The Hon. KAYEE GRIFFIN [3.38 p.m.]: On Sunday 21 April this year I represented Premier Morris Iemma at the annual wreath-laying and commemoration service for Kapyong Commemorative Day, which was organised by the Korea and South East Asian Forces Association of Australia, New South Wales Branch. The association represents veterans of wars and campaigns in Korea, Malaya, the Malay Peninsula, Sabah, Sarawak and Vietnam. This year the association commemorated the fifty-sixth anniversary of the battle of Kapyong in Korea. The battle of Kapyong was the most significant encounter for Australian troops during the Korean War. In April 1951 the Chinese launched an offensive, with the aim of retaking the city of Seoul. They quickly overran South Korean forces who were defending one of the major approach routes—the valley of the Kapyong River.
The Australian troops attached to the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment were in the process of organising an ANZAC Day commemorative service with the Turkish contingent of the United Nations forces when their plans were cut short. After months of fighting they again found themselves in a very difficult situation against advancing Chinese troops. They were sent to four hills to the east of the Kapyong Valley and Canadian forces were positioned to the west. Massively outnumbered, the Commonwealth forces—consisting of Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and British forces—occupied defensive positions throughout the valley and, against the odds, were able to halt the Chinese advance.
On the evening of 22 April 1951 Chinese forces launched an attack against the United Nations forces that were defending Seoul. Australian defence forces were responsible for defending the Kapyong Valley, which was approximately 60 kilometres from Seoul. As the Chinese troops descended on the United Nations line the South Korean and American units were forced to retreat past the line held by the Australians. By 10.00 p.m. on 23 April the Australian 27th and 29th Brigades were facing the Chinese 118th People’s Volunteer Division and by midnight the battle was well and truly underway. Throughout the night and well into the day, the Australian defence forces along with a Canadian battalion supported by a New Zealand artillery regiment, held back the Chinese advance. By the time night fell on 24 April the Chinese forces withdrew.
Despite the overwhelming number of Chinese troops, the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops were too well disciplined for the Chinese Division. During the battle the Australian forces lost 32 men, had 59 wounded and 3 were taken as prisoners of war. The Australian troops assisted in holding off the Chinese forces and it is estimated that there were more than 1,000 Chinese casualties. This battle played a pivotal role in stopping the Chinese forces from gaining their objective of Seoul. In recognition of courage and brilliant conduct during the battle, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ferguson and Lieutenant-Colonel James Stone of Canada were awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment were both awarded the honour of the United States Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for their actions during the battle. They were said to have displayed "such gallantry, determination and esprit de corps in their missions as to set them apart and above other units participating in the campaign".
Captain Reg Saunders, who fought at Kapyong, was the first Aboriginal soldier to be commissioned by the Australian Army. Captain Saunders is probably the country's best-known Aboriginal soldier. He had a distinguished military record and fought in the Second World War and the Korean War. He came from a strong military family. His father and uncle served in the First World War, and his uncle received a military medal for his actions at Morlancourt Ridge in France. During the Second World War, Reg and his brother Harry both served in the Army. Unfortunately, Harry was killed in action in New Guinea. Captain Saunders was shot in the knee, but returned to the 2/7th Infantry Battalion after his recovery. Whilst fighting in Korea, Captain Saunders led his company through some of the fiercest fighting. He was the first Aboriginal serviceman to command a rifle company and was well respected and very popular with his men. Private Joe Vezgoff who served under Captain Saunders said of him:
Reg Saunders was one of the best company commanders I had served under and he was admired by the company as an excellent leader.
Pilgrimage, a book by Garrie Hutchinson, mentions the story of Captain Reg Saunders. After the battle of Kapyong Captain Saunders was quoted as saying:
At last I felt like an ANZAC and I imagine there were 600 others like me.
Captain Saunders returned from Korea and took up a position with the National Service Training Unit, but left this position and the Army in 1954. Following his military career he joined the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a liaison and public relations officer. He died in 1990. He will be remembered for both his skill and leadership and as a true ANZAC.
In October 2003 I had the honour to visit the memorial at Kapyong and to lay a wreath. I found the experience very moving because I had been told by many Korean friends about the respect afforded to Australian servicemen. I was very pleased to be able to attend this commemorative service on behalf of the Premier and once again to lay a wreath to honour Australian servicemen who fought at Kapyong.