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.
Down in the Punchbowl, it always smelled like you were in a huge grave. In with a rotten corpse.
Down from our beautifully prepared positions on the Kansas Line we went day after day, night after night.
The Air Force and artillery had been there before us and left their usual mess. Decomposed gooks, some nearly devoured by maggots, others swelled to fantastic sizes, lay where they had fallen in the boiling hot sun. During the day you could avoid stumbling over them but at night you were constantly falling over bodies. One night a guy ahead of me said to look out for the dead gooks, but it was too late. I fell over him and did a belly whacker and stuck my right hand into the maggot filled face of another. When we came to a small stream, I tried to wash away the smell but I couldn't do it. When we got back to our lines I found a hunk of GI soap and scrubbed my hands over and over but it was days before I was rid of that smell. Every time I would try to eat I would smell that dead gook odor.
One night we descended into the Bowl to set up an ambush. It was the first part of July and hotter than hell. Damn mosquitos were giving us hell. Mosquito repellent did little good. As we had not wanted the North Koreans to hear us digging in, we were spread out behind rice paddy dikes where we had a beautiful field of fire. It was so dark you could not see your hands in front of your face. If we played it right the gooks should walk right up to us.
But Christ, sound travels like crazy with the low overcast and guys slapping at mosquitos, breaking wind, and whispering back and forth. I knew we were going to get into trouble and we sure as hell did. All the sudden I thought the world was ending. Bigshit. I mean really big fire was howling in on us. High velocity flat crap that comes in like tanks or self propelled artillery fire. There were several guns, and the shells howled as they came in.
There wasn't a damn thing we could do but hug the ground and pray. I tried to climb inside my helmet. It eventually let up and we had several WIA's. But no sooner does it let up, but we come under small arms fire. Burp guns, rifles, and what sounds like a Maxim machine gun is cutting and churning the ground.
All we can see are muzzle flashes. As we get over the initial shock, we return the fire. Once we do this, the incoming fire slackens. We try to pull out of there but the lieutenant is hit in the head, goes down, and doesn't move. A medic quickly examines him. Dead.
Taking our WIA's, we struggle back toward our own lines but it is so dark we cannot make out the landmarks, and we are soon lost. The rifle platoon sergeant radios for the searchlight which is shined up behind our lines to guide us back in. We hope to send out a squad or two to bring the body of the lieutenant back, but it is put off until first light.
Late the next morning one of the guys spots someone struggling up the trail toward our position. The glasses are put on him. It is the lieutenant and obviously in bad shape. Two or three riflemen and a litter team run down to bring him in. He is a horrible sight. His jaw is swollen so his head appears lopsided. He has lost a lot of teeth, and he is obviously running a high fever. His talking is incoherent. He is in his stocking feet and I notice a white circle where his wrist watch used to be. Something tells me the lieutenant has been stripped by the gooks while he was out.
The lieutenant is taken to our battalion aid station and there he is cleaned up, given appropriate medical attention, and flown to a MASH by chopper. It is not until much later that we learn the full particulars of what happened to him.
It seemed a bullet hit him in the jaw with such force it knocked him cold. The gooks, thinking he was dead, striped him of his boots and wrist watch and anything else he had on his person, including his bars. But instead of leaving once they had done this, they hung around until first light, then faded away into the morning fog.
Somehow know only to God the lieutenant was able to find his way back to our positions undetected by the North Koreans in blistering head and weak from loss of blood, walking like a zombie.
It is my lot to be a section leader now and I am feeling very insecure. I feel in over my head and try every way I know to get out of it, but it is no use. All the old hands who came over from Ft. Lewis at the beginning of the war have rotated home. Lieutenant Pilsbury has learned his job well and he is a tower of strength to me. Not a gung-ho type but a good level headed individual who has a way of holding us together when things seem to go from bad to worse. He acts as if he were one of the boys, never seeming to hold himself above us, especially his NCO's. Always willing to listen, but never hesitating to use his authority when the situation warrants. When he first joined us I was the first man in the platoon to see him, and I had made the comment he didn't look like much. Some ass had told him what I had said and he never let me forget it. Lieutenant Pilsbury kidded hell out of me about it.
The type of fighting we were up against in the Punchbowl wasn't exactly the kind of duty that made for good morale. Disagreements between men often became fist fights. Two kids would get into it and we'd let them have at it for a spell before we'd break it up. Hell, most of the time they'd kiss ass and make up anyway. Seldom was a grudge held.
For the most we were able to have a squad guard so that everyone could get as much sleep as possible. And unlike the old days when men were constantly setting the watch ahead, my men were playing it square and pulling their rightful share of watch.
We had gotten this one kid in who had kept screwing up in the mortar platoon and was shanghaied to the machine gun platoon, and it was my misfortune to get him. If he didn't fall asleep on watch, he was continually firing at sounds or shadows. A rat running through the leaves would cause him to cut loose.
Well, I put up with this shit as long as I could and then pulled a stunt I'd seen pulled before. I took a grenade, put it in his hand. Telling him to grip it tight, I pulled the pin. "Now, you yellow bastard," I said, "if you fall asleep you're going to drop that grenade and blow your guts all over the moon. But if your hand gets tired and you throw it, I'm going to beat the shit out of you."
The kid squeals like a stuck hog, but as I walk off he is holding the grenade for dear life. I cannot sleep and go back to the CP for a cup of coffee. In about an hour another man, the kids' relief, comes to me with the grenade and says, "What do you want me to do with this, Hoppy?" And he holds out the grenade. I had a hell of a time getting it out of his hand.
"I threw the pin away," I said. "Why don't you hold it, then you won't go to sleep."
"Why don't you take a flying fuck at the moon!" he grins, and throws the grenade as far down the hill as he can.
Up on the Punchbowl, the army was using a counter-battery device to try to tell where enemy artillery was located. It was something new and like children with a new toy, they were anxious to try it out. The thing was all set up but the gooks would not cooperate and fire. So they ran the troops on a platoon sized patrol, set up on a small hillock, and on signal poured fire into a location we knew North Koreans were holed up in abundance.
Being simple GI's, we didn't know at the time we were being used for this purpose, we were told we were on contact patrol. Contact the enemy, then pull back. This sort of horseshit never made much sense to me but then I was not the General. I was just a corporal.
So out across the Punchbowl we trudged like good little soldiers with child-like trust in those leading us, and set up a perimeter with our automatic weapons facing the gooks' Little Gibraltar. The lieutenant yelled, "Fire!" and you'd have thought it was Custers' last stand. Mortars, machine guns, automatic rifles, recoilless rifles, all pour it on. Right into the side of a hill we couldn't see fuckall on. The gooks were probably laying down in their bunkers getting their jollies while we made a lot of noise and wasted the precious taxpayer money.
When the order to cease fire comes, the lieutenant acts like he's trying to set a speed record getting us out of there. About half are out when the doors of hell swing open. Artillery rounds that sound like freight trains howl in, shearing off trees six inches in diameter. I mean these babies are coming in bunches. Add mortars and automatic weapons, and you've got yourself one hell of a pickle.
I have to go around pulling some of my kids out of their holes, they were just too petrified to move. I shout, but the incoming crap was making so much noise all I could do was reach down in a hole, grab a kid by the collar of the field jacket, get his attention, and motion him out of there.
"Get out of here, son! Get out of here for Christsake!" And motion the way to bugout. In a situation such as this, men will become confused and run the wrong way, so it is vital to point the direction for them to go.
I had seen looks of sheer terror on the faces of men, but never like I did that day. I walked out of there that day with half a dozen carbines slung over my shoulder that terrified kids had run off and left.
The lieutenant and I were two of the last people off the hill that day and I recall asking him, "Who was the butcher that figured out this stroke of genius?"
"What time is it?" he asked, then glances at his watch. "Oh, yeah, it's about noon. He's probably back fifty miles to the rear by now."
"Hope he gets a bone stuck in his throat," I say.
We struggle back across the Bowl with our many litter cases, and the radio tells us the gooks are following us out. They know this because those brave warriors from the Intelligence & Reconnaissance platoon are sitting up there with a long range scope watching every move we all make.
We soon find ourselves being sniped at from the rear. From a high hill to our left is a gook with a .51 caliber Buffalo Gun. I believe he must be using open sights because he is not hitting anyone. If he had a scope we would have been in real trouble. As it was, he got lucky and I see one kids' head disappear as a round took him on the side of his head.
We set up a defensive perimeter, get our litter cases behind rice paddy dikes while the lieutenant radios for help. And choppers. I have one of my heavy .30 caliber machine guns pointing to our rear and a couple of automatic rifles go in on our flanks. The other .30 I have facing up that hill, and I scan with my binoculars trying to spot that bastard with the Buffalo Gun. I do not spot him exactly, but once he fires and I see grass move and dirt fly from his muzzle blast. Pointing out the area to my gunner, Private Holly Felts, I have him cut loose with the weapon on free traverse. I want him to really hose down all around that area. We had no way of knowing if we got the guy, but at least we receive no more fire from that direction.
Ogan and I are sitting behind the gun and now and then a 60mm mortar round will come in, but he's firing from some distance off and his rounds are landing short, long, right, and left. "His base plate musta slipped," says Ogan, with a grin.
I stand up to stretch. From around a tiny hillock I see three North Koreans hauling a Maxim machine gun. They are not over 100 yards away and coming right at us. I stand and watch them and they never bother to look up or they would have seen me. Two little clowns pulling the weapon which is mounted on wheels, and the third is carrying two belts of ammo drapped over his shoulders.
I reach down and touch Phil Ogan on the shoulder and say, "Phil, how would you like to kill three gooks and ruin a damn Maxim machine gun?"
"Love it," says Phil, and noticing that I am staring intently, rises up to have a look. "Jesus! Would you look at that! What the hell are they doin?"
"Fucking up, I guess," I answer.
"Well," the lieutenant says, "you going to kiss their ass or kill them, Hoppy?"
"Maybe take them prisoner. Maybe they know something we don't."
"Prisoners, my ass, we got prisoners running out our ass now, kill the bastards!"
"Yes, sir," I answer. "Ogan, you heard the man."
Before the words are out of my mouth, Ogan kills all three.
I felt a little strange after the killing because they looked very young to be soldiers, and I believe they just blundered into us. They were dead before they knew they'd screwed up.
During the Punchbowl operations, casualties were high and action heavy, yet the radio in the States was saying, "Limited patrol action in Korea last night, casualties very light."
On this day as we waited for what seemed like an eternity for help to arrive and the choppers to take out the nearly dead, the sun seemed about to cook us alive. The wounded were moaning, praying, and calling out for "Mother." I had time to do a little soul searching, and whenever I did that, I did crazy things.
This time I was sitting there with murder in my heart for the politicians who had blundered me into this mess, when a sniper bullet plowed into the ground about three feet from me.
I heard Ogan say, "Uhh, thank you Harryass, you almost did it that time. You almost got rid of one expendable. Yes, you surely did, suh."
I stood slowly up to my full height, and looking up the hill where the round had come from, commenced to yell at the top of my voice. "You missed me you mother fuckin' sonofabitch! Try it again you slanty eyed cocksucker! You couldn't hit me if you tried all fuckin' day you turd eating scum!"
"Crack! Zing! He drops one at my feet. "You missed again, you stupid rat eating SOB.
I must have gone clear out of it because next thing I know I find myself walking along up the trail that leads to our bunkers with a guy on each arm. One says, "You feel any better, Hoppy?"
"About what? I ask.
"Well, you kinda went ape down there, seems as how you wanted that sniper to kill you."
"I did," I said. "But the bastard couldn't do it. Couldn't hit the broad side of a shithouse. The bastard."
The lieutenant comes by to tell me it is time for a patrol.
"Yes, sir, when do we leave?"
Down off our hill we stumble and it is dark as hell as usual. We walk a ways and then stop. Everyone has to be very quite.
We move, stop and listen, move and stop to listen. It is so dark, sometimes the column stops quickly and we run into each other. This brings angry outbursts and streams of profanity.
We stop to listen this one time and I pick up gook voices. As fast as possible I make my way to the front of the column and the lieutenant hears them too, and orders us to spread out on both sides of the trail as quickly as possible. The voices are getting louder.
No sooner does the platoon get spread out and the gooks are on top of us walking the same trail we'd been walking, shooting the shit and making more noise than a bunch of GI's.
Like I'd always instructed them to do, my ammo bearers all heave grenades when we open up. One rifle shot starts it and the night is turned into a goddamnedest donnybrook you ever saw. The gooks scream and fall all over one another trying to get the hell out of there. I do not believe they fire a shot. They are too surprised and before the surprise wears off it is too late. They are all dead.
All but one, and he is laying about 40 feet from my gun.
I ask one of the gunners for his pocket knife.
"Whatca gonna do?" he wants to know.
"I'm going to cut this bastards throat," I answer, opening up the pocket knife.
"Oh, you can't do that," says a kid who is new to the outfit. "That wouldn't be humane."
The gook is lying on his back. I grab him by an ear with my left hand and with my right cut his throat from ear to ear. The blood spurts and I have to jump back to keep from getting it all over me.
"Oh, my god!" whails the kid. "What a terrible thing to do!"
"It is at that. But this is war, sonny boy."
We search the bodies quickly and get the hell out of there and back to our lines.
As we sat around a Coleman stove and drank our coffee, the lieutenant, who as far as I was concerned was one of the best officers in the battalion, shook his head from side to side and said, "So it's come to that, has it?"
"Come to what, lieutenant?" I said, putting on an innocent act.
"You know what I mean, Hoppy! Boy, don't let this stuff make an animal out of you."
"It already has, lieutenant," I said. "It already has. And you know what, lieutenant? I'm beginning to like this killing business. You can push a human being just so far and sooner or later he ceases to be human. He becomes an animal. We go without food. We go without proper medical care. We see GI's mutilated by these gooks. Kids, not men. Kids who should have been in school laying in a ditch with their balls cut off and stuffed in their mouths. Shit!"
"Hoppy, you are a good soldier, but don't let this shit over here ruin your life. Don't let yourself get to the point where you'll enjoy killing so much when you get out you won't be able to get along without it."
"Oh, I'd tell you lieutenant if I can't get along without spilling guts."
All through the month of July we run patrols into the Punchbowl, ambushing and being ambushed. I believe I helped carry more men out the Bowl who had a foot blown off by an anti- personnel mine than any other place in Korea. Every time I'd hear a dull thump, I knew some poor bastard had lost a foot.
The enemy was not attacking on any large scale. Instead, we got it through the grapevine they were preparing defensive positions. The enemy was using artillery more than ever before and our patrols were taking a beating. The 38th Infantry and the ROK's had been scrapping for Hill 1059 and they got priority on the air and artillery support.
About 2 August I lost two men from my section when an artillery round landed in a tree. One man took a large chunk of shrapnel in the back of his leg, and the other lost a finger. When I heard the round hit and the immediate cry for medic, I jumped from our bunker and ran to the bunker knowing my men had been hit. A medic arrived with me and took care of the leg wound while I looked at the bloody hand. The kid's index finger on his right hand was hanging by a thread, and the kid held it out. Looking at it, his eyes bulged in terror.
I took hold of his wrist and said, "Do you want the fuckin' thing?"
"I said, do you want the fuckin' thing? It ain't no good to you that way."
"Why, I dunno, I dunno," the kid says, his voice shaking.
"Oh, forchristsake here," I say, and taking hold of the finger, give it a quick jerk and off it comes. Holding it up, I say, "That's what you get for being stupid. What the hell were you idiots doing outside your bunker when we have incoming?
"Will this get me home?"
"Yeah, it will get you home, what the hell would I do with a fuckhead with a finger missing?"
As the two kids are starting down the ridgline to our battalion aid station, I wish them luck, and apologise to the kid who had lost his finger. "Go on home," I say to him, giving him a little hug around the shoulders. "Raise some kids that got more damn sense that you have."
Tears well up in his eyes and he says, "Good luck, Hoppy, you'll make it, I know you will."
I shake hands with the kid on the litter and we wish each other luck. "Maybe they'll send me back, Hoppy."
"Back where?" I ask.
"You don't want to come back here. You've done enough, you don't owe anybody anything. Go back to civilization if you have a chance. Now get the hell out of here!"
When I returned to the bunker I shared with Ogan, Phil gave me that shit eating grin. "You're a pussycat, you know it? Always playacting the hardass and you got a heart as big as your head.
About 17 August my machine gun section is attached to Easy Company for a diversionary attack on Hill 1059 in an effort to take some of the pressure off the ROK's who are fighting tooth and nail to take Hill's 983, 940, and 733.
We attack, and it becomes a real saloon brawl.
Grenades are causing most of the casualties, but there is little we can do to help prevent this. When throwing their grenades, the gooks do not expose themselves.
The battle rages for two hours before Easy Company finally reaches the summit, but then gook artillery pours in in such volume they are forced to pull back. But George Company gives it a shot and they find themselves in a pier seven brawl. They manage to secure the hill and stay, using enemy bunkers as defense against incoming shells.
Lieutenant Pilsbury gets the call for us to displace forward, which we do with all possible haste. We set up a defensive position for the night. I mean really button up tight expecting the gooks to counterattack. We pull a 100% alert, and throughout the night we hear the ROK's as they pull off a night attack. The next day they are still at it, with supporting fire from the 38th.
I am in the gun pit with Ogan and his second gunner. The night is so dark you cannot see but a few feet around you. I hear something but cannot see a thing. I tell Phil to throw an illumination grenade about forty feet directly to our front.
He throws and I ready my carbine with the selector on full automatic. The grenade explodes and lights up a gook who has apparently been taken for dead and now is trying to sneak out through twisted trees and shell holes. I snap my carbine to my shoulder and pull off a burst at the same instant.
"Jesus Christ!" says Phil. "You got him. How the hell'd you know he was there?"
"I heard him."
" I didn't hear anything. What'd it sound like?"
"Like someone gettin' laid," I said.
The next day a sergeant coming up with a chogie party yells for me. I sound off and receive the joyful news that I am going to Japan for R&R, and am to return to the rear.
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