This Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of a very important battle in what has become a largely forgotten war for Canada. It was on April 24, 1951 that the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, numbering about 700 men, faced down 6000 Chinese troops in the Kapyong Valley during the Korean War.
The battle was fierce and it was dirty. The Chinese poured in on the Canadian position; one that American and South Korean forces had already abandoned as a lost cause, all night. Sometime during the night, the Australian forces who'd been backing up the Canadians were overrun and retreated. The Canadians stood alone. There were too many heroes to count. One man lost a hand as he grabbed a live grenade and threw it away from his vulnerable buddies. Another took five bullets, including one in the heart (which he miraculously survived) and refused to leave his machine gun post through it all.
Before dawn on April 25, the Chinese withdrew and the battered Canadian forces were left in command of Hill 677. A group made completely of volunteers...insurance salesmen, schoolboys, construction workers...kept the mighty Chinese army out of Seoul against all the odds. Astonishingly, only ten Canadians died in the vicious fighting. The men whose bodies were recovered, however, were found in twos. They'd been sent into battle in pairs, with the understanding that they'd have their buddy's back. They did, to the end.
Former television foreign correspondant and documentary maker Dan Bjarnason has written a book about the battle, called "Triumph at Kapyong," because he thinks Canadians need to know more about an ordinary bunch who went to war and became great, if unrecognized, heroes. He says the actions of those guys help define us as Canadians.
I'm loathe to compare hockey players to soldiers at war, but I spoke with Dan Bjarnason about his book today, and he made the point that the soldiers at Kapyong were really Everyman. Their actions were the actions of typical Canadians. This is what he said about the morale of the men who fought at that forgotten Korean battle:
"These soldiers believed in themselves. Morale, I think, and many military experts think, is more important than the type of weapons you've got, what kinds of uniforms or technology you've got. Without morale, none of them matter. An American Civil War general, I think it was General Mead, said "All a general can do is get his men to the battlefield. At that point, it's up to the men to do the fighting." Well, our guys did this fighting. They met three of these mass attacks, and there was fighting in the trenches with shovels and rocks and hand grenades. Some units were running out of ammunition. Foxholes were lost and retaken. They held off these Chinese soldiers because they had this unbelievable belief that they were the best people on the hill, and they were going to prove it. It sounds a little Hollywoodish and it sounds like a recruiting slogan, but it was actually true. There was no bravado to these guys. They just thought they were the best soldiers and they fought like it. It never occurred to them that they were actually going to lose."
That's an incredible testimonial to the power of positive thinking and belief in oneself and one's brothers-in-arms. If the Montreal Canadiens can achieve even a semblance of that kind of morale, they will do great things. They might not all be Canadian, but they're all hockey players who share a core set of team values.
Sometimes, all you have to do is believe the work you're doing will have the results you want. Seven hundred soldiers who fought off six thousand on a Korean night sixty years ago should be remembered for teaching us that lesson. There could be no finer example for those who fight their battles on a hockey rink; their goal a silver trophy rather than a lonely hilltop half a world away.