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.
Escape From Chaun-ni
It is 16 May, 1951. We are perched on a ridgeline running east, some several thousand yards from the main peak, Hill 1051. Hill 1051 was like the Empire State Building, tall and pointed. Our positions are on what is called the "No-Name Line".
Looming just to our west is Hill 863. It is a steep climb up to the summit but I wish I were up there instead of where we are. We have two heavy 30's in bunkered positions with ammo bearers in two man holes in between. Our positions tie in with a platoon from Easy Company in one man holes leading up to the top.
I am in charge of the most easterly gun covering a ridgeline leading up to us for some 800 yards. All day we sit and lookout across that valley and watch what we know damn well are enemy troops moving in on us. I have binoculars, but in this case they are not needed. Those people out there are Chinese and not some mysterious force referred to as Ivanhoe Security Force.
We have our company 81mm mortar platoon leader up on the ridge with us looking over the situation and he keeps telling us to hold our fire, it is Ivanhoe Security Force. When we try to find out who they are, first he tells us they are the Dutch. Then, when he finds we are not buying that, he says they are South Koreans.
Normally, the lieutenant was a good officer, from what we'd heard, but for some reason he was telling us what someone told him to tell us. I have no idea why.
When we first spot the lead elements, they are perhaps three miles away in moving vehicles and two columns of infantry. One column on each side of the road, close together and walking like they were loaded down with equipment. As they draw closer, we can see a good number carry burp guns and the rest bolt action rifles.
Some carried Buffalo guns, guns that can do heavy damage to a tank. Two men are needed to carry one of these weapons. Others are doubled up carrying barrels of 50 caliber machine guns.
As we see their numbers ever increasing and the kind of equipment they carry, our blood runs cold. But still we are told it is Ivanhoe Security Force. Don't fire.
The Chinese spread out and across the valley, mostly to the east. Some left the road and disappeared out of our sight.
Right there, unmolested by air or artillery, they go about digging in like woodchucks and all we can do is sit up there and watch.
We can't even get the lieutenant to lay in a few mortar concentrations. At least covering the ridgeline leading up to my gun positions. We can't even get that. Nothing to be concerned about, we are assured.
Those who have been around awhile know something is very wrong. Are the brass using the 23rd like bait in a trap?
It is a beautiful spring day, with temperatures in the 70's. The sky is high and blue, and there is not a plane in sight. If we did not know better, the war had maybe ended and someone had forgotten to tell the Chinese out there.
Later in the afternoon, we hear a sudden burst of fire atop Hill 863, and for a while it sounds as if they are going to it hot and heavy. We hear the chatter of our 1st section machine guns and the rip of burp guns. Now we know. The ball is open, and off and on it will continue all night.
On the ridge we defend, we get no probing attacks, but just after dark we start to get 120mm mortar fire. At first they really pour it on, and we gear ourselves for an attack. Everyone is awake and looking sharp. And scared shitless.
Several rounds land right on the ridge, but a good share go over our heads and back toward our battalion CP.
At one point the rounds are really whaling in and this replacement came running through the trench leading into our bunker. He is so scared, he forgets to sound off, and I draw down on him thinking he is a Chink. Nearly shot him.
A fraction worth more trigger squeeze and I'd have wasted him. He has another replacement with him, and I royally chew their asses out about running up on someone like that without sounding off.
I sort of apologized later on, realizing they were both new boys on the block. Being in an open hole with 120's coming in like hail wasn't the most pleasant experience, and I didn't blame them for wanting to be in a bunker with a stout roof over their head. What the kids didn't know was that a direct hit on a bunker could spell curtains.
When the barrage let up, I insisted they go back to their hole and look sharp. It was a hard thing to do.
Probing attacks were taking place up on 863, while we were getting only harassing fire.
We had sound-powered telephones between our gun positions and PRC-6 walkie talkies to communicate with Easy company and the battalion CP.
It is a moonlit night, and I am thankful. We can see over half way down the ridge. Sergeant Stewart O'Shell is concerned about the 3rd squad gun, so he has elected to go in with them. Their front is covered with trees and underbrush, and a poor place for an enemy attack to come. Easy cover and concealment for a sneak attack. If one were not sharp, Chinese could be onto them in a second.
Several times during the night I move out into the trench with my binoculars, and try to pick up movement in the valley. I can now and then hear what I believe to be truck motors. Once I think I hear a motorcycle. Probably a messenger.
Usually at night we would hear reconnaissance planes drone over, but tonight there are none. And no artillery or other air. A Chinese army has moved in on us unmolested. I had never seen or known anything like this to happen before, nor would I see it again.
To hell with it, I finally said to myself. Come tomorrow we will see what happens. It is my guess we are going to have a ball. If the Chinese dare to move in like they have in broad daylight, they will not hesitate to attack in broad daylight.
We are well dug in, have a good field of fire, and plenty of ammunition of every description. The only thing I wish for right now is water enough to make coffee.
The night has become deathly quite, even up on 1051. The Chinese have apparently found out what they wanted to know, and are getting ready for the big push.
Morning comes. Another beautiful day. A good day to fight.
Far out to our right flank, we can hear firing. The ROK's are out there, and that doesn't exactly put our minds at ease. We have little confidence in the ROK's. They have too much rabbit in them to suit us.
Someone comes down from 863 and says the 38th Infantry is catching hell on our left flank, and that makes us feel apprehensive. If the Chinese outflank us and cut off the main supply route, we are in deep trouble.
Not really knowing what was going on around us made for a very tense situation. For some reason, our normally good communications were very poor. For one thing, the Chinese kept harassing our radio operator by whistling and chattering whenever an operator tried to talk.
By early morning of the 17th, the ball was in full swing up around 863. Small arms, automatic fire, and the whine of grenades could be heard, and us guys down that damned ridge were about ready to have a nervous breakdown.
They were also getting some incoming mail in the form of big stuff. Self propelled and artillery fire was rocking them pretty good.
The fire would flare up, and they would go at it hammer and tong. Then it would die down, only to flare up again.
It's probably 1000 hours when we hear small arms to our rear. Nobody has to draw a picture. The enemy was behind us.
I am up to the 3rd squad gun, and I can see down into a valley where a small house sits with a rice paddy in front. I suggest to O'Shell that we lay in FPL on that house, and if we come under attack tonight, we can fire tracers into the thatched roof, set it afire, and give us some light to work by.
O'Shell says they have seen a man and a women around the place, and he hates to burn them out of house and home.
O'Shell moves on and I sit and shoot the breeze with Frank Martin, a born tactician who knows the gooks better than they know themselves. Martin is busy with beans and franks, and I am sitting behind his gun looking down at that house.
Suddenly, out of the shadows to the left walk three enemy soldiers. They walk with their rifles slung, an arrogance to their walk.
"What do we have here?" I say.
Quickly, I slide the bolt from the traversing mechanism, and Martins' second gunner flips up the sight. 800 yards. I cut loose, firing about 30 rounds.
The second gunner whales me on the back. "You got two! Get the other one!" I fired again, but he was gone.
Along in the afternoon the only planes I'd seen all day (I remember them as Mustangs) came in from the east, like they were coming in for a landing. In fact, it seemed as if they had their propellers feathered. Close together they came over our heads so low we could see the pilots. They appear hunched over their gunsights, and all I could think of was they had better get them- selves up or they're going to get nailed by ground fire.
Then I see a napalm bomb drop from each plane and before they even strike I start to cuss. Then the napalm hits and balls of fire spew up and there is a great cloud of black smoke that billows up. Men come running out of it. Some run down the steep slope beating at the flames licking at their clothing, others trying to pull off clothing as they run and stumble in panic toward us. Some hit the bottom of 863 and turned off to their left toward the battalion command post.
The words are "friendly fire." The napalm had hit Fox Company square.
The two planes circle around to the south as I recall, and we follow them until they are over to the east again, heading back for another run. This approach seems even slower than the first. As they come almost straight at us, for moments they look as if they are standing still.
I can't recall ever feeling as frustrated as I was that moment I jumped into the bunker, and readying the weapon to fire free-traverse, I am determined to have a go at those simple bastards. But it seems half a dozen guys are yelling at me at once, yelling a dozen different things at once.
"Those are our planes!" one guy yells, "Christ, Hoppy, those guys just made a mistake!"
I tear out of the bunker in a rage and see guys waving their field jackets and arms and yelling as if the pilots could hear them. Maybe they did, for the planes suddenly pulled up, gained speed, and again circled off to the south.
Everyone but me it seems is in a state of shock. I throw one of my temper tantrums and go completely out of it for a few moments. And it is an hour or better before I completely bring myself back to normal. It is one thing to see the enemy kill your people, but when flyboys butcher your fellow grunts, it is more than I can handle.
It's strange, but when the guys were running, falling, rolling down that hill, I don't recall any of them screaming, and some of them were burned pretty badly.
I remember walking to the base of the hill as they were bringing down the badly burned, and it was enough to make you puke. I stood wishing those flyboys were here to see what they had done.
It took me a long time to get over that incident. I really don't think I will ever completely get over it. To me, it was a stupid, careless, unforgivable incident.
During the day of the 17th, we got a little sniper fire, but it wasn't accurate. With snipers, you never get cocky. It's best to play it cool, and stay down.
The noise of action behind us continued off and on throughout the day, and we became increasingly concerned. Nobody would tell us anything. "Just stay loose."
O'Shell made a trip to the battalion CP, and came back with the astounding news that we were surrounded.
"No shit! You wouldn't shit us, would you Stu?"
Stu said something about them maybe trying to get the vehicles out come dark.
"Where the Christ is the Air Force, Stu. They've broken road blocks before, can't they break this one?"
"Hoppy, they don't believe the road is blocked yet."
"Don't worry, those people back at battalion know more than they're letting on. Just like always, keeping us grunts in the dark." "Speaking of the dark, tonight's the night, boys and girls. They'll probably come up that ridge at your guns, Hoppy, like a swarm of bees."
Darkness no more than settles over us again and the shit hits the fan up on 863 and beyond. Tracers arch through the sky and the Chinks are getting a real taste of 4.2 inch mortars. From our positions, it looks like a round going off one after the other. Some point detonated. Some are time fused, going off about 15 yards in the air and raining hot shrapnel.
On and on the battle raged. The Chinese must have paid a terrible price, but the fanatical bastards did not let casualties bother them. They just kept plodding through that raging inferno, some getting through to raise hell in our rear positions. The situation was as bad in the rear as on 863 and 1051.
Early on the morning of the 18th, we heard the damndest explosion we ever heard, and some thought the Bomb had been brought into play. The regimental ammo dump had gone up.
Unbeknownst to us, Fox and George Company had been ordered to withdraw to new positions. We were now under attack from all directions. The gooks had their road block, and it was obvious to us that our asses were about to run. "Over hill and dale," says Ogan. But we had orders to stay put.
Easy was to be the last company out. How George and Fox pulled back, I have no idea. They must have followed the ridge to their rear that led south into the valley. All I know is that they didn't come by us.
Right up to 1200 hours we heard hardly anything from 863 except short firefights that lasted only minutes.
All the while this was going on, we are watching the Chinese move in at the base of our own little ridge. As we sit there, Chinese soldiers come from behind a small building and run across a foot bridge. They are obviously coming from a draw that runs parallel to the ridge we are on. Once they cross the river, they are lost to our view. They move at a leisure pace toward a small stone wall. I count 50 crouching behind the wall.
Phil and I ached to hose down that wall with our heavy 30, but we knew it would be only wasting ammo. Even armor piercing won't penetrate rocks.
All at once Chinese start pouring over that wall and up at us in a swarm.
"Well," I said. "This is it, as they say in the movies!"
O'Shell had moved off and Phil Ogan, Wendall Daunis, and I make for the confines of the bunker.
A stand of trees is off to the right side of the ridge and about halfway up, and Stu decides we let them advance to the trees and hope they gather their forces.
They never get the chance. We wait until the Chinese going into the trees thin out and then we open up. Back and forth, up and down, we really pour it on. They go down like pins, running over each other, tripping and falling.
When Ogan lets up, I am jubilant and laugh like a damned idiot.
"You dusted a lot of them, Phil!" I yell and laugh. "Jesus Christ, we missed our calling, we should have trained as butchers." Wham! Before Phil can answer, 60mm mortars start to whale in from front, side, and rear. They have us zeroed in. We take it for a while, then it lets up.
No more do the Chinese take a powder than we get the word to saddle up, we are pulling out. To where? Just saddle up.
We are given the name of a rifleman from Easy Company who will be the last man in the column as they come down from 863. We are to tie in on him and follow the column out.
We take our heavy 30 out of action and I yell for my squad to saddle up on the double, and get ready to move out. No fire is coming in, and I mentally pat myself on the back. We have bloodied their noses but good.
It seems forever, but eventually a lieutenant reaches our position, leading the column on the lower side of the ridge in an effort to shield his movements from the Chinese. As the company moves toward us, it looks more like a platoon. They obviously have taken a beating. They look dog-tired, filthy, and walk with eyes staring but seeing nothing.
The last man comes into view, and without bothering to stand up, we wait for him. I have forgotten his name, but someone asks, "You the last man, buddy?"
"Yup! Fall in behind me and I'll lead you to paradise!"
"Jesus," I think. At least the little shit has managed to keep a sense of humor.
"Saddle up," I say, rising from the ground and brushing off my trousers.
"Gooks! Gooks! Jesus Christ! Gooks!" Someone yells.
My action is one of reflex. I whirl, whip my carbine from my shoulder, snap off the safety. In a second, I see at least two dozen Chinese
They stand and look at us, probably more surprised than we were. The Chinks stare at us as if to say, "Where did you come from?"
"Fire, goddamn it, fire!"
A half dozen grenades sailed through the air at once, and explode together. Then carbines, popping and ripping as our section wakes up to the peril that has come upon us so suddenly.
Most of the guys seek the safety of the backslope and keep heaving grenades. We carry six apiece. O'Shell and I are both yelling for our men to get up and fire. Slowly men rise to the occasion and soon they are kneeling, standing, and firing as if on a rifle range.
I do not remember being afraid or thinking about getting killed while that firefight was going on. I guess I was too busy to think about being afraid.
Ogan, God love him, gets our heavy 30 set up as does Martin, and now both of them are doing a workmanlike job. Phil is an old hand at it, and needs no help. He and Martin take an awful toll of enemy, but the thought passes through my mind that the barrel will not hold out.
The ridge clear to the trees is covered with Chinks all busy as bees popping away at us. Green tracers from a machine gun whipover our heads. Luckily the gunner is firing from way off and his aim is poor. As long as he doesn't come any closer, up his ass.
Chinks keep pouring out of the trees, and like men walking in a trance, advance toward us. Ogan and Martin take the groups or anyone with a burp gun, or any other type automatic weapon. They fire shorter bursts now, trying to prolong the life of the barrels.
As for myself, I wait until a Chink hits a certain spot 100 yards away, then I dump him. I kill more enemy that day than all the rest of my time in Korea.
Afraid to disengage, we were reluctant to try to move even one gun for the few minutes it would take to relocate.
When the ball had opened, the Easy company column had just kept moving, leaving us to face the music. They were ordered to move out, and that's what the shitasses were doing, but we would have appreciated a little help.
Out of the southwest comes an F-80 jet and he acts like he has his craft in Grandma. Low. Low. Maybe 500 feet.
"The damn fool," I think. " I could run faster than that."
He comes right over our heads, gives out with a few short bursts of machine gun fire, then it sounds like the engine quits like a blow torch going out. Banking to the northeast, he disappears from view. In a few seconds, we see black smoke billow up.
"Why didn't he bank south?" Someone yells. "Christ, why didn't he bank south?"
"Died a hero and nobody will ever know," I think.
Ogans' gun starts to go. His tracers do loops on the way out, which indicates his barrel has burned out. Next thing his rounds are falling only a few feet down the ridge. Stu tells him to take the gun out of action, and destroy the parts we can't take.
Martin, for reasons known only to himself, has moved his gun down into the bunker, and is still slowly working it, firing very short bursts well spaced in an obvious attempt to prolong the life of the weapon. But soon his weapon is so hot, it starts to fire one shot at a time.
The gun crew comes out of the bunker and Martin shrugs his shoulders.
"Have to let it cool awhile. Man, she's hot!"
He picks up a carbine from a replacement who won't need it anymore, and starts popping away standing upright, taking careful aim like he's deer hunting in Maine.
Once the machine guns are out of action, the gooks seem to realize it and come on even stronger, and shortly we are eyeball to eyeball.
We pull back over the backslope, and sparingly heave grenades, just enough to keep them from rolling over us with overwhelming numbers.
I run to Stu's side and yell, "Stu, goddamn man, we have to make a move! We got to get the hell out of here! What are we going to do?"
Stu shakes his head, but does not reply. I can tell the wheels are turning. He is trying to devise a plan for us to disengage and get out of that piece of hell.
I decide to try Martins' 30 if it's still there, maybe it will be cool enough to fire. I follow a short trench that leads to a side entrance to the bunker. A movement within the bunker brings me up short. I'm standing in bright sunlight, so the interior of the bunker is dark. I step back for a moment like a bird dog on point, then ease up again and shift my carbine to my left side. I peer inside.
An unusually large Chink lays on his stomach propped up on his elbows. He senses my presence rather than hears me, and when he turns to look at me I see his face is bloody and torn, probably from a grenade blast.
He weakly raises a bloody hand to me, and trying to smile, says, "OK GI, OK."
Our eyes meet for a few moments, and he keeps repeating, "OK, OK, OK."
Like a robot I ease my carbine into position and squeeze a burst and see the blood and brains splatter. The big Chink goes into convulsions like he's having a seizure.
I start to back out the way I'd come, and just then two Chinks approach the bunker crawling on hands and knees, grasp the front legs of the machine gun tripod, and attempt to pull it out of the bunker. The legs hang up as they try to pull it through the fire opening. They are obviously familiar with the weapon, for they begin to unclasp the legs.
I level my carbine and kill them both.
I gave it a few moments, then pussyfoot it back through the trench, but do not enter the bunker. Through the bunkers' gun opening I catch a glimpse of what I believe to be a Chink officer not more than 15 yards away. He wears dark rimmed glasses and has a swagger stick in his hand and a pistol in a holster on his right hip. I draw a quick bead and nail him. I'm sure he never knew what hit him. I put at least 3 slugs of a six round burst into his head.
I tear out of that trench like a scalded hound. Fear has tied my guts into knots and it is several moments before I am able to regain my composure. I sit on the dusty ground and fight to get my emotions under control. The tears want to flow.
I am afraid I am going to die, and I don't want to die.
I sit with my head hung, breathing hard and feeling like I want to vomit.
I slowly lift my head and see two replacements. They lay on their backs, arms outstretched.
I move up on the bunkers' slanted roof, and peer over. There are maybe a platoon of gooks standing, laying, and kneeling on the ridge, some so close I could have spit on the nearest one. I have one grenade left, flip it, and it lands where three are laying close together.
The grenade hits one in the back, and they all scramble, but standing up signs their death warrant.
I slide back down the bunker roof.
Stu O'Shell yells to me to get the hell off the bunker.
"They'll have a grenade up there with you!"
I scrambled off and ran over to Stu.
"I got some!" I said excitedly.
"Big fucking deal, your gonna get your ass killed if you ain't careful!"
"We're gonna die here any fuckin' way Stu, might as well take as many of these mothers with us as we can!" "Oh, cut that out! There got to be a way out of here!"
"What about sending the third squad down there?" I say, pointing down a ridgeline to our left. Before I can finish Stu put my idea into effect.
The only thing that bugs me is will they stop where they're supposed to, or will they keep on motoring. But I need not have worried. They go right where they are directed and start pumping lead to cover our withdrawal.
Never in my life have I been as happy to vacate a piece of real estate as I was that one. We pull back on a dead run to the third squad. Then they pull back while we cover them. This way we make it far enough down the ridge until we decide it is safe to just take off like a scared cat.
I'm doing great until I stumble and fall and roll ass over head, and bang my knee. By the time I pick myself up, the others are way the hell and gone ahead of me, going down the east side of the ridge. I mumble an obscenity to myself and cut off to the southwest, heading in the direction I believe the battalion CP to be located.
I eventually find myself on a narrow trail wide enough for one way traffic, but it appeared construction had suddenly stopped on it. It just came up from the main road and ended maybe halfway to the ridgeline. It is full of stone and clots of dirt which most likely came from artillery fire. It makes for difficult walking, but from somewhere above and behind, I hear a rifle crack, and a bullet snaps by my head so close it makes my ears ring like an anvil. It startles the crap out of me and I take off in high gear. I run until my lungs ache before I stop, and then my breathing comes in great gasps.
Gasping for breath, I walk along. Out of the clear blue sky, I start to sob.
"Where the fuck am I?"
I fight to bring my emotions under control. I've got to bring my emotions under control. I've got to keep my cool and be ready for anything. I'm not sure where I am. I bring my carbine to port arms and walk with my eyes darting every which way. I am determined not to be caught by surprise.
I start to hear the sound of motors which whine like tanks. And then the sound of people cowboying jeeps and other vehicles. Excitement and relief wells up inside me, but I still do not relax. I know from the gunfire I have been hearing there are enemy all over this stinking hole. I must not let my guard down for a mo- ment.
I see dust. From the time we left our positions until I arrived at the road where the battalion was a beehive of activity, it must have been over three hours. I was like a rag doll, I was so weak. I'm confused and just plain pissed off at everyone in sight. What the Christ is going on?
Nobody knows. Ask someone and they shake their head and look confused. By chance, I bump into Major Jensen, our battalion CO.
"Sir, do you know the situation I mean do you know we got a whole Chinese Army on our ass I just came down from up there on 863 and you can just see for miles Sir we fought the shit out of them up there Sir but we had to pull a Hank Snow and bugout there was just too damn many of them we oughta get the hell outa here before they crawl up our ass Sir I mean if they do we haven't got a prayer they've got us dead to rights...!
The Major, acting as cool as if there wasn't an enemy soldier for miles, looks at me carefully. "Just keep control of yourself. Let's see, soldier, what's your name?
"Harris, sir. Howe Company, machine guns."
"Well, Harris, try to find your outfit and get organized. Don't worry, we're going to get out of here."
"Yes, sir." Easy for you to say, you haven't seen what I've seen.
Little by little I meet up with others of my platoon, and I eventually run into Stu O'Shell.
"Where the hell did you get off to? We thought the Chinks latched onto your ass."
"No way. The way I cut out, they didn't waste but a few rounds on me. Shit, they knew I was a lost cause the way I was hauling ass. They couldn't have bagged me with a scatter gun. Hurt my knee, fell, and went ass over head."
"Well, get better in a hurry, 'cause once we get moving we're really going to bust our ass. Major Jensen says we take all our wounded, and you know what that means. All for one and one for all."
Stu points to a straw thatched gook farm house and says, "Your buddy Ogan is over there by that house, better get over there. He's about to a have a litter of pups, thinks the Chinks got your ass." I find Phil propped up against the house with several others from our platoon, and he starts right in with his usual badgering. "Why you homely bastard, where the hell you come from? I was hoping they got you right between your horns."
"One almost did. My ears are still ringing. Musta been a 51, Jesus, what a whack!" I explained how I'd fallen and busted hell out of my knee. Time I got myself together, I was all by my lonesome. When I sit down and expose my knee, it is skinned up to beat hell.
But Ogan allows he's sure I'll live and he will see I get a Purple Heart.
"Appreciate it. You are all heart. Now, you redheaded shitass, how are you going to get us out of this mess?" "Who says we're going to get out of here?
"Major Jensen says stay loose, we're going to make it out of here. I just talked to him. Me and him are close as brothers. He said to get your people organized, 'specially that freckle faced, snaggle toothed, redheaded Irishman from up in the North country who's about as bright as a dark night. If you can just get him to get hold of himself, I know the rest will be alright."
"Fuck him. I'll piss on both your graves!" "I believe that! The way you bugout no gook in Christs' creation going to bag your ass!"
In about an hour our whole p latoon, at least all that remains, is together and we take inventory to see how much machine gun ammo we have. About six boxes, but no weapons to use it in. The drivers have been using the truck mounted machine guns, and burned out their barrels. Nothing to do but let riflemen have the ammo as they are in extremely short supply. Soldiers scurry around trying to find clips to fill, and in only a few minutes, only empty boxes remain. Martin and three or four others never do show up, and we have to assume they are either dead or prisoners.
We assume right. A few days later we hear Martin and three others have been captured by the Chinese, but they are wounded. The Chinese give them safe conduct passes and eventually they are found by friendly forces. Martin has suffered a bullet wound in the knee and leaves Korea for good. We are all happy when we find out Martin is alive. Martin had been a good soldier, and deserved to make it out alive.
We are ordered to destroy our vehicles, as a tank has been knocked out and the road is now blocked. Some vehicles try to find routes out but it proves hopeless. They are destroyed in place. Puncture the gas tank, let it run, then find a way to touch it off. Grenade, tracer bullet, anything that doesn't require you to get too close.
For some reason I have long forgotten, I board a jeep and cross the river that runs parallel to the road. The river is only about a foot and a half deep, with a rocky bottom. There are four of us, two in the front seat, and myself and Kim, the Korean kid.
Why we pulled such a fool stunt, I don't know to this day. We barrel across the river, up a grassy hill about 100 feet high, and the driver suddenly stops. We sit there watching what is happening on the road. Something causes me to look up to the top of a hill to the northwest, and I see three Chinks lugging something. I put my glasses onto them and see they are setting up a 50 caliber machine gun.
I leap from the jeep.
"Chinks!" I yell, pointing up at them.
"Where?" is all the driver got a chance to say before they cut loose. Kim and I hit the deck by the jeeps' left rear wheel, and we huddled together for moral support. The 50's slam into the jeep and cause it to fairly jump from the ground. Dust, dirt, shit and corruption fly everywhere, as the rounds chew the jeep to bits. All I can thinks of is sooner or later they will hit the gas tank, and we will fry like pork chops. I want to move, but dare not. All I can do is lay there and pray.
They finally let up and I cannot believe I am still alive. All Kim muttered throughout the entire ordeal was "Jes Kris" and "son-o-blich." I turn my head to the left and see blood forming a puddle on the hard earth. I look up and see the driver still seated behind the wheel. His forehead is blown away and he has obviously been hit in the legs and God knows where else. I reach up and it seems I pull only lightly on him, and he falls out, one big gory mess. The other guy lays across the seat, and his head is completely gone. I can see his windpipe and it appears light red and big as a garden hose.
I peek over the jeep just in time to see a tank slam one round into the Chinks on the machine gun, and three bodies fly into the air.
I slap Kim on the back and motion him to follow me back down the hill. We cross the river, expecting at any moment to be taken under fire. We make it safely back to the road, where we huddle in a ditch gasping for breath. It had been a stupid move, and had cost the lives of two men. I remember at that moment and for a long time afterwards I had a very poor feeling about myself.
It is late in the afternoon before we start the long backbreaking, ballbusting trek out of the valley, which to us in the last three days had been the valley of death. We would have to lug our wounded out by hand.
The 2nd Battalion would lead out, and the 3rd Battalion was to cover our rear. Communications were dead, forcing the entire Regiment to stay close together. We were on our own again. As we struggle along taking turns carrying the litters, lone rounds of enemy artillery come down.
Even early in the evening visibility was poor. A low overcast settled in, and a misty rain was followed by a steady light downpour. The trail became extremely difficult. There were narrow streams to cross, and it took more than the usual four man litter teams to get a litter across.
Most men on the litters had full confidence their buddies would not let them down, but some constantly needed reassurance when they heard litter bearers complaining about what a tough time we were having. We had to reassure them that nobody was going to leave them behind.
"Just hang in there, buddy. We'll get you out of here, just take it easy."
Other wounded, with courage hard to believe, suggested they be left behind.
"Cut that shit! Here, have a smoke."
"Nobody is leaving nobody!"
Some litter cases were tough. The most awkward to carry were those who had an I.V. in them. The tube kept getting tangled in brush, pulling out, and had to be replaced in the dark. Men were holding the needles in their own arms.
There were some who died on the way out, and were taken off the litters and left along the way. When I saw this being done it had an adverse effect on me. I saw a lot of horror in Korea but the sight of a fellow soldier being left lying along the trail was almost more than I could handle. My mind would race with hateful thoughts, and to this day I still rage with anger.
At times, it became nearly impossible to see the man ahead of you, even an arms' length in front. More than once, the man in front of me stopped, and I plowed into him. Nerves were frayed, and time and again men had to be restrained from going to fist city over something that didn't amount to a tinkers' dam.
I remember the column halting once and we flopped down on the wet ground like we had but one gasp left in us. A kid next to me was shaking his head and gasping.
"I ain't going another freakin' inch, my legs are gone."
Tears were starting to flow, and I could see the kid needed help. Moral help. "To hell you ain't! What are you gonna do? Wait for Joe Chink to catch up with you?"
"I'm tired, goddamnit, I'm tired I tell you, I can't go on!" "Ain't no fuckin' word as can't," I patted him on the back.The column started to move out.
"Well, good luck to you, pal."
"Oh shit, maybe I can make it. I gotta try, you know?"
"Yeah, I know."
I wasn't so sure I was going to make it myself. My knee was swollen and I was limping. My back was bothering me, and the lunging litter was not helping. But we were walking in the shadow of death and when you do that, a little thing like a busted up knee and a screwed up back doesn't mean squat.
I don't know how I knew, but I sensed we were nearing the end. About an hour later, we enter a wide valley and we are among tanks and friendly troops. There would be no more small arms fire or artillery. No more holding up and laying silently along the trail like cornered animals. Everything seemed serene. There were ambulances and trucks to cart out the wounded, and plenty of medical people to look after the wounded.
My knee was burning and swollen, and my pants legs hung in threads. I looked like Pete the tramp. I was hungry and weak, but the main thing I needed was sleep. I was so tired I really believe I'd been walking in my sleep.
The word was passed back. "We're out of it."
There was no backslapping, no laughing, no dramatic statements, no handshaking. We just looked at each other, knowing well what the other was thinking.
It was good to be alive.
I was never the praying kind, but as I slumped against a building in the cold rain, I talked half aloud.
"Thank you, Lord."
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