Kapyong, 23-24 April 1951

Australian soldiers in Korea, part of the United States-led United Nations forces, take a well-earned break. Men like these won a US Presidential Unit Citation for their gallant stand, determination and espirit de corps during the Battle of Kapyong.

Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, smoking a pipe in the centre, CO of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, at Kapyong, discusses his battle plans with a British officer, left in the beret, while an Australia soldiers watches.

The Battle of Kapyong, 22–25 April 1951.

Halting the Communist Advance

The seriousness of the breakthrough on the central front had been changed from defeat to victory by the gallant stand of these heroic and courageous soldiers [who] displayed such gallantry, determination and esprit de corps in accomplishing their mission as to set them apart and above other units participating in the campaign and by their achievements they have brought distinguished credit to themselves, their homelands and all freedom-loving nations.

United States Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to 3 RAR, 26 June 1951

Seeing another wave of communist Chinese troops advancing up the valley as the early dawn light silhouetted them against the towering mountains, Major Ben O’Dowd ordered his radio operator to call for immediate support.

An officer of the US 1st Marine Division answered but, despite the obvious Australian accent, refused to believe it was O’Dowd’s radio operator calling.

Fuming with rage and with seconds before the enemy arrived, O’Dowd grabbed the phone and demanded to speak to the American commanding officer. The general commanding the Marines came on the line, but when O’Dowd reported his position and the imminent attack, the American refused point blank to believe him.

The American insisted the Australian forces no longer existed because the Chinese had wiped them out the night before. Losing patience and with the enemy almost on them, O’Dowd blasted back: `I’ve got news for you-we are still here and we are staying here’.

The Battle

It was 24 April, the eve of Anzac Day, and O’Dowd and his fellow Australians were fighting hand-to-hand for their lives as they repulsed one of the biggest Chinese offensives of the Korean War.

All through the previous night they had been defending a series of ridges strung across the Kapyong River valley, trying to stop wave after wave of Chinese forces advancing south towards the capital, Seoul. The valley was a traditional invasion route and if the Chinese captured Seoul, they may have pushed the foreigners right off the Korean peninsula and won the war.

But UN forces wanted to draw a line in the sand at the 38th parallel, the line of latitude 38 degrees north, where it crossed the Korean peninsula. The Australians were fighting about 60 kilometres north-east of Seoul as part of a United Nations force.

O’Dowd was commander of A Company within the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which was fighting as part of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade. The Diggers were also fighting alongside Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Koreans. The Commonwealth Brigade had occupied strategic defensive positions across the valley in an attempt to halt the Chinese advance. As a reserve, British soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, held a position to the rear.

On 23 April the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, took up their positions on prominent hills on either side of the valley, near where a small tributary joined the Kapyong River. The Diggers, who had been assigned positions on ridges such as Hill 504 overlooking the Kapyong River and one of its smaller tributaries, dug themselves in on 23 April.

It was a tiny force compared to the Chinese juggernaut. The Chinese launched their spring offensive south down the valley with an estimated 337,000 men in the main force across a 7-kilometre front, with an estimated 150,000 attacking further east. The expansive Kapyong valley was too large to defend with the forces available, and the defenders were spread very thinly.

The Chinese first overran American tanks placed unwisely out in front of the infantry and without artillery support. Unsurprisingly the Chinese, who had already occupied Seoul once, quickly overran South Korean forces defending the major invasion route. The Australians of the 3rd Battalion first realised the situation in the evening of 23 April, when South Korean forces came running back past Australian positions along with Korean civilians retreating from the Chinese.

Much to the Australians’ surprise, within minutes Chinese soldiers themselves came running past in the night, chasing the retreating South Koreans. It was difficult to differentiate between the two Asian armies in the dark, with Chinese in among the retreating Koreans, but the shrewd O’Dowd had expected the worst. `I knew that Chinese soldiers would mix in with the civilians’, he said.

They would be in civilian clothes or in uniform, in the half-light, and be penetrating to the rear in numbers. I rang the commanding officer and requested permission to open fire with the machine-guns to stop all movement on the road. This was refused on the grounds Republic of Korea soldiers could still be coming through.

The odd shot rang out and I repeated my request. Nevertheless, the panic became justified as firing broke out around battalion HQ. The enemy was at our rear.

O’Dowd and his men now had to watch their backs. This human wave initially swarmed between the positions of the Australian battalion’s A and B Companies and into the positions they were defending, so the Australians, all of whom were now fully alert, began to let them have it, firing at the Chinese charging in among them and stopping them in hand-to-hand combat.

The Australians killed many, but the enemy soldiers kept on coming and by midnight the Australians were fighting for their lives as the communists began breaking into their inner defences.

Throughout the night the Chinese used grenades and mortars, then repeatedly charged into the Australian positions in waves over their own dead and wounded. The Australians managed to keep them at bay.

It was a close-run thing; no wonder the Americans thought O’Dowd had been killed. O’Dowd said: `Some of the Chinese soldiers did not carry weapons, just buckets of grenades. They had the job of keeping my Diggers’ heads down so their rifleman and machine-gunners could rush in and get among us’.

The Chinese also attacked the nearby C Company and its highly respected commander, Captain Reg Saunders, the first Aboriginal commissioned officer in the Australian army. Saunders reported he had first been alerted to the attack by `the sound of small arms fire’ and `the crash of cannon’ and also seen `flashes of fire coming from the direction of Battalion headquarters’. Saunders `thought the communists were in a good position to cut off our Company’-he was right, as his men had not been able to stop the Chinese. Saunders had no alternative but to retreat.

Then the enemy attacked the battalion headquarters deeper in the Allied lines in overwhelming numbers. The defenders had to withdraw towards the Middlesex position. This loss of the headquarters forced other Allied units to withdraw.

It had been a tough night’s fighting. Mick Servos, a rifleman and forward scout, said the Chinese `were a tough and clever enemy and they just charged in, wave after wave after wave’. At least every twenty minutes on average through the night, he said, the massed Chinese attacks kept coming at the Australians defending their positions on the hills overlooking the Kapyong valley.

When dawn broke on 24 April, most Australians had survived and were still defending their positions. The light enabled O’Dowd to see the Chinese getting ready for another attack on his position, which is when he phoned for support, only to be told by the Americans he had been wiped out. The American commanding officer’s reaction was understandable, though, because so many Chinese had infiltrated Australian positions during the night of 23 April.

O’Dowd mounted a counterattack that forced the enemy back, but `there was absolutely nothing I could do to help my men, beyond walking up and down, watching for the possibility of a break-in and shouting encouragement while attacks were in progress’. The battle was to be largely O’Dowd’s.

Although the Chinese were exposed on the floor of the valley in the daylight where Allied forces could reach them with artillery, during the night they kept creeping forward and the Australians had to stop them with fire or hand-to-hand fighting and bayonets. O’Dowd also called in New Zealand artillery support-he expected a better result in convincing the Kiwis he was still alive.

Fighting continued throughout 24 April. The Australians held their positions, even though US airstrikes accidentally killed two Australians and wounded others with napalm-an example of `friendly fire’. The Canadians also fought off intensive attacks by the Chinese, refusing to be dislodged from their hill-top position.

But it was plain the Australians would be unlikely to survive another night in such an exposed position without great losses, so they planned a night withdrawal along a ridge. Late on 24 April, with more Chinese arriving, the Australians were ordered to retreat to a position that had been successfully defended by the Middlesex men, then establish new front-line defences.

Their fighting withdrawal was supported by New Zealand artillery from the 16th Field Regiment, and as they fired and fell back the Diggers attacked the enemy occupants of their former battalion headquarters, killing 81 Chinese soldiers at the cost of four Australian lives. The Australians had delivered a blow but continued their retreat to safer ground.

Just before midnight on 24 April, the Australians were recovering at the Middlesex Regiment’s position where they had linked up again. On Anzac Day 1951, the Australians rested after their long fight.

They could celebrate as they had slowed and blunted the Chinese offensive for long enough for the Americans to move in and rein force the Kapyong River front. It cost the 3rd Battalion thirty-two lives lost and 59 wounded, but the battalion had certainly stood up well against massive odds. The Australians had taken the brunt of the fighting that first night, with little food and water, limited ammunition and no mines or barbed wire to secure their positions.

The 3rd Battalion held up the Chinese long enough for US reinforcements to reach the Kapyong River front and blunted the Chinese offensive, which never got going again.

After Kapyong the Chinese made only one more attempt to break through UN lines, only to be stopped once again by the Americans.

From then on, the 38th parallel was maintained by the Allies. Cease-fire talks began in July 1951.

It was the most significant and important battle for Australian troops in Korea. The Diggers of the 3rd Battalion RAR, nicknamed `Old Faithful’, along with the Canadian and American units, were presented with the US Presidential Unit Citation.

The commander of 3 RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his skilful leader ship at Kapyong.

It was a great achievement stopping the communist advance and the capture of Seoul, although it still cost thirty-two Australians their lives. It was a big achievement in Korea and instructors in military academies described Kapyong as `the perfect defensive battle’.

But few in Australia heard about Kapyong-in fact, so many knew so little about the Korean conflict it became known as the `Forgotten War’. The heroes of Kapyong returned to an Australia largely uninterested in their struggle. Australians had plenty of heroes and war stories from World War II.

The Kapyong veterans received little public recognition and even found it difficult to gain repatriation benefits. More than one remembers being turned away from RSL clubs because `that wasn’t a proper war’.

Defeating Chinese soldiers had also been downplayed by the great US General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the United Nations forces, who dismissed Mao’s army as `Chinese laundrymen’ who would flee at the first encounter with the Allies in Korea. MacArthur was dismissed just before the battle for failing to follow presidential orders. President Harry S. Truman said:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son-of-a-bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals in the US Army. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

The American leadership also made too many mistakes in the Battle of Kapyong-especially when they sent Corsair aircraft to hit Hill 504, believing no one could have survived the attacks of the night before, without making sure. The napalm attack killed two Australians and injured several others.

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