Too young to enlist during the Second World War, Hubert Archibald Gray, known as "Hub" to his friends, joined the Canadian Scottish Regiment and became an officer candidate in 1949.
After the Korean War broke out, Hub joined the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), and was sent overseas in early 1951. Hub was a Lieutenant of the Princess Patricia's Mortar Platoon during the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951, and was witness to the brave stand of the 2nd Battalion, PPCLI, in halting the Chinese Army's advance on Seoul during the Chinese Spring Offensive.
Hub returned to civilian life in 1953, and in 2003 published a definitive account of the role of 2PPCLI during the Korean War.
Hub Gray was born in Winnipeg in 1928 to Edith and Charles Gray (mayor of Winnipeg during the infamous 1919 general strike), the youngest of four children.
A long line of bold ancestors inspired Hub, whose father Charles had run away to sea at 14, sailed around the world in a square-rig sailing ship twice and been shipwrecked in Western Australia before he was 17. Hub's grandfather served on the famous British China Clipper, Cutty Sark. His great-great-great grandfather was a mayor of the Cinq Ports, a privateer with a Letter of Marque licensing him to pillage enemy vessels of the British Empire.
Hub's childhood was filled with stories of life at sea on sailing ships. "As a child my father entertained me with stories sailing round Cape Horn and being shipwrecked by a Pacific storm six days out of Sydney, Australia. His colourful sea tales inspired this prairie boy to join the Sea Cadets".
Hub envisioned a life in the navy and joining the Sea Cadets seemed like a good first step; however, the Second World War changed Gray's dream of a life at sea and instead his Mother propelled him towards the army.
"I was always rather big for my age, six foot two, and in late 1944 and early 1945, I was accosted on the street by motherly types who accused me of being a shirker when there was a war on — after all, their sons were in the army serving Canada; 'Why aren't you?!'. I was 16, six foot two, but this really got to me and one day while still carrying my schoolbooks I went to the recruiting depot.", said Hub.
Canadian Scottish Regiment
"The sergeant... told me to go home, that the war would soon be over," Gray wrote. "I pleaded and finally he said that if I must do something I should join the army cadet corps attached to the militia unit of The Canadian Scottish Regiment."
Gray took the sergeant's advice and in 1945 at the age of 17 joined The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary's) cadet corp and, at 18, the regiment. As a member of The Canadian Scottish, Gray attended the 1st Command Contingent Course at Ontario's Camp Borden for 6 months in September 1948. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the reserve a year later.
While serving with the reserves, Gray spent nine months in The Yukon taking part in a joint American-Canadian exercise known as Exercise Sweetbriar. This exercise included some 1,000 Canadian and 10,000 American army and air force personnel and it had been designed to test the practicality of moving a large combat team up the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse into Alaska while an umbrella of aircraft swept the skies for enemy planes.
It was during Exercise Sweetbriar that Gray first encountered the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), one of Canada's most-highly decorated regiments with numerous battle honours won in both the First and Second World Wars. They were dubbed "First in the field", as they were the first to serve in both world wars and in Korea. Gray was in awe of these legendary soldiers with a reputation of never backing down.
"I was fascinated by the Patricia's troops displaying their distinguishing parachute wings on their uniforms. I wanted very much to become a paratrooper," he writes.
PPCLI in Korea
Gray joined the 2nd battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) in October 1950. He was transferred to the PPCLI’s 3rd battalion a month later where he remained until February 1951 when he flew to Japan to become a reinforcement officer, a lieutenant. Now 22 years old, Gray joined 2PPCLI in Korea.
Korea had been split into communist north (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and democratic south (Republic of Korea) at the end of the Second World War but increasing hostility led North Korea to attack South Korea in June 1950.
The United Nations responded by sending a multi-national force to Korea, with U.S. troops arriving July 1, 1950. Canada sent three destroyers and then began committing infantry to the cause, drawing battalions from the PPCLI, The Royal Canadian Regiment, and the Royal 22e Régiment to create a reinforced Infantry brigade of 25,000 soldiers (a regular brigade has 15,000).
The Korean War went badly at first for South Korea and its UN allies; the Korean People’s Army (KPA) of North Korea had nearly succeeded in throwing its enemies into the sea but a surprise attack at the port of Inchon on September 15, 1950, well behind enemy lines turned the tables. North Korea was now on the defensive and in full retreat.
It appeared the war would be over before the PPCLI had even reached Korea. But what the Patricias — along with the rest of the UN’s forces and the Republic of Korea (ROK) — did not know was that the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (NKPVA) had mobilized and slipped an army of 260,000 soldiers into North Korea. The Chinese attacked and once again, the UN and South Korea were pushed beyond Seoul. By early 1951 the North's forces totalled almost 1,300,000.
The Patricias reached Korea in December 1950, initially intended as an occupation force. That would quickly change. China’s entry into the war had dramatically altered the balance and the need for combat troops had become dire. The Patricias, attached to the British 27th Commonwealth Brigade, were destined to see combat.
After two months of intense training, the Patricias boarded a troop train bound for the front. South Korea, including Seoul, had been liberated for the second time of the war by early March. In April, China launched a new offensive with plans to bring a decisive end to the war.
Battle of Kapyong
China committed its 3rd, 9th, and 19th Army Groups, along with three North Korean corps — I, II and V Corps — attacking across three general sectors. The South Korean 6th Division and subsequently the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, held in reserve south of the village of Kapyong, blocked the way south in the centre of these sectors.
The Chinese and their North Korean allies attacked April 22, 1951 overrunning the South Korean 6th Division. Thousands of South Korean soldiers fled in a panic, leaving a gaping 16km wide hole in the front line. The 27th Commonwealth Brigade moved to stop the Chinese advance at the Kapyong River valley, located about 40 kilometres northeast of Seoul.
The 27th Brigade — comprised of 2PPCLI, 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), the British Middlesex Regiment, and the 16th Field Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery—took up positions on hilltops overlooking the Kapyong River supported by 15 Sherman tanks of the 72nd U.S. Tank Battalion and two American heavy mortar companies.
Despite holding the high ground, the odds were against the 27th Brigade. The Chinese had about 6,000 combat soldiers to the 27th Brigade’s 1,400, of which 700 were Canadian. Despite the lopsided odds, the 27th Brigade had to hold the valley; if the 27th fell the U.S. 8th Army would be split in two.
The winding Kapyong River valley is narrow, not even three kilometres side-to-side at its widest spot, and flanked by steep, hilly terrain. 2PPCLI broke into its four companies ("A" through "D") and took up positions on the west side of the valley along a ridge line of the 677m high hill referred to as Hill 677 and prepared what Gray referred to as "hastily placed booby-trapped grenades and flares." Infantry companies traditionally support one another, but the terrain at Kapyong wouldn’t allow for that because of wide gullies separating the outward thrust of land.
"D" Company held the western-most position with "C" and "A" companies to its right. Col Stone, meanwhile placed "B" Company on a hill on the Patricia’s east flank, where it could defend the Patricia’s right flank and monitor the Chinese attack on the eastern side of the valley where 3RAR held Hill 504.
April 23, 1951
The Sherman tanks and the New Zealand artillery were on hand to support both 3RAR and 2PPCLI; 3RAR would be the first to require fire support from the tanks and artillery. The Chinese began the assault on April 23 at 9:30 p.m. by attacking the U.S. tanks, and driving the armoured vehicles back into the valley. They then attacked the Australians on Hill 504.
Gray, who was second in command of the 2PPCLI’s mortar platoon, and the rest of 2PPCLI could only watch and listen and wait. The Australians — with artillery and tank support — beat back heavy and persistent attacks before withdrawing behind the Patricias during the evening of April 23. 3RAR suffered 94 casualties (32 killed) in the Chinese assaults on Hill 504.
April 24, 1951
The Chinese, meanwhile, began to probe the Canadian positions during the morning of April 24. Overlooking the valley, the Patricias watched Chinese soldiers advance in "formations of 200 six abreast — running at the double... crushing all in front of them". Gray writes, "Mother of God, what are we about to face?"
Machine gun and sniper fire began to target 2PPCLI. The Patricias responded by killing the machine gun crew. Shells fired by an American Sherman killed the sniper.
The real test, however, would come April 24 during the night, beginning with a surprise attack on "B" Company. It was a bitterly fought battle that would see "B" Company hold its ground despite running out of ammunition and fierce hand-to-hand combat.
Chinese soldiers then attacked the Patricia’s Tactical Headquarters and Support Company where Gray was positioned with the mortar platoon, which had four heavy and four medium machine guns at its disposal.
"To the southeast an enemy battalion noiselessly rises out of the valley to attack our soft underbelly, consisting of Tactical HQ and Support Company," writes Gray. "It is surreal to see armed soldiers moving silently upward, and I mean absolutely silent as though floating up the hill to kill us. They are less than 60 meters from our mortars when eight machine guns under my command release enfilading fire — a hemorraging curtain of death — slaughtering in excess of 100, it looked as though someone had kicked off the top of an ant hill."
Following Gray’s lead, the PPCLI gunners turned their mortars and began launching bombs into the waves of attacking Chinese soldiers only a few hundred meters away. Michael Czuboka, one of those gunners, wrote in My Military Career Before and During the Battle of Kapyong: A Personal Memoir, that he believed Gray’s actions commanding the machine guns saved the battalion from destruction.
April 25, 1951
To the northwest of 2PPCLI’s mortar platoon, a high ridge separated tactical headquarters from "D" Company and it was here that the Chinese began, at about 1:30 a.m. on April 25, to focus their attack. The Chinese knew that if they could take that ridge they would have a high ridge from which they could wipe out the Patricias.
The Chinese soldiers advanced in rows of 30 to 50 soldiers intent on overrunning "D" Company and after two-and-a-half hours of intense fighting, the Chinese had the Patricias surrounded.
With the situation growing desperate, the enemy were within seven meters of 10 Platoon. Lt. Mike Levy, cool under intense enemy fire, called in an artillery and mortar barrage on the Patricia’s 10 Platoon front, a danger-close fire order. This 40-minute long strike, involving 24 New Zealand and 57 American guns, saw some 4,500 shells crash down on the Patricias and their attackers. "The noise (was) deafening—the barrage murderous—the fires and smoke confuse the battlefield,"
Gray wrote. "All the Chinese commander had to do was smash the Patricias; he threw in everything he had, an unrelenting flow of men, and was on the verge of smashing 10 Platoon."
Instead, the 24 men of 10 Platoon, along with the rest of 2PPCLI, dug in and held on, and by 6 a.m., the battle had begun to wane with the 5th U.S. Cavalry Regimental Combat Team forcing the Chinese back.
Broken and spent, the Chinese division withdrew from Kapyong. 2PPCLI, 3RAR, and the 72nd U.S. Tank Battalion were all awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation; the Patricias are the only Canadian regiment to hold this distinction.
Fog of War
Gray would go on to experience more of what war had to offer during the Korean War, but no episode as disturbing as what he discovered May 15, 1951. Gray, leading 12 Platoon, "D" Company, 2PPCLI — now with the British Commonwealth 28th Infantry Brigade — on a fighting patrol encountered 56 heavily - armed enemy soldiers in a broad, treeless valley in a hotly-contested region that had switched hands between the UN and the Chinese army.
The 56 Chinese soldiers "are all sitting on their haunches, torso bolt upright, uniformly at attention. It is as though they were seated in formation resting between photographic shoots," writes Gray.
"... I pause to examine both our flanks and rear for any sign of movement. None. We are strangely alone, exposed in the middle of a plain about a mile or more wide with 56 dead enemy soldiers, positioned like statues about five or six miles forward of our armoured support. Where is our living enemy? And how the hell did these men die? What and who snuffed out their lives, and why are they positioned here, appearing like chessmen? There was not a point of penetration on the enemy soldiers!"
"My thoughts are interrupted when one of my troops asks permission to accumulate souvenirs from the enemy, a not unusual request in action. I readily concur. The soldier immediately makes for the officer positioned at the head of the column on whose chest rests a pair of high-magnification binoculars. The soldier gives a tug, the glasses hold fast to the body."
"Determined to liberate his prize he pulls harder. The glasses finally break free, but adhered to them are first the officer's shirt, then his skin and then his ribs, leaving a gaping circular hole about 10 inches across. Our soldier falls back, engulfed by a black mass, which storms out of the body. Some of us laugh nervously as the vermin migrate to a newly found deliciously warm Canadian body. The mirth, which has broken the tension, is short lived as others retrieve photographs of loved ones, wives and children from the 56 statue-like corpses. Suddenly we are also reminded they were human beings who had a terrible injustice inflicted upon them."
Was this "unimaginable horror," as Gray referred to it, result of a biological or perhaps nuclear weapon?
The USAAF was constantly taking aerial photos of the battlefield. Was 12 Platoon sent into the valley as pawns to investigate the result? These questions still haunt Gray, and after an exhaustive hunt for answers, he is today no closer to understanding what he saw that day.
The Patricia’s official war diary contains no record; Gray’s report from that day has been lost or buried and no authority knows of or is willing to acknowledge this bizarre and frightening event.
"Why would an innocent government withhold such information 50 years on?" Gray asks. "The American chemical-biological warfare facility was near Seoul on a hill covered in razor wire that had three separate highly-guarded gates.
"In retrospect, I have often wondered if we were sacrificial lambs intentionally sent to ascertain if there were lingering contaminants."
While Gray may never have the answers he seeks to the mysterious death of the Chinese soldiers, his second quest, to see Lt. Mike Levy duly recognized for his role during the Battle of Kapyong was successful. Following the battle, PPCLI Lt.-Col. Jim Stone awarded the company commander with the Military Cross instead of Levy, a move Gray and many other Patricia’s felt was wrong.
It took Gray six years of research and interviews with 70 Kapyong veterans to uncover the truth and present a solid case arguing why Levy should have been recognized as the man who won the Battle of Kapyong.
In 2004, 52 years after the battle, then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson recognized Levy’s heroic contribution at Kapyong by awarding him with his own coat of arms emblazoned with the motto "I Have Prevailed."
Gray’s time in Korea ended In August 1951 at which point he was sent to Japan where he served with the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces Hospital in Kure. He remained in Kure with the 25 Canadian Reinforcement Group into September, rejoining the 2PPCLI at Currie Barracks in Calgary in November 1951.
Finally, in 1952, Gray realized his dream of becoming a paratrooper. He attended the Paratroop Course in Rivers, Manitoba and at Camp Borden, Ontario where he received a commission as captain. Gray resigned from the Canadian Army Active Force in May 1953. He remained with the militia, the Queen’s Own Rifles and the 48th Highlanders, before finally transferring to the supplementary reserve where he served until 1958.
Gray joined Richardson Securities of Canada in 1953 where he worked as an independent financial consultant until 1985. He retired in 1995 and in retirement he joined the PPCLI Regimental Heritage Committee and the PPCLI Association Finance Committee.
In 2003, he published his critically-acclaimed book Beyond the Danger Close: The Korean Experience Revealed, 2nd Battalion Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry where he shares in great depth his experience in Korea, including the Battle of Kapyong.
He and his wife Pamela have four sons and twelve grandchildren. Hub Gray past away in Nov 2018.