Military history


Heartbreak Ridge

The peace talks had been going on for months. The heart to fight though not gone, was not the bright light it had once been.

— Captain Raymond E. Webb, 72nd TANK BATTALION IN KOREA 1950—1952, Toppan Printing Co., Ltd., Tokyo.

THE ACTION ON Bloody Ridge, the principal activity along the Korean front at the time, drew attendant publicity to the discomfiture of some military leaders. Correspondents, watching the hellish fighting along the blasted spurs and ravaged slopes of 773, 983, and 940, wrote florid descriptions of the struggle. It was a correspondent from Stars and Stripes who first named Bloody Ridge, and during one action a group of men of 9th Infantry, on the ridge, read his account. For reasons of security, the exact location of Bloody Ridge was never mentioned in the papers.

"Jesus," one soldier said, after reading the article, "them poor bastards are getting clobbered, wherever they are."

And the publicity had other, more unfortunate side effects. Bloody Ridge—though the Army need never feel shame for what it did there—had not been the kind of demonstration General James Van Fleet had in mind when he authorized it. Washington did not receive the casualty reports with anything like enthusiasm. Matthew Ridgway, in Tokyo, showed no indication of being pleased.

It was during this time that Tom De Shazo, a classmate of Boatner, and the Brigadier Commanding 2nd Division Artillery told the Assistant Division Commander:

"Haydon, don't you know people are expecting you to relieve John Lynch?"

"Sure," Boatner said. He had had more than a few leading questions and insinuations on that score. "Sure, that'll wash all our linen. That'll solve everything!"

Haydon Boatner knew that Colonel Lynch had assumed command of the 9th Infantry while it rested along Line Kansas, idle, while many of its best men rotated home. What failures, what disappointments had occurred in the 9th had not been due to command, but to a breakdown of team effort. And it was doubtful if any United States regiment, in August 1951, given the same assignment, could have done much better.

Haydon Boatner, a man not noted for tenderness, who believed with Jefferson Davis "that tender consideration for those who are ineffective kills the good," refused to recommend the relief of the 9th's C.O.

But he had found something lousy in 9th Regiment—the 3rd Battalion.

During the desperate days of Bloody Ridge, the 3/9 had done nothing. It had failed miserably in the only real attack it had attempted, and its C.O., Boatner knew, had been on the bottle.

The 3/9, in contravention of new Army policy at the insistence of a former corps commander, was wholly colored.

Boatner recommended that the battalion commander be reclassified or eliminated. The battalion could not be depended upon, which left the 9th with only two effective battalions in any fight, and Boatner said so.

He stabbed deeply into a subject that the Army, let alone Washington, preferred never to discuss.

There had been continual difficulty with the all-Negro units sent into Korea, in the 25th Division and elsewhere. The 503rd Field Artillery—"Get out of the way, here comes the Nickle Oh Tray!"—and others, through the present 3/9, had sometimes written less than glorious history on the battlefield.

But other colored soldiers had done splendidly, as well as any Americans had ever done.

A Columbia sociologist, quietly making a survey for the Army, had some reasons, which had long been understood by United States Army leaders: An essential ingredient in any fighting man is pride—pride in himself, pride in his unit, and the men around him. The seemingly nonsensical swagger of paratroopers, their special insignia, their carefully nurtured arrogance, seemingly in conflict with most decent, democratic practices, make sense only when what paratroopers must do is considered.

At the final moment, when a man must leap from a speeding aircraft into what is normally the most hazardous of military missions, an airdrop behind enemy lines; when his chances of serious injury or death are always high, even routine, a special esprit is required.

Unless spurred by a fearful pride and belief in themselves and their comrades, men do not willingly "join hands and jump out of aeryplanes."

It is this final, basic pride—what will my buddies think?—that keeps most soldiers carrying on, beyond the dictates of good sense, which screams at them

to run, to continue living, and to hell with war.

American society had permitted Negroes little chance to develop pride. American society tends to give its colored segments an inferiority complex, almost from birth. And in the military service, placed solely among other colored men, there is developed not mass pride but mass neurosis. Few colored men, understandably, feel the urge to prove themselves in front of other colored men.

The problem is not one of race or color, but of a minority group, anywhere,which has had much of its essential pride as human beings stripped from it. The strongest urge of any minority group, Armenians, French-Canadians, or Untouchables, is to survive. They have no other effective way of fighting.

The old jokes about the military courage of certain minority groups has some basis in fact. Turks joke about the fighting ability of Turkish Christians. The indigenous Christians that Turks know are submerged, wily folk, sharp with money, slyly sticking together against the Moslem world, absolutely uninterested in going out to fight and die for the Turkish State. They see absolutely nothing to be gained by it—nor is there.

A diplomat from Istanbul, several centuries ago, remarked it was odd that Franks in the Western kingdoms were much more like Turks than like Christians. If this Turkish gentleman had visited the medieval ghettos, he might have begun to understand.

Jews in Eastern Europe often went to the gas chambers without a protest, without lifting a hand. The young men of the same human stock raised in Israel are among the toughest, hardiest folk in the world.

To most people, this proves something.

Any group of human beings that has known long persecution is soon winnowed down to survival types. The brave and the bold in a persecuted society are soon lopped off.

And no army has ever been successfully forged wholly from survival types.Survival, in an army, is only incidental to the mission.

The Columbia professor, and others, discussed practical means of ending the Army's trouble. They saw only one solution: desegregation.

In front of white men, the sociologists claimed, colored soldiers would feel an urge to prove themselves, and have a chance to develop pride they could never achieve in a segregated unit. They recommended one per squad, or two, no more—because the tendencies of the persecuted are to group together against the world.

With much disagreement. in some quarters, the Army bought the idea. There was also the hope, as one unbeliever mentioned, that if the one man in a squad was guilty of malfeasance, the others would take care of him.

Under Boatner's urging, the commander of the 3/9 was relieved, and 534 men were transferred from 3/9 to the other combat regiments.

The 534 themselves were not wholly happy. They had a thousand and one bugaboos, from possible loss of rotation points to fear for their ratings.

Some of the old first sergeants of the receiving companies conjured up every procedure in the book to delay the transfers.

But they went through.

The troops were integrated, at 10 percent throughout the companies.

And the United States Army's combat problem with colored troops was largely ended. Filtered through the white units, they did well. Three weeks after its fiasco on Bloody Ridge, 3/9 performed with excellence.

The social problems, of course, were not solved. A solution to these can be anticipated only when all men look alike, hold the same views, or are so apathetic that it no longer matters.

And some time later, General Bull Boatner heard that the Eighth Army had relieved the corps commander because of the trouble on Bloody Ridge.

There are times, not only in the Army, but in Washington and General Motors, when somebody, somewhere, simply has to go, to take off the heat.

On 13 September 1951, with the harsh heat of summer fast fading this high on the eastern coast of Korea, the 23rd Infantry and its attached French Battalion moved against the seven-mile-long hill mass running perpendicular to Bloody Ridge, on its north. The high parts of this ridge, running north and south, pointed daggerlike into enemy lines. It was felt its capture would knock the enemy back some ten miles, and deny him use of a road net even farther back.

Because of the terrain, the assault was frontal, piecemeal, and bloody.

Again it was work for riflemen, grenadiers, and flamethrower operators. Tanks could support by fire only from the base of the hills, and artillery alone could not demolish the deep NKPA fortifications, though the 2nd Division Artillery fired 229,724 rounds.

The 23rd Infantry moved due north, then attacked the ridge line from the east. It struck for the knobs rising bare and ugly along the spine, and on this gloomy ridge the 23rd Regiment, as had the 9th Infantry the month before, brushed a hornets' nest.

Whatever the new ROK Army was like, the reconstituted Inmun Gun was fanatic, tough, and stubborn. The contested ridge line could easily be reinforced from a series of hills still farther north, near the town of Mundung-ni, and the Inmun Gun seemed willing to pour men onto the smoking, reeking slopes from a bottomless well.

The 23rd, whose show this battle was until its last stages, left its blood along every step of the way up the ridge. Again the fighting was close-in, brutal, dangerous, while mortars and artillery punished each side without respite. Again and again American companies of the 23rd fought their painful way up the slopes, blasting bunkers, killing enemy in their trenches—and again and again, reaching the crests exhausted, decimated, and low on ammunition, they were knocked off by a howling charge of fresh North Koreans.

Companies sometimes stood at less than thirty men, before the fresh-faced replacements came in from Japan. They were killing the enemy at a ratio of close to nine to one because of the superior American artillery—but to the men dying along the ridge there was small satisfaction in that. Few of them were really interested in killing North Korean peasants.

The fate of one American company characterized the whole action. Captain Pete Montfort's men attacked toward the northern knob of the ridge under blazing automatic fire, continually slammed by enemy artillery.

They went up the hill painfully, leaving dead and wounded behind all the way. Just at dusk, with a mighty effort, Pete Montfort and company overran their objective.

But Montfort's men were almost out of ammunition, and in the dark, and under the curtain of fire, no more could be brought up the mountainside to him. Montfort reported back by radio. He was determined to stay.

The division could support only by fire. General De Shazo ordered Divarty, "Put a wall of steel around those men!"

All night Divarty fired; the wall of steel went up. But that night Pete Montfort was overrun and his weakened company wiped out, to the last man.

Later, when a new company fought its way up to the position, they found the Americans sprawled stiffly all along the crest. Pete Montfort lay across a machine gun that had run dry. There was not a round of ammunition remaining in any dropped rifle or in any bandoleer.

Again and again the division commander received reports that a crest or knob was taken. Again and again the report proved false, as the attackers were knocked back down the slope.

By now, the reporters were writing of a place called Heartbreak Ridge.

Each time a group of one hundred or more replacements entered the division, Brigadier General Boatner, the ADC, met them, and talked with them.

It was little enough to do.

These men who came in now were selectees, for the most part. They knew there was a war on; they knew it would be hard, which was a help. Most of them knew very little else. A great many of them did not last long enough to learn more.

Boatner, personally, began to feel a deep regret for the recalled reservists who were now filling the junior-officer slots of the division. Many of them were overage, lieutenants in their thirties, captains near forty. They had accepted commissions in the big war; they had done a job that had to be done, and gone home. Most of them had not remained active; they had new businesses, new families, other concerns.

But the Judge Advocate General had ruled that any man who had once held a commission, whether he had kept it active or not, could be legally recalled. And the Pentagon, when the Chinese poured across the Yalu, had made an incalculable error, one that would damage the Army Reserve Program for a decade. Never certain that a big war would not start any minute, the Pentagon called, not the officers and men in Table of Organization units, receiving pay and training, but the bulk of the inactive reservists, men who had received neither, and whose interest was less. The inactive individuals could be called lip for fillers; the units were kept in reserve for a bigger war, which never came.

Most of the forty thousand Reserve officers recalled involuntarily and sent to Korea had never expected service short of all-out war. They never quite understood why they were taken, when hundreds of thousands of National Guardsmen and others, organized in units, were kept at home.

Guardsmen and many Reserve units were called, but according to the needs of the moment. The six Guard divisions called to federal service, a handful of the many, often felt they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And because of rotation, few new units were sent to Korea. Hundreds of thousands of officers and men were sent as individual replacements. They arrived in their new divisions friendless and alone. Most of them never developed any feeling for a division in which they had not trained, in which they merely put in their time, until they could rotate out once more, again as


There have been few reunions of veterans of the Korean War.

And there was a final tragedy, affecting many of the recallees. Reserve officers, recalled from jobs and businesses for two years, on top of the loss of time during 1941—1945, often had no career to return to. Many elected to remain in the Army. But when Korea ended, and Washington, determined once again never to fight a ground war, shrank the Army back below a million men, the Army had no place for these men.

Thousands would have to return to civilian life, short of qualifying for pensions, to seek new jobs after the age of thirty-five or forty.

Of all the officers Haydon Boatner met on entering the division, only one asked to be sent on line. What they asked made no difference; it was division policy that all newcomers went forward—the rear-echelon jobs were filled from survivors of the line. Ironically, the one man who asked to fight, a West Pointer, Boatner had to relieve.

Brave enough himself, eager to advance his career, this officer was a moral coward. He could not be tough enough on his men.

For twenty-seven days the 23rd Infantry assaulted Heartbreak. They took knobs, and lost them. They took stretches of the hill mass, but they could not secure the ridge.

For the NKPA poured in men from the north, without counting.

A new pattern, the one that would characterize most of the following hill battles, was being set. On the disputed terrain, generally a small area, the fighting was hell itself. Artillery fire such as the world had never seen was massed against single hills, day after day. Because of the limitation of the fighting area, units were committed piecemeal, and the committed units were generally quickly cut to pieces, and replaced.

A few miles to either side of the disputed hill, the front lay quiet and brooding, without more than routine activity. And behind regimental headquarters, few men even knew there was a war on.

Action of this kind was contrary to all American military doctrine. The solution to success on Heartbreak, as later on Baldy, Pork Chop, Arrowhead,

T-Bone, and a dozen others, would have been to hit the enemy elsewhere, knock him off balance in a dozen places, punch through.

But the United Nations Command had no authority to put massive pressure on the enemy along the whole line. They had no authority to reopen the wholesale fighting; the United Nations did not want military victory; they wanted truce.

And the enemy was perfectly willing to fight to the death over a small piece of ground, seemingly forever. The fought-over hills assumed propaganda and political values out of all proportion to their military worth.

It was a case of the children's game of King on the Mountain, played with blood and bullets.

Whoever lost a hill lost face.

After weeks of fighting for Heartbreak, it was clear to 2nd Division that the ridge would have to be flanked. The 2nd Engineers worked day and night, clearing a route through a blocked defile north of the hill mass over which the 72nd's tanks could pass. On 9 October the trail was ready.

At 0600 on 10 October, the M-4A3E8 tanks of Baker Company, the old Shermans, workhorses of World War II, fitted with new high-velocity 76mm cannon, broke through the hills into the clear, and raced for Mundung-ni.

The 23rd was kept on Heartbreak, still fighting for pieces of the ridge. The 9th Infantry moved left, and the 38th struck behind Heartbreak to get a grip on the hill from which the NKPA reinforced.

This hill, called Kim II Sung Ridge, the division struck in mass, from 5 through 15 October, and overran it. Now the enemy could be reinforced on Heartbreak only through the passes around Mundung-ni.

The tanks of Baker Company, 72nd Tank, meanwhile had raved up the Mundung-ni Valley, running a gauntlet of fire. The hills and defiles swarmed with NKPA, and every available gun was turned on them.

But the tanks went through Mundung-ni, and four thousand yards beyond. From 10 October to 15 October, the 72nd ran two excursions per day through the hostile valley, ripping up the enemy rear as they passed. They branched out on the meager dirt roads, blasted dumps and concentrations of troops and bunkers, and then withdrew before dark.

They destroyed more than 600 troops, one SP gun, 11 machine guns, 350 bunkers—with uncounted casualties—three mortars, and several ammunition dumps, at a total cost of three killed, five wounded, and eight tanks lost to enemy action.

By 15 October both maneuvers had broken the back of the defense of Heartbreak Ridge.

The NPKA Corps that had held Heartbreak would not again be fit for action. There, with those lost on Bloody Ridge, it had suffered more than 35,000 casualties. The 2nd Division had leaned on the enemy, heavily.

But atop Heartbreak, the men of the 23rd Infantry could see ten miles to the north. They could see mile after mile of dark hills, growing gradually higher, hills in which lurked hundreds of thousands more Chinese and North Koreans. It was a long way to the Yalu and the Tumen, and these men knew in their hearts they were not going there, no matter how many hills they took.

On 25 October, at a new site, Panmunjom, the truce talks had begun again in earnest.

An officer writing in a battalion history, which was published in Japan, summed up their feelings: "The heart to fight though not gone, was not the bright light it had once been."

On 25 October the men who had taken Heartbreak came down off the hill, replaced by the United States 7th Division.

Their real heartbreak lay not in their dead and maimed, 5,600 of them, some of whom the men of 7th Division found still wedged in bunkers and crevasses, but in what had been accomplished by it all.

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