The Hoppy Harris Letters
Originally, I was trying to
find out about my father. I wanted to know what made him tick. I had no idea that my search for my own roots would become so complex. I should have known.
Many veterans and their families contacted me.
Each day, the mail brought a new story, a new direction, a new awareness of the war. I was constantly told that no one had asked questions about Korea before me.
It was indeed "the forgotten war."
I received a letter in 1982 from Seymour "Hoppy" Harris, a machine gunner with Company H, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry, Second Indianhead Division.
The letter, postmarked Macedon, New York, was short and to the point. I didn't answer for several months. His return letter started a chain of events which drew me into the Korean War in a way I never
We were in reserve when we got the word to saddle up. We were going back on line. When I reported to the 1st Lieutenant I was to go up with as support weapons, I asked him,
'What's the deal, Lieutenant? How's it look?'"
"Nothing to it," he said. "Seems they got a bulge in the line, we will straighten it out. Piece of cake."
one night in particular they gave it to us with rockets and I lay in the bottom of a foxhole all by my lonesome and screamed.
'Oh God, Oh God, I've had enough! I've had enough! Oh God, I've had enough!
Oh merciful Jesus, I've had enough! I've had enough! Oh please help me, I've had enough!"
"The papers called it "Heartbreak Ridge."
Back home in Dallas, I stare at a stack of letters a half-foot thick on the desk in front of me, all hand-written letters from Hoppy Harris.
Some reach 40 pages. Long ago I discovered Harris had a
photographic memory frozen in Korea. Years ago, he sent me his Purple Heart. It was this same Purple Heart I left on Heartbreak Ridge.
Harris became a symbol of the Korean War to me. He joined the 23rd
Infantry for the first time at an obscure crossroads town called Chip-yong-ni on the morning of February 13, 1951.
Hoppy Harris, an untried replacement, was on one of two trucks full of supplies and
replacements. Unknown to Harris, the trucks would be the last vehicles into Chip-yong-ni before almost 4500 American, French and Korean soldiers of the 23rd Regimental Combat Team were surrounded by elements
of five Chinese divisions.
Harris wrote of his journey into war.
"We are the only trucks moving north. We also notice there are no units on either side of the road. It is as if we are the first men on the moon. I don't notice the cold so much. My eyes scan
the low hills to our right."
"We barrel-ass! We have to lay down and curl up in a ball, the wind hitting us is like a knife. We go like this for maybe three or four miles, then slow down and
finally come to a halt with the trucks' left wheel in a ditch."
"When I raise up to look around, there is a village or what is left of one, and GI's all over the place."
asks a passing soldier where the hell is this place?"
Exactly 38 years later to the hour, I was with Thomas M.
Ryan, Command Historian for the United States Eighth Army in South Korea, an archeology graduate from Southern Methodist University. We were on our way to Chip-yong-ni, 60 kilometers east of Seoul. We would
be looking for Hoppy Harris's position on the Fox Company perimeter.
Harris, in another letter, wrote of his first night of combat.
"I'm in a machine gun bunker and it is cold. Brutally cold. It must be below zero, 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."
"We are at the mouth of a draw, and barbed wire stretches across our front."
"Way off in the distance to
our left front I hear a fire-fight break out. The sky lights up like heat lightning as some sort of shells explode. Faintly I hear the sound of a bugle. Now and then I hear awhistle."
Ryan parked the car alongside a road. We grabbed our gear, including a metal detector. Harris had described a footpath leading to a saddle between two low hills.
Today, February 13, 1989, I was
following the same footpath in an area virtually unchanged. The saddle was clearly evident. I felt strongly that I had been here before. Harris had described the area exactly. We easily found Harris's
I had gone over the topographic maps and aerial photos a thousand times, but I was surprised how small the killing ground appeared. I found it remarkable how exposed the American positions were
Harris described his second night of combat.
"Night comes. I have not been in the unit but for a few hours, but somehow I feel a sense of urgency. I feel it. Something is going to happen."
"I admit I must have dozed, because
I recall snapping my head up and looking up the draw. I see the Chinese coming, but at first it doesn't register on me. I look away. I thought, God, they look like ghosts! The draw is full of them. They
are about 100 yards from the wire. They come silently, like little clowns. There is no chatter. The night is still as death. On and on they come."
"The first Chinese hit the wire. Sgt.
O'Shell fires, and it is like every weapon is wired together. They all go off at once. Tracers like laser beams streak out and I see them cut clean through the Chinese. I hear them scream, and they
go down like stalks of corn before a corn cutter. It is only seconds and the mortars start to rain in. Artillery follows, and the draw becomes an orange-grey hell. The noise is deafening. Beyond
description. I am frozen, spellbound by the sight and sound of it. Slowly the battle subsides, the Chinese pull back."
"I really have no idea how many we killed that night. I heard 500 or
more. All I know is that the draw was littered with dead as far as I could see."
Tom was busy with the metal detector, finding several .30 caliber bullet casings along with one live round. Pieces of shrapnel were everywhere in the ground just below the surface.
I walked a few feet
out into the open area where the Chinese hit the wire. I felt melancholy, and it was almost oppressive. Hundreds of men had died exactly where I stood now on the bank of a rice paddy, hit by grazing fire
from the machine guns.
Today, in 1989, I could hear the sound of children's voices in the distance.
Tom and I set off to scale the high ground on Hill 397 south of Harris's bunker. Climbing a
small path late in the afternoon, we pushed through brambles, fallen trees, and rocky outcrops. The path gave out, and we turned west just before the summit. On the ridgeline, we could see the entire
perimeter once held by the 23rd Infantry. The Chinese had complete observation of the area.
Darkness fell, and we were still high on the mountain. It was dangerous, for Chinese fighting holes and bunkers
covered the area.
Eventually, we were able to find a path, and dropped down into a small village. In the town of Chip-yong-ni, two very tired men stopped in a small coffee shop heated by a wood stove, at a
crossroads in Korea.
Ryan and I walked through the town at sunrise the next morning. School children filled the streets, making long shadows on the pavement. Thirty-eight years a go, on these very
streets, shells exploded in one of the most vicious battles of the Korean War, or any war for that matter.
The siege of Chip-yong-ni was broken on February 15, 1951, when tanks of the 5th Cavalry
Regiment approached from the southwest and entered the perimeter. Thousands of Chinese bodies littered the area around the small town. Ammunition was down to a handful of rounds for each soldier, and the
situation was beyond desperate.
The successful defense of Chip-yong-ni by combined United Nations forces under Colonel Paul Freeman broke the back of the massive Chinese winter offensive in that sector of
Harris Photo - U.S. Army 1950
Color Phoros By Hal Barker, Copyright 1989.