role in the battle.

The US memorial here is not dedicated to Lieutenant Kenneth Koch’s A Company, 72nd Tank Battalion. It is to the 213 Field Artillery Battalion for a famous action on 26 May 1951 where the men from Utah used a 105 mm howitzer as a tank, routing a Chinese attack, killing and capturing over a thousand enemy at no cost to themselves.  The 72nd Tank Battalion with 3RAR and the Canadians of 2 Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (2PPCLI) was awarded a ‘unit VC’ – a US Presidential Citation for its work at Kapyong.

US mem kapyong

The Canadian Memorial is some six kilometres north, below Hill 677, about three kilometres west. A plaque outlines the hills where 2 PPCLI fought their stage of the battle on Anzac Day 1951.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Anzac Memorial is located about four kilometres further north at a village called Mokdong-ri, adjacent to the road down which the Chinese attacked on 23 April 1951.

It’s only by walking (and driving) the battlefield that you can begin to understand the difficulties there were in 1951 defending the position with just two battalions. It’s about a kilometre between the B Company on the road, and the rest of 3RAR on the ridge leading up Hill 504, and four kilometres back to Hill 677 where the Canadians were located.

The Chinese could – and did infiltrate down the road with the retreating 6ROK and refugees, bypassing the defenders. Had they been in greater numbers (as they were at the same time on the Imjin river where the Glosters were being annihilated) things might have been different.

As it was the decision to attack the 3 RAR companies on the Hill 504 on 23/24 April, and then the Canadians on 25 April rather than isolating them on their hills might be seen as a tactical error.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In 1964 Roy Peachey then Australian Ambassador to Korea was trying establish an Australian memorial at Kapyong.

He told Frank Devine in of the Melbourne Herald that he had asked a number of locals where the battle had taken place and what they remembered.

Devine wrote ‘To them, the war had been a bewildering event, with foreign soldiers coming and going and nobody quite sure what remote and mysterious part of the world they came from.”

Eventually Peachey found a ‘youngish farmer who had a specific memory of the Australians. “They were the hairy ones with the cowboy hats.” ‘

Hairy because they hadn’t shaved, and wearing a slouch hat.

I met Chi Kap Chong OBE at the Anzac Day Gunfire Breakfast after the Anzac Day ceremony.  Chairman Chi, as everyone refers to him, is Chairman (and founder) of the UN Korean War Allies Association formally established in 1963. The Association is a prime mover behind the annual Korean Government sponsored veteran visitor program.

Chairman Chi was a student volunteer in the war, and in 1952 commenced a career as a war correspondent for Korean papers.

He also purchased the land on which the Australian and Commonwealth memorials at Kapyong now stand, donating it to the Korean government.

The plaque at the Anzac Memorial indicates the current memorial replaced one dedicated on 24 April 1963. That is possibly a misprint- as Chairman Chi said he bought the land in 1967, and the work of Ambassador Peachey were in  theearly 1960s. Frank Devine in the 1967 article in the Herald hopes the monument would be completed for Kapyong Day ‘next year’ – 1968.

B Company, 3 RAR was placed on the low ridge to the west of the road. After the ceremony I met Gordon Bowser, now 86, who was in the anti-tank platoon on the road on that afternoon. Sergeant Bowser laid a wreath with fellow Kapyong veteran Bill Hall.

Bill was with 3 RAR Headquarters Company, which had also been under attack back down the road at Kapyong town.

Nearly all locals from the Kapyong area had by April 1951, including Mokdong-ri had evacuated by April 1951.

I met Mr Lee Kang Hwa and Mrs Lee after having climbed 3RAR battle site, Hill 504.

Mr Lee Kapyong

Mr And Mrs Lee Kang Hwa and grandchildren

Mr Lee cultivates vegetables in the family farm below the ridge where 3 RAR fought just before Anzac Day April 1951. He told me that he was seven years old at the time, and escaped with his family in December 1950 early in the  war. They didn’t return until after the armistice in July 1953.

Mr Lee told me he was grateful to all the countries that sent their young men to Korea so that his family could return to their land. He was especially grateful to Australia because he thought we were the first Commonwealth country to send help.  Mr Lee wasn’t just being polite to a visitor. He remembers.