Return To Heartbreak RidgeReturn To Heartbreak Ridge is the story of a sons' search for his fathers' past, and a series of letters received from Korean War Veteran SFC Seymour "Hoppy" Harris, a gunner with Company H, 23d Infantry Regiment, 1951. It is a complex story of personal tragedy, the effects of war, and the meaning of hope when all is lost.
Warning: Strong language, pejorative terms, and honesty.
Chip-yong-ni - 13 February 1951
I'm in a machine gun bunker and it is cold. Brutally cold. It must be at least -10, but seems colder. There is not a cloud in the sky, and if you walk around the snow creaks under your feet. This is good, for if it creaks under our feet, it creaks under theirs.
By theirs, I mean the Chinese divisions around us. We are surrounded. I cannot get it through my head how we made it up the road without being clobbered. Our arrival had stunned and highly pissed everyone.
"If we're not supposed to be able to get out of here, how come you people got up here?" we are asked over and over.
My first night and I am feeling about as useful as a Bishops' balls. Everyone treats me like I'm some kind of disease. Sergeant Morris (my section leader), and Corporal O'Shell (my squad leader), seem to be the only ones who speak English. And the guy in my bunker with me, yeah, he can speak English. Loud and clear. I actually begin to believe he invented bitching.
I am the new boy on the block so I am thrown in with him. Jesus Christ, what a start! I am already fucked up like a Chinese Fire Drill and listening to this guys' constant bitching nearly drives me nuts. He doesn't want to be here. Everyone in the platoon is a mental case. He's cold. He's sick of eating C-rations. The Chinks are coming in here to murder us all. Truman is a bastard, and his administration is worse than that.
I am on watch, staring until my eyes burn. The mouth of the draw is about 50 yards away and has a barbed wire entanglement covering its mouth. It is so moonlit that I can see for over 1000 yards to the foot of a high hill known as Hill 397. If the Chinese come, this is supposed to be the most likely avenue of approach. I cannot but help wondering how anyone could be that stupid. To come down a draw, with no cover, not over 50 yards wide, and have to chogie over 1000 yards to get to us. To me it seems the most insane thing I'd ever heard of.
But O'Shell had said, "These are not ordinary people we are dealing with."
Our guns are set up, two heavy 30's and two light 30's, on an embankment 8 feet high overlooking the mouth of the draw. We are in heavily constructed bunkers that may even withstand a direct hit by a 120 or 122 mortar. They are about three feet deep with thick rice straw covering the bottoms.
The cold is the thing now, and it is the feet that suffer the most. We wear shoe-pacs, with two pair heavy duty work socks, two pair ski socks besides the felt liner that goes in the shoe-pac, and still the feet get so cold they ache. Only the brave or stupid have the nerve to remove their pacs to massage their feet.
The one thing we do have in abundant supply is canned heat. Upon arrival, our sleeping bags are taken and we are issued two blankets. Sleeping bags keep troops just too damn warm, and men go to sleep when they get warm. And men who go to sleep are liable to end up with a bayonet up their ass.
So now I sit to the front of our bunker with my back against the left front side, my two blankets covering me as best they can. My companion is snoring like a hog. He has a morbid fear of the gooks but here he is sleeping like a child when he knows we are surrounded by at several Chinese divisions who are liable to move in at anytime. He is in my judgment a "hurrah for me, fuck you" type. He knows very well that someone is awake so he just craps out. I will let him sleep until I can stay awake no longer, and then I will wake him. And make up my mind if he gives me any shit I will stomp his ass.
When my feet can stand the cold no longer, I place a can of heat between my feet. I try to make sure no light will show. I pull my head out from under the blankets and in a few minutes my feet start to get warm. One at a time I have to straighten out a cramped leg or shift my position on the hard ground.
Way off in the distance to our left front I hear a fire-fight break out. What sounds like a Quad 50 or maybe two of them are really cutting loose. The sky lights up like heat lightning as some sort of shells explode. Faintly I hear the sound of a bugle and what sounds like someone pounding on a washtub. Now and then I hear the sound of a whistle. I remember what I'd been taught in basic, that this was the way the gooks sometimes directed their men.
Every now and then I see a flare, a red one probably thrown by artillery. Each time I see a flare, the volume of fire increases. I cannot be sure, but it seems I hear the sound of tank motors. Then I hear what I believe to be the sound of a 70mm tank gun. To me it seems the tanks are moving, as the flashes keep moving slowly toward our front. Fact is, the whole fire-fight is moving. Red and green tracers arch into the sky like roman candles.
O'Shell pays us a visit and I ask him what and who in the hell is that over there having a scrap. "I don't know," he says. "Might be the 5th Cavalry, hear they're on our left somewhere."
We talk about and listen to the action, and Stu as he is called remarks, "I'll tell you one thing, that's no little probing attack. Somebody is tearing up ass over there."
"Somebody maybe trying to break us out of here? Somebody maybe coming in the back door?" I ask.
"Could be," O'Shell says, and I can see him grin. "You been in service before, huh, Harris?"
"Yeah," I answer, "in the Navy Seabees. Didn't see any action, but sure saw enough of the aftermath on Tannin and Okinawa to kind of give me a feeling for this shit." Shooting the Jap with his hands up crossed my mind, but I figured it would be better not to mention that. Maybe later, but not now.
"Now look, Harris, there is supposed to be one man awake in each position at all times, so you change off with old numb-nuts there," he says, pointing to my companion in the back of the bunker.
"If you're damn fool enough to pull more than your share, or all of it for that matter, he'll let you. Don't let the bastard make a sucker out of you. Make him pull his share."
"I will, I promise."
Off to our right a shell moans its way through the night sky and explodes against a distant mountain, briefly lighting the terrain.
"Uh. Now count your children, Uncle Joe," O'Shell mumbles.
"What the hell was that?" I ask Stu.
"Eight inch guns. How'd you like to be where those bastards hit?"
"No, but no thanks. They're coming from way to hell off, huh?"
It is about 2200 hours when we commence to get mortar fire in our area. It seems as if we are getting it from at least three directions. Northeast, north, and southeast. None of the stuff hits our bunkers, but close enough so the concussion is a bitch. Then I start to hear small arms fire crackling. I put out my canned heat and wake my companion. "You'd better get the hell up here," I tell him. "They're starting to throw shit into the game."
"You see anything?" he wants to know.
"No, but I'm hearing plenty," I tell him. "The shit's hitting the fan over on our right. Wonder who is over there?"
"I don't know, and I don't give a shit longs it's not me."
"Beautiful. You a bundle of fuckin' joy. How many fuckin' times I have to tell, you'd better get up?"
"Who the Christ are you....?"
"I'm the guy telling you you'd better get up. You think your better than me?"
"Oh shit, if you don't see nothin' what's the sense me getting up?"
"Stay the Christ there," I tell him. "Like the fellow said, I can handle this job all by myself.
"I didn't know if I could handle it at all, but figuring him to be a lost cause, I say the hell with him. Let him sleep if he can, and if the Chinks banzai us and we have to bug out, I'll haul ass and leave him. Christ, what a guy! I'd heard of guys like him but never thought I'd meet one.
I glance at the luminous dial of my watch. It is 2400 hours.
Off to the northern sector of our perimeter, mortar and artillery fire is pouring in. I remember someone saying that was Charlie Company area. For a few minutes the mortars and artillery cause the ground to shake as if by an earthquake. The does not bother me, but then I hear bugles and whistles, and hollering piercing the night, and I commence to feel very lonely.
The hill behind us partially blocks off the racket, but I can see tracers ricocheting through the sky by sticking my head out of the bunker.
I keep thinking that any moment I'll see Chinks coming over the hill from the rear.
"They're behind us," I say aloud. And believe it or not, the sound of my own voice is comforting.
"Hope the Christ they stay over there," says my companion, his voice muffled by his blankets.
Shortly after midnight the firefight eased off for awhile. But then in a short time it starts up again. Lasting only a few minutes this time, then all is quiet.
I can hear our artillery pouring out fire so fast it sounds like automatic weapons. "I'd hate to be on the receiving end of that shit," I think.
The French over to our right near the village of Masan keep cranking a fire siren and yelling and singing. They yell in French, but now and again a few English words can be heard. "Hey, come on and fight!"
I cannot help but envy the French. They came to Korea for one purpose. They do not ask why. The are one for all, all for one. I'm positive they do not have the likes of him cowering in the back of the bunker. If they did, they would probably cut his throat. I confess this thought occurred to me, but we are supposed to be civilized. The fact that he is leaving me to hold our
position is OK. The fact that he may affect our survival is OK. But we dare not harm him. No, that would not be civilized.
He is afraid to die. But aren't we all? But we face up to it. I marvel at him. How can he look people in the eyes when he knows they have no respect for him?
I may die in the next few minutes, but I will not crawl. I will die for what I believe in. I will not let someone else do my fighting and dying for me.
The night drags on and my eyelids become so heavy I cannot stay awake. I fight it as long as I can, then wake him. It is 0300 hours. "Come on up, you, take this lookout for awhile, I can't keep my eyes open for another second," I tell him.
He rants and raves, but gets up and takes over the lookout. I make myself comfortable as possible and close my burning eyes. I think, what if that asshole goes to sleep? I would not put it past him. He will probably wait until I am to sleep and then crap out.
"----, " I say softly.
"Yeah! Whatcha want now?"
"You go to sleep on me and I'll kill you. If you go to sleep on me, so help me Christ I'll kill you."
"Who the hells' gonna go to sleep? Christ, man!"
"I wouldn't put it passed you to, but you'd better believe it, if I catch you asleep. I'll put you to sleep for good!"
"Damn it! I'm not going to sleep. You as bad as the rest of the guys in this platoon, you're half nuts!"
"You'd better believe it, Pal, so stay the fuck awake!"
At 0500, he wakes me. "I can't stay awake," he says.
"For the love of Christ!" I say, staring at my watch. "You've been on lookout for two hours! You sleep all day, now you're telling me you can't do two hours watch?"
"I didn't sleep all day. I just catnapped. You can't sleep around here. Crazy bastards keep waking you up just to be damn smart. You wait till you're here awhile. You'll see. Bastards are crazy!"
"Crap the fuck out then!" I say angrily. "You goddamned crybaby! You squat to piss, you goddamn fairy!"
It is getting on toward first light and our area is still as a grave. I strain my ears for creaking of snow or any other sound that will warn me of approaching enemy. From the racket made by the French Battalion and the 1st Battalion to the north, they are going at it with the Chinese tooth and nail.
The artillery is pouring out fire so fast I wonder how their guns crews keep from falling from exhaustion. And I cannot help but wonder what sort of an ammo supply they must have to keep firing at that rate.
We get 120mm mortar fire in our area throughout the night. Some land so close dirt showers down and the concussion makes me fell like I want to vomit. Every time a round lands real close, my companion acts like he's trying to climb up his own ass.
"He is curled up in a ball like he's still in his old ladies twat," I think. I wonder if he thinks that will do any good if a round scores a direct hit on this bunker.
"Christ," I think, "if one of those big bastards hits this bunker, not even the lice will survive."
I can do nothing but sit and stare up the draw and wish I had the confidence Colonel Freeman had shown as he was making the rounds of the perimeter all by his lonesome.
Stu O'Shell had asked, "Well, what's the situation, Colonel?"
"Oh, the stupid bastards have got us surrounded, Stu. God I hope they try to come in here! We got their asses right where the hair is short. We'll bloody their noses but good!"
Now, if that is not confidence, I don't know what is. Chinese divisions surrounding a regiment, and we have them by the ass. Who's gonna bloody whose ass. Or was it just a soldiers' soldier instilling confidence in his men?
I had met Lieutenant Colonel Edwards upon first coming into the battalion area, and he seemed just as cock sure. His .45 hung low, nothing seemed to bother him. Close mortar rounds just caused him to frown and maybe say, "Here! Cut that out! Spread out men! One round will get you all!"
I had heard nothing but praise about Colonel Freeman, our regimental CO, and Lieutenant Colonel Edwards, our battalion CO, and at least I could be thankful we had them to lead us through this nightmare.
But I could not help but wonder how many birds we had in the outfit like the one I was in with. If we had many, I was convinced our ass was in a sling.
First light slowly brings dawn to the valley, and liaison planes start to appear overhead. Then sorties of jets and prop jobs. In the southwest, I can see smoke billowing up as napalm is dropped, and also hear the swoosh of rockets being poured into the Chinese. It is my guess that they had been a little too determined to pierce our defenses during the night, and now probably some were caught out in the open as daylight overtook them.
I can only hear high flying bombers. But distant explosions tell me that sticks of bombs are also plastering key positions.
The Chinese have hit us during the night in the north, northeast, south, and southeast, and have taken terrible losses. Only one breakthrough, but a counterattack was launched and the ground retaken. Some Chinese had managed to infiltrate the regimental perimeter, but these were quickly run down like rabbits and slaughtered to a man. Prisoners could be counted on one hand.
The Chinese seem to be contented to throw 60mm mortar rounds into the perimeter. Nerve racking harassing fire designed to restrict our movements and cause us a steady list of casualties.
During the night we had one man killed. He and another had asked permission to go back for carbine ammo, and had been told to stay in place. They went anyway, and it caused one man to be killed in a saddle behind us by an incoming 120mm mortar round. A piece of shrapnel enters the back of his head and comes out the right eye. Death is instantaneous.
The words of Colonel Edwards flash through my tired brain. "Do as your told and 90% of you will come out of this thing in one piece. Try it your way and you will die."
Through someone else's death, I have learned a lesson.
A few minutes later, I learn another lesson about death. And again someone dies for me to learn.
With daylight comes the snipers. If you keep moving, you will seldom be a target. The word comes that a hot breakfast is set up on the backslope. My companion is too chickenshit to move outside the confines of the bunker. Rather starve than face the danger outside.
A man in the bunker next to me decides he will go with me. I crawl from the bunker, and we start out. The guy suddenly realizes he has forgotten his canteen cup. The cup is handed to him from the bunker, and for some reason he stands and monkeys with the handle. I walk back toward him. Four feet from him, I hear a squeak, and something warm hits my face.
The guy hits the ground. With every pulsation of his heart, a stream of blood the size of a lead pencil spurts from a hole in his neck.
I cannot move. I am spell bound. I stand and stare down at the sight at my feet. Someone shouts. I run up the hill and down the other side. I am covered with blood and shaking like a leaf, my guts in a knot.
I cannot eat, but manage a hot cup of coffee. I feel ten years older.
During the day, we get airdrops, and every swing-dick is detailed to help gather in the much needed supplies. Choppers take out the wounded in a steady stream, while the artillery pours our a steady stream of high explosives, and planes of every description roar overhead.
I clean my carbine. Make sure I have enough ammo and grenades. Scrounge some extra C-rations and tallow candles which are handier than canned heat. And then at Sergeant Morris's advice, I take an afternoon siesta.
It is beginning to get dark when Stu wakes me. By the time I heat a can of beans and franks and make a cup of coffee, darkness covers the valley and we are in for a long night.
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