Many people ask me how did I get involved with Korea. It is a fair question, after all Korea is somewhat obscure in many respects.
My first encounter with Korea came after entering the prestigious Royal Military College, Duntroon located in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. There were five training companies into which all of the Officer Cadets were assigned. Each of the five companies was named after a battle of renown where Australian soldiers had fought. I was posted to ‘Kapyong’ Company.
Kapyong is the name of a small village, about one and a half hours from the centre of Seoul by train. In 1951 it was a very remote area, surrounded by mountainous ranges and wide valleys. Today, you can access Kapyong using the local Seoul KORAIL rail network, Many things have changed. Today, all most Koreans know about Kapyong is that it is a scenic place for bushwalking on the weekend, and it has become a popular destination for many.
Prior to Anzac Day in 1951 it was a different story. The coldness of Winter was thawing with the onset of Spring. Australian soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, were deployed into the valley area to form a defensive position as part of a larger Commonwealth Force. At this time, to the north east of Seoul on the Imjin River dividing North Korea from South Korea, the Chinese began what became known as their Spring Offensive in an effort to retake Seoul.
The British and American forces that were in defensive positions at Imjin were seriously smashed, but held the line. It was this defence action that kept the Chinese in check.
To the west at Kapyong, the Australians were preparing for the upcoming Anzac Day Dawn Service when they received an urgent message about the imminent arrival of the Chinese advance soon to bear down upon them. They deployed hastily, into the positions from which the Battle of Kapyong was fought. It was a brutal and bloody battle that raged for two days.
At the end of the fighting, the Chinese
withdrew, enabling the Australian and Commonwealth Forces to also withdraw to safer ground. Along with the fighting at Imjin, this helped to stall the Chinese advance, and for the remainder of the two years until a truce was agreed to in 1953, the Korean War became a merciless trench war of endurance. The stories of Australian patrols, battalion attacks and defensive battles are all nearly incomprehensible today because of what was achieved. Those are stories for another day, but not this blog post.
In Canberra in 1988, as an Officer Cadet, we had to learn the ‘Screed Test’ before we could go out on our first leave from the barracks six weeks after arriving. Today, I can barely remember the screed test, but the legacy of Kapyong has been kept alive when I first visited Korea in 2010 and visited the battlefield itself. I have also spoken with many of the veterans who fought there, amazed to hear their stories of survival.
In two months from now, Australians will remember Kapyong around the time of Anzac Day. It will be talked up as a heroic action, which it was. Mostly, it will be talked up because of ignorance of what happened elsewhere during the time that Australia was fighting in Korea. It was an important action that made a difference to history. For their actions, 3RAR received a US Presidential Unit Citation. We do well to remember Kapyong, but we could do better by learning more about the remainder of the Korean War. It is part of our story in Korea.
In 2010, I wrote a short Op-Ed published in The Korea Times about my reflections at Kapyong. You can read that here.