Sgt. Leo Major on Hill 355, 22 November 1951

Sgt. Leo Major on Hill 355, 22 November 1951

Annals of Canadian Combat: Leo Major and the Battle of Maryang-San

Leo Major, finding himself bored stiff with civilian life, accepted the nationwide recall request for experienced WWII veterans to fight in the Korean War

By Ferdy Belland

The last time we discussed Quebecois World War II hero Leo Major in these pages, he had already nailed his name into the annals of Canadian Military History by pulling off a long string of daring, outrageous, and life-threatening feats of courage under fire: surviving the D-Day assault on Juno Beach; capturing a German half-track carrying vital codebooks; capturing 93 German prisoners single-handedly during the Battle of the Scheldt; shrugging off grievous personal injuries (left eye lost to a white-phosphorus grenade, spine shattered in two places by an antitank mine, etc.) that would have crippled or killed the average soldier; and, to top it all off, winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for driving a 1,500-man German garrison from the Nazi-occupied Dutch city of Zwolle‚ alone. Literally: alone.

One would think that’d been enough excitement for one soldier for any war, but even as Leo Major settled into post-war Montreal as one of the city’s most colorful one-eyed heroes, little did he know that his warrior days weren’t over. A new war would soon call him back to battle — the Korean War.

When the Korean War erupted on 25 June 1950, a combined United Nations task force (under overall command of American general Douglas MacArthur) responded to drive the communist North Korean invaders from besieged democratic South Korea.

The Canadian government under then-Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent sanctioned the creation of the Canadian Army’s 25th Infantry Brigade, an overseas expeditionary force (27,000 men strong) which was to be the main combat unit assigned to the British Commonwealth troops operating in Korea.

Leo Major, finding himself bored stiff with civilian life, accepted the nationwide recall request for experienced WWII veterans.

In short order he found himself back in uniform, reinstated with his former wartime rank of Sergeant, and transferred to the Royal 22nd Regiment (known as the “Van Doos”), where he once again ignited his role as an elite sniper-scout.

The Korean War proved itself an exhausting, bitter, thankless affair, where the front lines swung back and forth up and down the length of the Korean Peninsula. Villages and cities were reduced to charred rubble, through subarctic winters and scorching-hot summers, with several million soldiers and civilians left dead in the chaotic wake.

By the end of 1951, the fighting had bogged down into a static line that weaved and wound its way through the mountains and valleys across the 38th Parallel, from coast to coast, which is where the fighting would smolder until the July 1953 Armistice — due, in great part, to the surprise intervention of million-man Chinese Communist (known in Allied military abbreviations as “ChiCom”) Army that swarmed south across the Yalu River when Mao Zedong decided the fighting was moving far too close to the borders of the recently-established People’s Republic.

Ruthless Chinese commanders ordered massive human-wave assaults against entrenched UN positions — sometimes outnumbering the UN troops 25 to one — despite suffering horrific casualty rates reminiscent of WWI battles like the Somme, or Passchendaele. The disciplined ChiCom troops — many of whom were hardened veterans of the recently-won Chinese Civil War, and the long, cruel Japanese War before it — were unhesitant in the face of shattering artillery strikes, napalm attacks, and machine-gun fire — and would overwhelm and erase their UN opponents through weight of numbers alone.

These were the new enemies now facing Leo Major, the Quebecois Rambo. Not that he was too bothered by them, as we will see.

Hill 355 (named for its height in Feet above Sea Level) squats astride the Imjin River, only 40km north of the South Korean capital of Seoul. It was nicknamed “Little Gibraltar” by the British Commonwealth troops operating in the area due to the hill’s prominent size and its many defensive positions. It was considered a highly valuable objective by both sides, being the highest ground overlooking frontline positions and supply lines for 30 km in any direction. On 22 November, 1951, elements of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPLCI) and the Van Doos moved into place along a seven km frontline paralleling Hill 355, which was already occupied by units of the US Army’s 24th Infantry Division.

Canadian troops near Hill 355

Canadian troops near Hill 355

Sgt. Leo Major and the other Van Doos had barely settled into place before nearby ChiCom artillery emplacements suddenly opened up on the UN positions. The intense bombardment lasted all through the night and into the following day. The Van Doos hunkered low in their trenches, fixed bayonets, and grimly waited through the deafening explosions and the rain of splattering mud and stones for the human-wave assault to come.

Which did come, on the afternoon of 23 November, to the terrifying tune of 40,000 screaming troops of the Chinese 64th Army, led by bugling vanguard troops waving huge Chinese flags. Despite the murderous crossfire laid down by the Van Doos’ determined machine gunners, and with British counter-battery artillery fire, the Chinese left hundreds of their dead (and several thousand wounded) as the rest of them charged howling up the slopes of Hill 355. The Canadians held their positions as the Americans were driven out of theirs, and the Van Doos considered themselves beyond lucky to have survived the initial attack with considerably low casualties, all things considered: 16 killed, 44 wounded, and three men missing (presumed captured).

The counter-attacking American forces were unable to dislodge the ChiComs from Hill 355, and, other un-killed elements of the Chinese 64th Army also captured the neighboring Hill 227 — which meant the Canadians now found themselves surrounded by hostiles holding the higher ground.

And that was enough for Leo Major, who had had quite enough of skulking in a foxhole, mud up to his knees, mourning his fallen friends. He wanted action and he wanted revenge, and he planned to bring the fight right back to the Chinese in spades.

As night fell on the evening of 23 November, Major assembled a hand-picked platoon of 18 glowering Van Doos who were just as eager for payback. They smeared their faces black with ash and charcoal and secured down their gear so it wouldn’t jingle or rustle or rattle. Major ordered these men to gather up Russian PPSh-41 submachine guns (known as the “Burp Gun” due to the sound made by its high rate of fire) and as much ammo as they could carry from the Chinese dead heaped and sprawled in the mud beyond their trenchworks. And then this small strike force cautiously emerged from their positions and silently crept their way to the Chinese lines.

Leo Major lead his 18 men carefully and quietly up the war-chewed slopes of Hill 355, creeping on their bellies, two or three men at a time, slowly sneaking past the alert sentries, the machine-gun nests, the artillery dugouts, the command bunkers, until by 1230hrs under a moonless night sky, the Canadian Commandos were smack-dab in the middle of the 64th Army’s newly won positions. The Canadians carefully arranged themselves into a rough circle, facing outward in all directions. And then, with a chopping motion of his hand, Leo Major signaled his men to open fire at will, weapons free.

The night burst into life with automatic weapons fire. The surprise attack by the Canadians dropped dozens of unsuspecting ChiCom troops in the first ten seconds of the overlapping chattering of the captured Burp Guns. The Chinese officers, caught completely unaware, were bewildered to be taking fire from deep within their own lines. Orders were yelled out over the screams of the dying and the wounded, and to confuse matters more — they were under attack by their own Burp Guns. In the dark, none of the ChiComs could tell the difference between the sound of Major’s weapons and their own. Which helped Major and his men greatly as the Chinese struggled to fight back, mistaking the gunfire from their neighboring ChiCom platoons as the UN attackers, and everybody ended up opening fire on each other. The Canadians whipped fragmentation grenades to and fro, accelerating the chaos, laying down short bursts and long bursts in the direction of the flickering muzzle-flashes which marked desperate enemy attempts at return fire, and (as he had done years before in Zwolle) Leo Major once again proved himself as the Canuck Master of Mayhem.

The units of the Chinese 64th Army on Hill 355 soon found themselves in full panic, with their commanding officers assuming the UN enemies were counterattacking in force. A retreat was ordered, and thousands of troops abandoned their positions and scurried down the slopes of Hill 355, harried all the way by Leo Major and his Night Prowlers.

The fleeing Chinese troops also took vengeful machine-gun fire along their flanks from the Canadian units who watched Major’s fiery madness erupt from their original positions at the hill’s bottom.

Leo Major portrait by Vorace

Leo Major portrait by Vorace

There was little time for the Canadians to rejoice in their victory on Little Gibraltar. The 64th Army was commanded by the formidable General Chen Zhengxiang, who was beyond livid that his erstwhile veteran warriors had been swiftly routed by what incoming intelligence reported as less than 20 enemy troops. Six high-ranking ChiCom officers involved in abandoning Hill 355 were summarily executed on the spot for cowardice, and Zhengxiang ordered an immediate counterattack by the 190th and 191st Divisions (14,000 men) to sweep aside the infuriating Canadian presence on Hill 355 (18 men).

With Chinese troops swarming their way once more up the slopes of Hill 355, the Van Doos’ commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel V.A. Dextraze barked at Major over the radio for he and his men to abandon their position immediately and make their way back to the safety of the Canadian lines. Major respectfully refused the order. This came as no surprise to Dextraze, who was well aware of Major’s WWII mannerisms; he wished Major Godspeed and signed off. Major then ordered his Night Prowlers to find what cover they could before keying in his radio to the nearby UN counter-batteries — ordering the artillery officers to drop their ordnance on his own coordinates.

Leo Major directed the artillery fire all throughout the night until dawn broke, with whistling 105mm and 155mm high-explosive shells oftentimes bursting on the hillside less than 40 feet from the foxhole he crouched in. The ChiCom forces took ghastly casualties but continued to struggle up the burning slopes, trying to reach the Canadians.

Major grimly held his ground, directing the towering fiery explosions to walk back and forth and up and down Little Gibraltar — and picking off stray Chinese soldiers who made it through the barrage and attempted to charge his foxhole.

Encouraged by this beyond-berserk display of Canuck bravery under fire, the battered US Army 24th Infantry Division regrouped from their fallback positions and drove a powerful counterattack into the flanks of the 190th and 191st ChiCom Divisions, and the Chinese were finally driven off Hill 355 by 25 November.

For his above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty conduct during this action (which became known as the Battle of Maryang-San), Sergeant Leo Major was awarded his second Distinguished Conduct Medal, alongside the first one he had already won during the Battle of Zwolle. And for all the amazing action recounted here, it’s difficult to understand why modern historians would ever declare the Korean War as the “Forgotten War.”

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