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.
On 7 March 1951, we were on what was known as the Arizona Line. We moved out to assault a hill mass a mile or so west of the town of Sanggung-ni. Artillery fire rolled over our heads as we assaulted one hill after another. Take one hill only to find the enemy chugging up the next. The weather was still against us, and the rations were still in very short supply. Enemy booby traps and mines were slowing us down and inflicting a steady stream of casualties.
One day we were pinned down in a ditch. One guy, wanting a million dollar wound, sticks up his leg and shouts, "Put her there, you son-of-a-bitch! Put her there!"
The gooks accommodated him by putting a bullet in his shin that badly shattered the bone. The wound took him out of combat and we never saw him again.
On about 11 March, the enemy began to really bugout with us in hot pursuit. They were heading for the village of Yudong-ni and plans were laid for us to assault them with a combined armor and infantry assault.
The next day, we move up. It is a long tiresome march with mud sucking at our boots. When you do hit a spot where the road is hard, it's so slippery you cannot get good footing.
We do not get rations before we move out, and I am beginning to feel weak from hunger. Whoever said an army travels on its stomach is a damned liar. An army travels on its guts. And you better believe it.
Our machine gun section (2nd) is with G Company. We hold up on the road just before it enters a valley. We drop our bed rolls, check our weapons, take a piss, and say our prayers if we have any, and get ready to die. Maybe.
Two tanks roar by and enter the valley, followed by a Quad .50. No sooner are they in position then they start to receive fire. Small arms and 60mm mortars rain in and the tanks answer with 70mm fire and their machine guns. The quad lets go and we actually believe it will suck the hill dry of all life. But this is just wishful thinking.
The gooks are firing from a bunkered trench that runs nearly the length of the hill. There was a huge bunker with only a small foot sized opening for a machine gun to fire. A round of 70mm high explosive eliminates that bunker.
That leaves a bunker on each end of the trench. The openings are so small a man could hardly stick his fist through. They are so small even the tanks with sights cannot see the firing slits.
Two squads move out from the assault platoon and run for cover behind the tanks and quad.
Stu suddenly strides up the road and yells, "Alright, Howe Company, saddle up, we move up with the riflemen.
I hear a lot of bitching, not knowing that it marks the first time this was done. Martell, Gray, and Corporal Ambrose turn the air blue, but we move out like lambs to the slaughter.
The tanks and quad have moved nearly 200 yards out, about half the distance to our objective, taking shelter along the far bank of a small creek. Two more rifle squads move out with us and fan out to form a single line. Snap shooting, they move slowly across the valley. We do the same. I start to run, but am so weak from the long march, and loaded with equipment, I cannot muster more than a dog trot. I say to hell with it, and just walk.
Bullets snap like whips. The air is full of them. 60mm mortars now come in like hail, and the call for medic can be heard all over the place. I walk by one guy who had been badly torn by shrapnel. His clothing is in threads, and he is bloody from head to foot. He looks up at me with an embarrassed look on his face. I kneel down beside him and say, "Take it easy, pal. Just lay down and try to be calm."
"Oh, man, am I hurting," he says, shaking his head. "I hope another round doesn't land in here."
"Well, I have to be going," I say. "See you around, and good luck."
The guy pats me on the leg as I stand to move forward.
"Hey, good luck to you, man," he says through clenched teeth.
The rest did me good, and now I move forward as mortars and bullets continue to come in at a frightful rate. I am used to the bullets now, and take what is going on around me like I'm at a carnival.
I see men sink to the ground in slow motion, and men blown into the air by exploding mortar rounds. I see Martin to my left and 40 yards to my front. He's walking like he's hiking back in Maine. He even stops to light his pipe. Takes the pipe from his mouth, wipes his nose on the sleeve of his parka, and slowly ambles on. There's Stu over to my far left. He stands erect, aims toward the top of the hill, and squeezes off a round from his M-1. I look to see where his round strikes, but so many rounds are hitting the hill, I cannot tell.
"Oh! Look there!" I say to no one in particular. "There, three gooks running into that house." That's a silly place to take cover, I think. A tank will blow that shack to smithereens.
No sooner are the words out of my mind, then a 70mm round goes right in the door and blows the roof right off that little dump.
Well, I think, some poor bastard just lost his happy home. The Quad .50 cuts loose at the other houses and buildings, and soon have them all ablaze.
I'd give anything for a Kool now, but for some reason I hate to stop and light one.
The tanks have stopped firing and sit there like big toads. The tank commanders are standing upright in the turrets, scanning the objective with their binoculars.
I see Frank Harris coming toward me, using his M-1 as a cane. His pant legs are blood soaked, and he is obviously hurting. "Hi, Frank," I say. "How are things up there?"
"Rougher that a cobb," he answers. "Hoppy, they shot me all to hell," he says, putting his hand on my shoulder.
"I see they did," I say, looking down at his legs. "Can you make it alright," I ask. "If you can't, I'll help you."
"No, no, that's alright, I'll be seeing you, Hoppy. You all take it easy, you hear?"
"Sure, Frank," I say. "And if you make it to Japan or stateside, drop me a line."
"Sure thing."I reach the bottom of the hill, and turn and look back. The real estate is littered with bodies, some of them still smoking. I can tell which are dead and which are alive. The live ones maintain a certain amount of composure. The dead are molded to the ground. Huh, we sure got our noses bloodied here to- day, I think. Goddamned shame. All these kids. All a lot of goddamned nonsense. There is a lot of sadness lying out there, a lot of tears. A lot of doorbells to be rung. Goddamned shame is all I can say.
I turn to look up the hill and see our two heavy 30's blazing away, and see the trench with heads sticking out. I know they are firing as I see the blue smoke drifting back over me. I see mortar rounds explode up there, and am reluctant to climb up to join them. I eventually say to hell with it, and start slowly up the 200 feet to the top.
I reach the top. Corporal Ambrose is directing fire. The trench is about three feet deep, and I jump in and say, "Hi, Pappy, how's it going?"
Pappy takes a good look at me as if to see if I am in one piece. He points over to the left and says, "OK, Hoppy, there's your squad over there, what's left of it."
I give him a sloppy salute and say, "Thanks, Pappy, see you later."
I follow the trench along the top of the hill. Just as I approach a gun busily firing away at the retreating enemy, I see Stu look up, and he starts to say something. A mortar round lands behind me so close the blast nearly knocks me into the trench. Stu ducks down, and comes back up grimacing and says, "Jesus Christ, are you hit? That bastard landed right there behind you!"
"Nope, are you?"
Stu pulls me down with him and says, "Get your ammo off and go down to one of those tanks and see if you can bum us some ammo."
"Gladly. It's none too healthy up here anyway. Somebody ought to do something about those mortars. They got a lot of guys today."
I take off down the right side of the hill past the burning house, follow a path that leads around the base of another hill, then cut left toward the nearest tank. The tank's motor is running, making so much noise that I just point at the 30 caliber ammo and hold up two fingers. A 2nd Lieutenant shakes his head yes, holds up four fingers, and forms the words with his lips, "That's all!"
I give him the OK sign, making a circle with my thumb and index finger for the word "thanks." He winks at me and I take off, deliver the two boxes, and make the return trip for the other two boxes.
When I return to the gun, they have just stopped firing, and I ask where everybody's gone.
"Ogan, Gray, and Sergeant Moore all got hit. Marshall too."
"We're about half there, that ain't bad," I say. "I saw Martin a while ago. He seemed alright."
"He'll always be alright, that one," said Ambrose.
"Christ, yeah," I said. "When the shit's hittin' the fan, I mean really hittin' it, I saw Martin stop and light his pipe like an old farmer out in the middle of a field."
"Look at that cow down there," I say, pointing to a cow standing with its head bowed, a small flame still flickering on the inside of its upper right leg. "Think I'll go down and kill her."
I walk off down the hill across the valley, and walked up to the cow. She was softly mooing. I placed my carbine between her eyes
and squeezed off a round. She flops over on her side and kicks a few times, and she is gone.
On my way back to our positions, I pass a dead gook that someone has rolled down the hill. I stand and stare down at him, hate boiling up inside me. I place the barrel of the weapon into the gooks face, and on full automatic blow his face to hamburger.
"You son-of-a-bitch, you and the rest of your kind were to blame for that. That poor cow had more right to live than you did, you yellow bastard! I wish you were alive, I'd kill you again."
I hear a voice.
"Whatcha doin' buddy, shooting da dead gook?"
"Just this one over here," I answer. "Did you ever see that cow over there? She was set afire with white phosphorus. She never did anything to anybody. Cows never bother anybody. Then this son-of-a-bitch and his kind come around here and make life miserable for everything and everybody."
"Yeah, dats right," says the little guy. He shifts a stoggy around in his mouth, puffs on it for a time or two, but it has gone out.
Removing it from his mouth, he says, "I see'd ya shoot dat cow dar. Said to myself, dat old boys a farmah. Likes dem cows. Yah a farmah, ain't cha?"
"Yeah," I say, "I worked on farms about all my life. Animals are good, you know that. They are better than people. You be good to them, they'll be good to you. All they want is to be left alone. Lay in the shade and chew their cud. Is that asking too much?"
"Naw, and dats all I ever wanted waster be lef alone. I didn't wanta do shit like dis. Didja wanna do shit like dis?
"No," I said. "I never did."
I stood and kicked it around with the little guy for a few minutes, and was sorry when I had to leave him. As I walked away, I said a silent prayer that he would make it out of this hellhole. He was a nice little guy.
I no more get back to the hill, set down for a Kool and rest, and Stu wants me to go down to another tank and see about more ammo. "Come on, Hoppy," he says.
"Jesus Christ, I'm a popular sonofabitch around here! Can't anybody else move? No mortars coming in up here like they are down there, so you want me down there. When I get down there, and the mortars start whaling in up here, you'll want me up here."
"Ah, that's just harassing fire they're flipping in down there. No sweat. Get off your ass and let's take a walk."
"Ah, mumble mumble mumble jumble jumble jumble," I say, struggling to my feet. "How the Christ did I ever get in this mess?" Stu and I take our time, and walk down the hill and out across the valley. Now and then a 60mm mortar purrs in, but it's not too close to pay attention.
As we walk along on a rice paddy dike, Stu says out of the clear, "You know, Hoppy, if you go out of here with anything less than SFC, you ought to have your ass kicked."
"Bullshit," I scoff, "I ain't even PFC yet."
"You will be, I've already put you in. Won't be long before you'll be on the gun. First gunner, and that calls for a corporal."
"I'll be satisfied with corporal. To get on the gun is all I want. What is it I've heard you say? Aim low. Break bones, spill guts?"
"Your going to be a good man once you get a little more experience. They won't let you go to seed on the gun. You'll have a squad, and next thing you know, a section."
"I don't want to play nurse maid to a bunch of candy asses. I don't like responsibility. Just that gun, so I can tear up some asses."
"You'll get to tear up some, but not for long. Good men are hard to come by over here, and you've made a good showing from day one. You've taken to this shit like a duck to water."
"I'll be OK if one of those mortars doesn't send me to the happy hunting ground. Boy! They're a bitch, ain't they?"
"Sure as hell are."
We came to a row of KIA's lined up along a rice paddy dike.
"Damn," I say. "I get 14. What do you get Stu?"
"I get 14, and do you know who that one there is?"
I take a long look at the one he points to, and it hits me. "Doc Roberts!" I say. "Jesus Christ, ain't that hell?
Doc Roberts. I hadn't known him all that well, but he seemed a nice enough sort. Always talking about the broads. Used to irritate some guys, but he never bothered me. Guys' got to have something to hold onto. With Doc, it was broads.
"We got the shit kicked out of us today. I wish Truman was here today to see this slaughterhouse."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," answers Stu, slowly shaking his head from side to side. "Police Action. They're not going to admit they're wrong. You kidding?"
Two jets startle us out of our wits as they come from out of nowhere to massage a hill F Company is attacking. They strafe, rocket, drop napalm, and really raise hell in general. The fly boys always do a super job, but this time they act like they're trying to fly into the bunkers with those people.
They are barely out of the area when 105's rain in like a whole artillery battalion is cutting loose. Once again, Stu says, "Count you children, Uncle Joe."
The artillery lets up, and we hear the crackle of small arms as a firefight erupts. "Go Fox Company, go," I say. "Whip their ass."
We have named our little battlefield "Death Valley."
Wonder of wonders, we get rations up. The powers to be have seen fit to feed us. I find myself wishing some politicians were here to sit down in the mud and eat with us.
Martin decides to heat his can of lima beans over the flames from the timber of a burning house. He stands holding the can over the flame, staring out across the valley like he is daydreaming. A 60mm mortar round comes in and lands squarely in the burning embers. Martin never notices. Someone else does, and hits him with a flying tackle. The round cooks off in seconds, and sends burning embers and timbers all over the place. The incident disturbs Martin not in the least. He is more concerned with losing his lima beans.
News of a rotation plan was in the works, and served to boost our morale a bit, but we had learned long ago not to count on the military for anything. When we saw people leaving on rotation, we would believe.
On 13 March, our regiment is relieved, and we move back to set up blocking positions near Saemal.
Back through mud and water, shit and corruption we move. Mines and booby traps are hell, and casualties take their toll. The roads are clogged with vehicles that have struck mines. A road is cleared, but during the night the enemy infiltrates to lay new mines.
We have a rest from attack, but we are still the object of enemy mortars. In fixed positions, we have more time to think about how hungry we have become. There is no doubt that getting supplies up to our positions is difficult. We keep getting more ammo, but few rations. Men become so weak from hunger they will not move unless it is absolutely necessary.
I think the whole rotten mess that was Operation Killer and Ripper was best described by one guy who was standing on the skyline. Someone told him he'd better watch it or a sniper would nail him.
He said, "Fuck it, you know? I'd rather damn sight be shot than starve to fuckin' death!"
We were in a valley one day, just three of us. A tank crew member was squatting in the turret, eating what appeared to be a can of peaches. He smacked his lips and kept taunting us so I finally said, "You know, don't you, they got more rations inside that tank. If we work it right, we can be up on that tank before he knows what's happening."
The guys were chickenshit, and I couldn't talk them into it before the guy in the turret got wise and buttoned up. I walked around to the front of the tank, picking up a handful of mud as I went. When I got to the slit the driver looks through, I flung the whole works inside.
We walked a distance. When we looked back, I believe an officer was standing up in the turret. I gave him the finger, and he put his glasses on me. I grabbed my works and gestured at him.
"Jesus, Hoppy, you better be careful. He'll remember you and blow your ass in."
"Horseshit," I answer. "Next time he seesme, I'll probably be shit, shaved, showered, and shampooed, and he won't recognize me from a barrel of assholes."
Operation Ripper ended on 28 March, and I guess the Eighth Army considered it a success. We had gained 30 miles, and that is what counts, how much real estate you take.
Company H lost 30 men on the attack on 13 March, and Fox and Easy probably lost more. The whole operation had cost us dearly, but we were described as battle-wise and victorious. I don't know if we were victorious or not, but I know I was learning the ropes. As Col. Edwards had advised us, I had paid attention to the people who had learned the ropes ahead of me. I had learned by the mistakes of others who had been killed or wounded.
In short, I am building a library of knowledge that I hope will bring myself and others through this godforsaken hell hole.
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