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.
North From Pusan
After going through the hassle at Pusan, which seemed a mass confusion, I was assigned to the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army Second Indianhead Division.
A hospital returnee from the 7th Division, upon hearing where I have been assigned, let out a sigh and said, "Oh, boy! They're on line. I guess if you are looking for a fight, you picked the right outfit."
"Is the 2d Division a good outfit?" I ask.
"Yeah, it's a good division," he assured me, "but they sure have caught their share of hell."
We rode a train from Pusan to division rear at Chipo-ri. It was a narrow gauge road and the engine looked similar to what we used to call a switch engine back home. I really believe I could have run faster than that engine went wide open. The car we rode in was filthy. Everything you touched was covered with soot. It got in your eyes, and in the C-rations we heated on an old stove. The stove reminded me of the Round Oak we had at home when I was a kid. The type that could be used for cooking and heating. A big pile of wood was behind it, and whomever found himself near the stove when it burned low threw in a chunk or two of wood, and the smoke billowed into the coach. We soon learned to either feed it quick like a fox, or wait until the train stopped. It was bitter cold, and no one wanted to open a window to let smoke out if it could be helped.
It was virtually impossible to sleep, one could only catnap. So when we unloaded from that rattler at division rear, our eyes look like burned holes in a rug. With faces covered with soot, you wouldn't recognize yourself in a mirror.
Again, it is a matter of waiting around for transportation up to our units. We sleep in large tents on straw, using mountain style sleeping bags. Except for the ground being hard as a rock, we stay warm as toast in our bags, and only rarely are we awakened during the night for any purpose.
The chow is C-rations, and hot. The best thing is the coffee. Made hobo style, it is strong enough to eat the roofing out of your mouth. To me, it is still good. While we wait, about all we do is drink coffee and shoot the shit, and listen to stories of those who claimed to have been up front.
Then on 13 February 1951, twenty of us load onto two deuce-and-a-half trucks already piled high to the rack tops with various supplies. We head north. The temperature at this time is below zero, and riding atop the trucks going like the hounds of hell were in hot pursuit, it felt like we were back in the Aleutians at Attu.
I have never been so cold as I was on that ride. We sit with our backs to the wind, wearing seven layers of clothing, but it still feels as if we have on nothing. My feet are numb before we are hardly under way. At the first stop we unroll our sleeping bags and crawl inside them. This helps considerably. If I had known the danger we were in, I'd no more get inside that sleeping bag than I would have entered a den of lions.
Now and then I see the backs of Korean families as they struggle south, A-frames piled high with worldly belongings. Some push two wheel carts which remind me of the carts used to transport mail from the train to the post office back home in New York.
All along the way homes and villages are nothing but charred ruins, some of them still smoldering. Those still smoldering will have groups of people around them trying to soak up a little heat before moving on. Seldom do I see anyone cooking anything. Not only are these people without shelter, they are without food. I wonder how some mothers with nursing babies are able to survive being half-starved.
One time we see a family huddled around a fire with a perfectly good vacant house nearby. "Why'n hell don't them dumb shits use that house? Ain't nobody in it?" someone asks.
"Cause it doesn't belong to them," I answered. "Hey, this is the Orient we are in, I keep telling you people. People in this part of the world operate different that we do. Back home if we were in their fix, we would just borrow that house, start a fire, and cook what we had. But these people are probably the same as on Okinawa. They figure a man's home is something to be honored and someone does not enter it no matter the reason, unless he is invited.
"Fuckin' stupid if you ask me," someone offers. "Freeze your ass off just because of a stupid belief. Anybody that stupid I don't feel sorry for."
"Well, you may be right, but maybe if we had more respect for each other back home we'd all be the better for it. Turn your back on your home stateside, and you'll be robbed blind. I'll bet these people won't bother anything that doesn't belong to them."
As we continue our journey, I can see signs of heavy fighting having taken place here. The rice paddies are pock marked with shell holes, vacated fox holes, and bunkers. The road sides contain communications wire of every size. Poplar trees line the roadside at times for several hundred yards, and these contain a tangle of wire. I wonder if this wire is still in use. Trucks and vehicles of every description slide off the narrow icy road and become tangled in the wire.
I am surprised by the lack of snow. There is only about an inch on the ground, but being so cold, the roads are slick. Vehicles clog the road in both directions, making travel extremely difficult. In places it is strictly one way, a blessing in disguise. It gives us a chance to have a piss call.
Every time we stop, arguments break out between the men riding in the cab with the driver and those riding outside in the cold. Some get in the cabs and refuse to leave. Lieutenant Simmering straightens this out after awhile, and he even takes his turn riding outside. With this move he wins my respect.
I prefer to ride outside even though I have never suffered more from the cold than right now. I reason that if I sit in the cab with all these clothes on, I will sweat, and coming back outside will make me even colder. I have no idea how near we are to the front, and being zipped up in a sleeping bag keeps me constantly on edge. But without the bag, I will freeze stiffer than a prick. Might as well get shot in here as get out of it and freeze to death.
Whenever we slow down or stop altogether, I struggle up to have a look around. I am rather surprised that the country in this part of Korea is relatively flat and sparsely populated. There are low hills that show signs of heavy bombardment, but at times we can see for hundreds of yards. See nothing but rice paddies. Rice paddies that at times show giant craters where probably a 500 pound bomb has hit close to the road.
After riding for what seemed like hours, we pull into the a truck park. We are allowed to go into a large building perhaps 30 by 60 feet, with a homemade stove at each end for heat. After we thaw out, I go outside to a latrine. Back inside, Lieutenant Simmering has bummed us some C-rations and packets of coffee, and everyone is heating them atop the stoves. I draw a can of spaghetti and meat balls, open the can with my trusty P-38 can opener, and place it on top of the stove to heat. There are several other cans there, and everyone is trying to get to the stove at once. I say the hell with the pushing and shoving and just step back. I try to keep my eye on the can from a distance. Somewhere along the line I get distracted, and someone takes my spaghetti and meat balls and leaves me with a can of burnt lima beans.
It was not pretty. I made some comments. I never got a buzz out of anyone. They won't even look up. "You motherfuckers," I say, walking off.
When I'm finished eating, I drift over by a stove. Squatting behind the stove is a man at I first take to be a gook. But then I notice him rolling a cigarette. Looking closer, I see he is a GI. "Good God," I think, "he's an old man, he can't be in service."
He has corporal stripes painted onto his sleeves. What hair he has is sparse and gray, and his face is rather long and wrinkled like a road map. All the time he has been there he has not spoken a word.
The driver of the truck I'd been on looks at someone, winks, and says, "Jesus Christ, I nearly tore the transmission out of that damned truck again!"
The old boy behind the stove looks up and says, "You SOB, you tear that transmission out of that truck again and I'll stomp your ass, you wise-ass!"
Damn, I was shocked. The guy is a GI!
"Holy shit," I say. "How the hell long you been in the army, Dad?"
"Forty-four years," he says is a voice that fairly cracked.
"You must have been in the first war?" I say.
"Damn sure. In the trenches in that one. In a trucking outfit in the 2nd."
"How do you compare this one with the other two?"
"This one here's a trench war like the first. Second war was more mechanized. Lots of tanks and artillery and air. Yeah, this one here's like the first."
Someone asks him how come he is only a corporal.
"Oh horseshit, this ain't the highest I ever got. Sergeant Major for sixteen years. Told a colonel to go fuck himself. Got busted."
"Oh, yeah," I said, "that would do it alright."
"When the hell you going to retire?"
"Oh, when they tell me I gotta go, I guess. Probably in a cou-ple of years, they'll put me out to pasture. They say you gotta go, you gotta go."
And we had to go. Back on the trucks, we are as cold as we were before we stopped. All we know is we are about halfway to Wonju. We hear nothing about the situation we are heading into. We are innocent as lambs, and frozen half to death.
But now we begin to see bodies along the roadside and ditches. Those who have not seen such things are reluctant to look.
"Why don't they do something with them?" a kid asks me.
"Like bury them. Christ, leaving them lay around like that. It ain't civilized."
"Who the hell ever said we were civilized?"
"Hell of a thing, ain't it?"
"It sure as hell is," I say.
In paddies and alongside the road there are vehicles hit by land mines, and others that appear to have been struck with anti-tank guns. Some are bullet riddled.
"Damn," I remark as we stop at a place where the traffic is one way. "There's been some heavy scrapping around here. Looks like we got the worst of it."
Bob Shelden has a quizzical look on his face and finally says, "Funny, most of the traffic seems to be going one way. South."
I hadn't noticed, but he is right. We seem to be the only ones moving north. We notice there are no units on either side of the road. It is as if we were the first men on the moon. A strange feeling begins to overtake me. A feeling of uneasiness. Suddenly I don't seem to notice the cold so much. My eyes scan the low hills to our right. I see nothing, but I wish I had more ammo than the nine clips I had been issued. I plan my escape from the truck if we come under fire. If I can keep from getting tangled up with the others trying to get off.
The road has become rougher. What appears like shell holes are in abundance. Some cause the driver to slow almost to a crawl.
I have eased out of the sleeping bag, carefully managed to fold it, and now I sit on it. Wherever we are going, I wish we'd hurry up and get there.
A feeling of anger begins to overcome me, mixed with a feeling of helplessness. I do not mind getting into a fight, but I do want a fighting chance if and when it comes. Perched on this truck, I feel like a duck in a shooting gallery.
Whenever we stopped, the driver had usually climbed out of the cab, looked up at us with a stupid grin, and inquired, "Is everybody happy?"
At first it is funny, but now he does it with the truck still in motion. I feel like putting my M-1 butt alongside of his head. "Christ," I think, "some people would raise hell at a funeral."
I am watching the hills on our right when the truck slows and comes to a halt. I hear someone ask, "Where the hell do you think your going?"
I look to the right and see a tank sitting in a rice paddy near another tank that has a tread blown off. Before I can hear the answer, the driver cowboys out of there. There are a few more GI's along the road who yell, "Don't stop! Don't stop! Barrel- ass!"
I have no idea really who these people are, but they look like MP's.
And barrel-ass we do. 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 of four miles, then slow down and finally come to a halt with the truck's 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. I stand up to get a better view and see tanks, artillery, mortars. Men are wandering from place to place like they are walking in their sleep.
"What the fuck is this place?" someone asks a passing soldier.
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