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.
I Have Memories
I don't know if I've told you before, but I was terrified of capture. Being so terrified of capture is the reason I have a recurring nightmare of being captured.
I find myself being endlessly interrogated. Asked questions I have no way of knowing the answers. I am forced to write a confession of past crimes against humanity, and of course the confession never pleases my captors. I am brutally beaten, starved, allowed nothing to drink, always kept in doubt as to my fate if I do not cooperate. I am constantly threatened that I will be shot, buried alive.
I have always had a dislike for confinement, and when this threat is made I am always thrown into a state of mental torture trying to decide to cooperate or trust my ability to bluff it out. They can read my mind, and they know of the terrible fear whirling within me. Fact is, I always seem to feel my captors have the supernatural power to read my mind. They are all knowing, all powerful giants, and I am a mental weakling, fighting to hold myself together under their constant harassment.
From this dream I always awaken emotionally drained, and tears have soaked my pillow. I usually can't get back to sleep, and really don't want to, afraid I will pick the dream up again. I pick it up sometimes, over and over again.
There have been nights I have fought again in Korea exactly as I did while there. It is as if I am watching myself on a giant movie screen. I can feel the tension as I watch, and it seems what I am watching is taking place in slow motion. Like I am the coach on the sidelines watching my football team perform. I watch what is going on and wonder why I don't do this or that. I don't know why I am doing what I am doing. I become impatient with myself and at the pace things are moving. I shout out in my dreams as I try to hurry things up. I shout commands that are not heard. I curse, rant, and rave.
"Do this! Do that! You stupid bastard! What the fuck are you doing? Do you know?"
It always seems to me in this dream I am seeing things the way they were. I can easily see the way I should have been. How I should have done things, not the way they were. Everything I see before me seems incredibly stupid. I am standing up looking through my binoculars when I could just as well keep low, lessen- ing the chances of being hit.
I see my men in shallow fox holes or none at all. Some with their faces buried in the earth instead of firing or watching what is going on. I see a mortar round come lazily out of the sky and I know it is going to land in a certain hole. I shout a warning that is not heard. Then the round strikes and the bodies fly up in a cloud of smoke and dust. The two guys in the hole fly into the air like rag dolls and float to the earth as the dust and smoke drifts away. I somehow see it as my fault.
But it is not my fault. How could it be? I didn't start this senseless bloodshed. I didn't sent them to die thousands of miles from home and those they hold dear. I could not stop the mortar round in mid-flight. Why am I blaming myself?
I continue to watch as more mortar rounds fall slowly from the sky, and more men are blown into the air. Some are badly wounded but with blood spurting they flee in panic, only to stumble and fall and roll down the steep ridgelines away from my view.
I want to close my eyes to this awful carnage I see before me, but I cannot. And neither can I shake this terrible feeling of guilt. These are my men, I should be there with them.
I see myself drop the binoculars to my chest and slowly my head turns toward my second gun. I yell, but apparently I cannot be heard. I leap from the hole and start running across the ridge. My strides are long and I see the dirt spurt up from my feet, and my face grimaces as I strain to cover the distance as soon as possible. I do not run crouched over but straight up as the mortar rounds explode around me. Clots of dirt, rocks, and pieces of jagged tree branches purr through the air like angry bees.
I reach the hole and point to something to our front. The gun moves slightly and tracers float out of the muzzle and go out to their target.
I again watch myself rise to my feet and start to run back to my first gun. Why am I doing this crazy thing? I have squad leaders to direct the fire of their guns. Why am I risking my ass to do it. "You stupid bastard!" I want to yell out, but nothing comes out but a weak squeak. How stupid.
I see my guns start to displace forward, and the mortar fire lets up, then ceases altogether. I remain behind to check out the men that I can find. They are all dead, horribly mangled.
It seems quiet now. I see myself stand and look around, shake my head, and tears roll down my dirty face. I take off my helmet, and pulling out my handkerchief from my hip pocket, wipe the tears and sweat from my head and face. I walk dejectedly down the slope toward the objective.
Usually this dream leaves me despondent for two or three days. It seems a sense of guilt sets in. A feeling of self doubt. My memory goes back to the times I tried to tell those over me I didn't want or didn't feel I was up to the responsibility of handling men in combat. I was forced into something I never felt secure in, therefor I did a poor, lousy, rotten job, and it was not my fault.
I never felt I had what it took, was never a leader in any way. To be a leader of men requires a certain force of character, one must be a person that others just naturally respect. They want to follow him. You can be an Ace man but a piss poor leader.
Time and again I saw men flat refuse to take a squad when they were picked, and no amount of threatening, promise of promotion, or anything on God's great earth would make them change their minds. But I couldn't do that.
I was told to take responsibility, I was not asked.
"You will take a squad whether you like it or not. You will take a section whether you like it or not. That is a direct order!" But who really suffered the consequences? Myself, or the men I tried to lead?
A lot of men who flat refused to accept responsibility could have led much better than I spent most of their time pissing and moaning over the way I did things. The would seem to say, "I want to throw in my two cents worth at every turn of the wheel, but I don't want to be held responsible for anything."
If I respected the judgment of the people, I would listen. If Vern Bush offered advice. I'd have been a damned fool not to listen to him. I liked Bush, I respected his judgment, and had nothing but admiration for his courage. Whenever I got around him, I admit I soaked up all his knowledge and applied it.
Combat is the ultimate test of a man's ability to take mental and physical punishment. If anyone had told me I could have stood the privations of combat, I would have thought him insane. There were times on line when I went off the deep end in temper tantrums and did things I didn't remember later. But this was par for the course.
I have memories. I remember long beastly cold nights on watch fighting to stay awake, so cold you thought you would never be warm again. I remember during the monsoon season being constantly soaked, of being ankle deep in mud, being so tired you fall asleep on your feet. I remember being lost on patrol and not being able to find your way back to your line until daylight. Of being pinned down by automatic weapons fire when it is just you and your God. Or being pinned in your foxhole during a mortar barrage, wondering if one is going to come in the hole with you, and you pray and curse at the same time. I remember the screams of the wounded and dying, and the terrible look on a mans' face when he knows he has received a fatal wound. I remember how many times the last word out of a dying mans' mouth was "Mother."
Yes, Hal, I have memories.
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