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.
Warning: Strong language, pejorative terms, and honesty.
When Sleep Comes
Once you have seen combat, nothing will ever be the same for you again. You will walk in a world of your very own. If you are like me it will be a world of self-doubt. A world of guilt. A world filled with hate and changing moods for no rhyme or reason. It seems that no one understands you, and you really cannot expect them to understand, for you do not understand yourself.
I have talked with those who would have me believe that their past combat experiences do not bother them at all. To these people I can only say either you did not see what you claimed to have seen, or you were crazy to begin with. No one can go through the hell that is combat and come out unchanged
I cannot tell you what combat is like, no man can do that, although many have tried down through the ages. It is too horrible, too pathetic, to stupid for anyone to explain, or make out they can explain.
When I was in combat I was for the most part able to deal with it. I had my spell with temper tantrums, but it bothered me only during the day, not affecting my sleep in the least.
I was able to see men killed and kill men myself without much remorse. I accepted combat for what it was, a matter of surviving from one minute to the next. I did not try to be a hero, I only did what was expected of me to the best of my ability. I hoped I would survive until my time on line was finished and then I could go home with my head held high knowing I had been a man when it counted. I cannot say when I was in a firefight that I was afraid. Or going into one did I feel fear. It was after it was over that I shook so I could hardly talk, and it usually took several minutes for me to get back to normal.
I actually did things in combat I do not recall doing. I guess I was acting like a machine unconscious of the hell that was swirling around me. So why then after all these years do I continue to have nightmares that wake me screaming, sweating profusely and trembling as if with palsy?
The dreams are recurring dreams that do not vary in the least.
The decomposed bodies of the enemies I have killed come rising from their graves, and I rush madly about trying to push them back into their graves, but they will not stay there. They keep popping back as if trying to get at me, seeking revenge for my having sent them to an early grave. Some have parts of their faces missing, some with their entrails protruding, and some seem to have no wounds at all, but wander aimlessly as if confused. But I always feel the hate they have for me, and it fills me with terror.
I want to cry out, but when I open my mouth nothing comes out. I try to flee but everywhere I go they are there. I throw wild punches at these people but my punches are like nothing. Like those of a child.
Sometimes I have a weapon but it never seems to work. I fumble madly with it, trying to get it to function, but it never does.
Sometimes I walk endlessly over the Korean countryside, looking for someone, anyone, but there is never anyone there. I am all alone. I have my carbine in hand, a .45 on my right hip, canteen and bayonet dangle on my left.
In the hills I can see for miles but not a living soul is there insight. I know I have been on certain hills before, and can even stand and look into the foxhole where once there was a machine gun, and even the brass is still there, rusted and decayed. I see rusted C-ration cans and forlorn rotten bunkers that smell of mold and mildew. There was death in some of these bunkers. I can smell it. Feel it. Sense it. And when I get the nerve to enter these bunkers, I can never linger for very long. I have to get out fast or I feel I am in the presence of death. Once outside I feel somewhat better but always have the feeling someone is watching me. That although I cannot see anyone, I feel their presence. I long to communicate with them. I feel so terribly lonely.
I go from one hill to the next, down into draws, across saddles, trudge along dusty roads and cross muddy rivers. And all I ever see is that war has passed this way. The bombed-out burnt villages, the shell holes, the twisted remains of trees. And sometimes I can smell it. The white phosphorus, the cordite mixed with the putrid odor of decaying corpses.
But I never see these corpses. I just smell them, and it seem I can cut the smell with a knife.
Strangely, it is always hot. The heat is always nearly unbearable and I can see heat waves like I am looking across an ocean. I am always thirsty but I am never able to get my canteen from its pouch, no matter how hard I try.
A feeling of hunger, so severe I sometimes feel as if I cannot take another step unless I eat, comes over me. But I never have any rations. I continually pick among cans I see in ditches and strewn over the countryside, but they are always empty.
I have dreamed thousands of times that I was back in Korea, but I cannot find my unit. I cannot find my division let alone my platoon.
I amble aimlessly among other GI's but I am ashamed to let on I am lost from my unit. I look at the bumpers of vehicles and see the markings which tell me I am among men of the 1st Cavalry. When I force myself to ask where the 2nd Division is located, everyone laughs and snickers and looks at me as if I have taken leave of my senses. I get away from these men as fast as possible, and next thing I know I see vehicles of the 7th Division or the 24th, the 25th, or the 3rd Division. But I never find the 2nd Division.
Sometimes I try to act nonchalant as if I know perfectly well where I am, but I feel the eyes of men I pass boring into me as if to ask, "Who the hell are you?"
Usually I get up the courage to inquire where the machine gun platoon is located. I am directed to it but when I get there the platoon is not there and I am told it is somewhere else. I go there, and it is the same. The platoon is somewhere else. All the while everyone looks at me as if I were some sort of nut. I try my best to make out I do not notice.
Strangely, when I am having these dreams I do not recall ever seeing any officers. Only enlisted men, and they all seem to act as if they do not care if school keeps or not. They act indifferent and cold toward me like they know I do not belong with them. I go out of my way trying to be friendly, but it does not seem to help. I tire of this and decide I will follow the road north, and men I take to be engineers are usually working on the road. They stop to stare at me as I pass. I try smiling at them but they only stare back, long vacant stares.
If I do not wake up it will eventually dawn on me that the men surrounding me, all the men I have aimlessly wandered among, are not alive. They are all dead.
I am alive, wandering in the land of the dead.
When I realize this I always react the same way. First comes the almost uncontrollable urge to panic. To run. But I fight this urge and bring myself ramrod straight and march up the road as if on a parade ground. looking neither right or left I march northward and the only sound is that of my own boots striking the hard dusty road. Then I begin to hear firing in the distance and know now that I am marching into battle. Marching to meet death, the great equalizer. But instead of being sad, joy instead seems to serge through me and I quicken my pace.
I must hurry, hurry to die in battle. To die is what I want. Oh, the joy of it. No more struggle. No more apprehension. Soon it would all be over for me.
I hear the artillery rounds as they howl over my head, the different size rounds are different pitches, like a great organ. Though I cannot see the rounds as they hurry on to their targets, I look up into the sky and laugh and shout like a man possessed. I commence to jump up and down and whirl round and round like a child, and shout at the top of my lungs. In my twisted, crazed mind, I imagine myself dancing. Dancing to the tune of the organ of death, the artillery.
Soon I find myself near the impact area, and my fascination draws me ever closer as if I want to walk right into that terrible inferno. There is death within that hell but that is where I want to be.
The earth rocks and trembles under my feet and I can feel the heat and smell the sweet odor of burning flesh and to me it smells like honey.
Then I am conscious of men crouching in a long shallow trench and I realize they are waiting for the artillery to lift and the order to go forward. "But why do they crouch like that?" I think. "Why don't they get up and enjoy the show?"
I stand erect and watch until the fire subsides, and the men in the trench rise and slowly move forward.
The terrain is flat and we all move and fire our weapons into the dust and smoke and heat. I see nothing to fire at but methodically squeeze off round after round, as I seem to glide forward.
I start to pass over and around mangled corpses in ever increasing numbers, until it becomes nearly impossible to continue forward, for the corpses are so thick. Soon they form a carpet, a carpet of humanity. A carpet of once living, breathing souls. But now they resemble wax dummies, mangled and torn, and strewn over the field of battle.
Suddenly, forward of us comes the sound of a whistle, then the sound of bugles, hideous screams, and out of the dust and smoke comes waves of enemy soldiers, firing as they run forward. I am fascinated at the sight and watch them come. They dog trot like little clowns, firing their weapons at arms length. While I stand and watch, men around me pour out a wall of fire and soon the advancing enemy are going down in droves like grass before a sickle. Joy rises up in me as I watch the carnage and I cannot control myself. I raise my carbine in my left hand high above my head, tip my head back and let out a long scream. When I stop screaming I snap my head forward and I see a bullet coming directly at my head but I cannot move. The bullet strikes and I feel a jolt.
And then there is nothing. No sound, No motion. No nothing. I am but a thought.
"Where is my body?" I ask myself. "Am I just a memory? This isn't fair," I cry. "This isn't fair."
Slowly I become aware that I am awaking as if from a deep sleep, and I rise from the ground. I have no weapon, my canteen is light on my hip, and even my bayonet is missing. I start to walk. It is hot. The trees are all dead. It is like a moonlit night and as I walk slowly along I can hear dogs barking in the distance. A sound of someone moaning.
"Where is everyone?"
"How come I saw all those other guys, they were on earth and walking around as they did in life? How come I have to be alone and wandering in this semi-darkness. This isn't fair," I keep thinking.
After following paths that lead to nowhere for hours on end I finally become aware of a glow in the sky and head for it. It becomes brighter and brighter and I hurry anxious to see what it is.
I come to what appears like a huge blast furnace and getting close I see piles of corpses piled like logs in seemingly endless rows. Then I see a huge man stripped to the waist, a meat hook in each hand.
He walks to a pile, slams a meat hook into each ear of a corpse, and dragging it from the pile, swings it with ease into the furnace. I can hear them sizzle as the fire consumes.
I stand and stare.
If the huge muscular man notices me, he gives no indication.
I slip away from this awful place and find myself walking down a lane. On my right is a fence. To my left is a thickly wooded area.
As I walk I keep having the feeling someone is watching me, but I see no one. It seems darker now. The clouds are low and dark and the sky is light red. I look for the moon but there is none. Just a faint red sky behind slowly moving dark clouds.
Faintly through the trees I make out the outline of a clapboard, two story house. By its appearance it is vacant and something about it suggests evil. Suddenly from it comes horrible, piercing screams. At first I am tempted to go to the aid of whomever it is screaming, but fear overcomes me and I want to get away from that evil place as fast as I can. I break into a run until I stumble and fall to the ground gasping for breath.
Next I find myself in a beastly hot area with nothing but barren trees and loose dirt like that on a desert. I start to see people running crazily. Some are scantily clothed. Others are completely naked.
I attempt to ask these crazy people where I am but most just laugh hideous laughs and run on their way without answering.
Then I nearly bump into a withered hag who is stark naked and making no effort to cover her nakedness. She just stands there, grins, and stares at me. Her eyes bulge from her head as if ready to pop from their sockets. Her teeth are rotten and green. When she puts her face close to mine the breath smells.
I push her away and ask. "Where am I, old lady? How do I get out of here?"
The old lady laughs and screeches, jumps up and down while holding her hand over herself, her breasts bounce up and down like partially filled sugar bags.
With one hand she points at me, screeching and jumping up and down and says, "You are in Hell! You are in Hell!"
It comes as no surprise to me and I answer, "Well, that figures, but how do I get out of here?"
The old hag screeches and runs around in a tight circle and finally says, "You don't. You are here for all eternity! All eternity!"
"Get out of here you old hag!" I yell, kicking loose dirt at her. "Get out of here before I kick your ass!"
She runs off, laughing a heinous laugh. I sit down on the ground to ponder my fate.
"So this is Hell. Well," I wonder, "where is everybody. There must be a lot of bastards here I have always wanted to meet."
I rise from the ground and while dusting off the seat of my pants, I look to the uppermost branch of a dead tree and see a gigantic bird staring at me. He does not move. I wonder if he is alive, but then I see his huge eyes light up, his enormous wings come out, and he literally falls from the tree and is upon me before I can move. I thrash wildly about as I feel his knife-like claws gouge into my flesh. He gives off ear-splitting screeches and I feel his beak striking my head like a hammer. The beating of his wings kick up dust so thick I cannot get my breath.
At this point I awaken still screaming and thrashing. When I regain my composure I usually sit on the side of my bed, reluctant to go back to sleep.
This dream I have had hundreds of times. It varies not in the least.
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