Yet to me, at 18 in 1960, those seven years might as well have been seven light years.
In 1960, Korea was already on the misty fringes of history. I probably knew more about the Chaco War or the Kanakkale Crisis. Talk about obscure, fringe topics.
In 1959, only one year earlier, Castro’s dashing young guerrillas had come down from the hills in Cuba. Now, there was a conflict to stir the blood of a restless eighteen-year-old: bearded warriors, armed to the teeth, sitting on the hoods of Jeeps as they roared into Havana along Malecon Drive, girls tossing them kisses and flowers.
To the extent this eighteen-year-old back in Brandon, Manitoba thought of Korea at all, it seemed not much like Havana at all. It didn’t seem much of a war at all; not very exciting. Not much action. Not too nasty. Hardly anyone knew anyone who’d fought there, let alone died there.
This so-called Forgotten War, I suspect now, was being forgotten while it was still being fought. In school, I have no memories of classmates debating it. There was no anger. There was no elation. There was no interest. Not for us, the terrible statistic that in only two and a half years we had lost more than 500 men.
In 1960, for me all that changed. At university, I enrolled in a program called the Canadian Officer Training Corps (COTC). The idea was that university students would be paid to help cover tuition, and in the summer receive officer training at an army base. After graduation you could join either the regular army or a militia unit. It was a wonderful scheme in which students could finance their education and the army got a steady stream of trained and highly motivated young officers. (Sadly, it was all scrapped in 1968.)
In 1960, I signed on with the infantry and as an “officer cadet” arrived that May at the School of Infantry at Camp Borden north of Toronto. Many (perhaps most) of our officers and NCOs were tough veterans of this mysterious war in Asia that few of us young know-nothings knew anything about.
From them we heard tales of warfare that seemed to have little comparison to the fight against the Nazis, but was surprisingly similar to the war now being waged in Afghanistan: terrible terrain, an elusive and strange enemy, a war in the hills and mountains, far from roads and cities.
And from these seasoned men we learned of Korea, and then of Kapyong. All of them – even those who had not fought at Kapyong – spoke of the place with a special reverence. Some had been in other battles where the casualties were greater and the odds against them were worse. But countries have room for only one event in their popular memory to symbolize a wartime experience. For the Russians, in their thousands of battles against the Nazis, it is Stalingrad. For the British in their decades of fighting Napoleon, it is Waterloo. For the Americans the flyspeck Iwo Jima, in the south Pacific, has come to stand for their entire wartime experience. For Canada in Korea, it is Kapyong.
As an officer cadet, my platoon commander was a Lt. Don Ardelian. To us he had stepped right out of a recruiting poster. Thin as a rail, steely blue eyes, and an absolutely magnetic personality, he was the ideal leader. He scarcely had to give an order. We just knew by instinct what he’d want done; and did it.
Ardelian was a farm boy from Saskatchewan. He joined the army. He loved his service in the military later serving with much distinction in Europe and in diplomatic postings in Africa. He later told me: “Everything I ever became in life, I owed to the army. It gave me my university education. It gave me my career. It opened the world to me. I became what I became because of the army”
Ardelian served as a sergeant in Korea and became an expert on night patrols and small unit actions and lectured on it in later years. He was in the 3rd Battalion PPCLI in Korea, and did not fight at Kapyong, which occurred before he arrived at the war. But he knew the battle thoroughly. There were lessons in it, he tried to tell us, that went beyond tactics and weapons. He instilled in us an understanding of the mystic mixture of personal bravery, leadership by example and character, which he saw as a trinity.
Soldiers must all believe in each other, he’d tell us. There’s more to this than obedience or respect. They must actually “believe.” They must have faith in each other, a faith their lives would depend on. None of this is based on logic; it is often illogical; this sense that we are in this together and we can pull it off. This, he would say, is what allowed the Patricias to prevail at Kapyong when they should have perished. This is a form of electricity that is the real heart and soul of battle.
Ardelian’s sentiment was echoed years later by Jim Stone, the commander at Kapyong, when he told a new generation of officers about his soldiers: “They were a wonderful group of men. I believed in them. They believed in me. And what is more important, they believed in each other.”
This was all heady stuff for a bunch of teenaged officers-in-training in 1960. That first summer at Borden filled me with the lore of Kapyong. The allure never faded. For a half century I’ve been fascinated by this wonderful tale of the few against the many. It is full of the traits Canadians like to think make us, us: heroism, modesty, and a determination that in sticking together we can defy the odd makers.
It ate away at me, year after year, this Kapyong story. Ardelian died a year ago. But I sensed him out there, wagging his finger at me: “You’ve stalled long enough. Just do it!”
And so last summer, a half century after I met Don Ardelian, I sat down. And I began to write.
Dan Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for the National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years.
For an excellent interview of Dan Bjarnason with Peter Mansbridge.
or watch the Bjarnason interview on The Agenda with Steve Paikin