Return To Heartbreak Ridge
Return 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.
I am sending back the form you sent me and while I'm at it, I'd like to share with you, for what it's worth, my opinion of the battle for Heartbreak Ridge.
Here goes. As far as I'm concerned, the son-of-a-bitch who decided to fight for that worthless hunk of real estate should have been drawn and quartered. We fought a 30 day battle at a cost of thousands of casualties. God only knows how many of those killed were the work of a lunatic.
We were in reserve when we got the word to saddle up, we were going back on line. When I reported to 1st Lieutenant Riddle, whose unit 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'll straighten it out. Piece of cake."
But then he unfolded his map and I took a look. What I saw made my stomach tie in knots, and anger well up inside me.
I slowly looked up at him and said, "Piece of cake, my ass!"
He shrugged his shoulders, puckered up his mouth, and said, "Well, whatcha gonna do? We'll just have to hope for the best."
I didn't have a long time to go in Korea at that time, and I felt I wanted to walk off somewhere and puke, cry, or maybe just throw a temper tantrum. I'd been there since Chip-yong-ni and had seen a lot of hell. And now this.
"Jesus," I thought. "They've got my butt now!"
You could see from the map contour lines what we were getting into. We would be climbing a wall, while the enemy slopes were long and gradual. I said at the time they were probably dug in like moles, and later events proved me right. The damned place was perfect for defense. As we used to say, "They had us where the hair is short."
Heartbreak Ridge was worse than any place I'd ever seen, as it seemed there was nowhere you could get where you weren't subject to enemy fire of some sort. No matter where you were you could be shot. Be it a sniper, or self propelled artillery.
And mortars. Christ, they came in like hail stones at times, especially during the day. The saved their rockets for night. I remember 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 merciful Jesus I've had enough! Oh please God help me!"
I knew I was screaming these things, but I couldn't hear myself because of the noise. I'm clawing the bottom of my hole so hard, the next morning the skin was worn raw behind my fingernails, and sore for days.
That marked the first and only time I ever cracked under fire, and thank God no one was there to see me.
The next morning, a lot of us were still under a state of shock. When it wore off we said, "Piece of cake." That got to be a cliche in my section. "Piece of cake."
We are advancing up a ridgeline. It's just getting dark. Phil Ogan, one of my gunners, and I are shooting the breeze while the column has come to a halt. A tall rifleman is about six paces out in front of us and I notice him peering into a group of small pines slightly down grade and to our left. He peers, slowly raises his M-1 and then lowers the carbine, moving his head from side to side as if he sees something.
I look and see nothing. He's still looking when "Crack!" The kid drops the M-1 like it had suddenly become hot. And I see him flinch. He turns slowly around, holding his hands as if he still has the M-1 at high port, and stiff legged like a Zombie he walks back toward us.
Over and over he keeps saying, "Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!"
His eyes are set and on his face is a look of utter disbelief. We watch speechless as he advances toward us, falls over our heavy machine gun tripod, hits the ground like a falling fence post, quivering like he's cold.
We call, "Medic!"
By the time the medic gets there, the kid has stopped quivering. He is dead. The medic opens his field and fatigue jacket and exclaims, "Jesus, if that baby didn't get him right through the ticker, it came close to it!"
Oghan and I set up the heavy 30 machine gun, and cussing and screeching like I'd gone stark raving mad, pour a stream of fire into those pines until the gun runs dry. Oghan had to actually shake and shout at me to settle me down. For a few moments, I believe I was out of it. Gone bananas.
I tell you one thing for certain. We didn't get any more fire from those pines.
Here is something. We were changing positions one night with another platoon. Why? Who the hell knows. The brass asses say do it, you do it.
It is a moonlit night. So light you could have read a news-paper. We are about halfway down a ridgeline when I see a flash in the valley below and for a fraction of a second see the outline of a tank.
Wham! A 90mm round slams into our column.
I act by reflex and dive for a nearby foxhole. But I'm too slow. Two guys beat me to it, and I land on top of them. The hole is shallow and I might as well by lying on top of the ground.
Wham! In comes a second round. The two are only seconds apart.
Men are crying, cursing, screaming, and running in every direction. No one has to draw me a picture, I know what has happened. We are being murdered by our own freakin' men. I lay there expecting more of the same, but luckily it never comes. Someone has finally woken up.
I don't know how many we lost in killed and wounded that night, but it was plenty. The thing I remember best is walking by the guy who has his jewels taken out by a hunk of shrapnel, and his guts are down around his knees. The moonlight sparkles off them, and they are actually steaming a bit. Real pretty. Something to tell your grandchildren about, or when you look for sympathy in a VA hospital.
Oh, our beloved President Harry-ass Truman said we weren't fighting a war over there. Men die by the thousands, but if war is not declared and written down on a piece of paper, then you are not fighting a war.
"Can't you understand that over there, you illiterate bastards," he seemed to say. "Get off your asses and get to fighting. Stop your whining and we can get this thing over. You're nothing but a bunch of crybabies!
When we heard that kind of crap it really lit a flame inside us. We all wanted to run right over and win ourselves a Silver Star or a DSC. By God, we'll show 'em! Bullshit!"
That reminds me of the night we were part of a coordinated attack that was supposed to be a thing of beauty. A stroke of genius. Three platoons are involved.
It is almost dark as we move into position in a small stand of pines at the foot of a ridge that looked as if you'd have to be a fly to climb it.
The signal comes for us to jump off. And wouldn't you know it, we are not even clear of the woods and that well know stuff hits the fan.
The lieutenant tries to contact the other platoons to see what the hell has gone wrong, and par for the course, the radio can't get through. Something has gone very wrong.
All the while the gooks are pouring it on. They've got us where the hair is short. Rifle grenades and bullets plow into us worse that anything I'd seen. Men are screaming and running. It seemed like everyone had been hit. Tracers are coming and going. Explosions are continuous.
We were in a man-made hell, and darkness had fallen.
I'm lying on the ground behind one of my heavy 30's. A gook automatic rifleman is firing in burst. One burst gets the guy to my left about arms length away in the gut. He sticks his face right into mine and screams a long horrible scream that sounds as if it's coming from his bowels. His eyes bulge from his head like golf balls and I can see his second year molars for an instant, and then the blood gushes from his mouth and all over me.
The gunner apparently lifts his weapon a bit and squirts off another burst. The bullets go over me and hit a kid named Arriaga in the legs. Arriaga is one of my men. When the bullets plow into him he grabs me by the shoulder, but he manages to stifle a scream. He digs his fingernails into me with frightening force.
"My legs! My legs! Oh my God!"
Arriaga is a pro boxer, and believe it or not, the thought goes through my mind, "Well, there goes his boxing career!"
There we are, our lives hanging by a thread and I'm thinking about his boxing career. At that moment it was very doubtful if any of us were coming out of there alive. I remember I was trying to keep behind a pine tree about six inches thick. And wishing for all I'm worth I could crawl inside my helmet.
Heartbreak was not only the worst of the fighting I'd seen, but other things entered into the picture that made it a living hell.
Rations were difficult to get up to us, as was water. Both had to be dropped in by light observation planes from time to time.
I remember this one crazy joker who would circle way out, build up speed, and come tearing in, flip over slightly, and his helper would push out the duffle bag with small parachutes attached. As if this wasn't dangerous enough, he'd make a second pass and his helper would blaze away with what we believed to be a Thompson sub-machine gun at the gooks in the trenches below.
One day they must have attached a grenade to Christ knows how many sticks of TNT. When it came out of the plane it looked a foot thick. Holy shit, what an explosion.
It was one of the few times we found anything to laugh about up there.
I'd like to have met that pair. They were either nuts or two of the bravest jokers I've ever seen.
Of course, this method of supplying troops wasn't the best, so there were many days when we were lucky to get one meal a day. We were constantly hungry and thirsty.
And sleep. Hell, it was rare indeed when anyone got a full nights sleep. 100% alert night after night. Sleep came in the form of cat-naps during the day.
The 23rd Regiment finally captured Hill 931. We got a couple of days rest, then headed out for Hill 520.
During the fight for Hill 520, my heavy 30's are giving supporting fire for a squad or so of riflemen from G Company. My guns are running low on ammo. A stockpile of ammo is back on the ridge a hundred yards or so, and I send a couple of ammo bearers back to get some, and be quick about it.
We are getting mortar and rifle grenade fire, and I don't suppose the two kids I'd sent back are in any hurry to get back to the scene of the ball. I go back to hurry them up.
I find them, get them on the move, and head back myself. I'm about half way back walking along a path atop the ridge, and I look down to my left and see a face I do not recognize. I drop down to have a word with him. We introduce ourselves. He is a new lieutenant just in. He says he is looking for Lieutenant Riddle.
I tell him as soon as I catch my breath that I will take him to Riddle. Riddle is leading the assault on Hill 520. As we talk, a couple of jokers go chugging along the path carrying a .50 caliber machine gun.
"My," says the lieutenant, "that's a vicious looking weapon. What is it?"
I tell him and say, "Your not infantry, are you lieutenant?"
"No. I was in personnel back in the states. I guess I have a lot to learn, huh?"
"Yes, sir. But you'll learn." But I'm thinking, if you live long enough.
The next time I see the lieutenant, he is lying in a saddle between the knob we're firing from and Hill 520. The whole side of his head is gone.
We found what we used to call a "Buffalo" gun among the weapons we gathered up. It's my guess that was the weapon that did the job.
Do you know what my platoon leader did during the war? He was division band leader. He came in not knowing how to take a pistol or carbine apart, let alone a machine gun. He knew exactly nothing about soldiering as an infantryman. We pitched in and taught him everything we could and he turned out to be a hell of a good soldier, and was very popular with us all.
Well, back to Heartbreak.
I have written this masterpiece at random moments, and so hope you will forgive me for rambling.
I saw a lot on Heartbreak. A lot I wish I could forget. I saw brutality, sadism, cowardice, but most I guess I saw a human tragedy.
I will sign off now and wish you luck on your book. Tell it like it is and everyone who was up there will be eternally grateful to you. Too many stories have been written that glorify Heart-break Ridge. There was nothing glorious about it.
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