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Personal Stories

Heartbreak Ridge
by Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson served as a sergeant first class with Company I, 23rd Regiment, 2nd Division, United States Army, in the Korean War from Aug. 22, 1950 to Aug. 22, 1952.

The following is an excerpt from his memoir that he wrote on his experiences as an infantryman during the Korean War.


     This is a narrative of personal experiences and impressions resulting from my service with the U.S. Army, during the Korean War, from Aug. 22, 1950 to Aug. 22, 1952. It is an account related from memory alone, with no benefit of historical research or concern with detailed historical accuracy except as addressed in the Epilogue. My first thoughts of writing a memoir came about by the prompting of my children to write down some of the war stories that I had on occasion related, an additional motivating factor was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Korea, but an equally strong motivation was the realization of the value of a written record brought about by my efforts to research and write of the civil war exploits of my great grandfather James C. Wilson. My great grandfather served in the Arkansas State Militia and the Confederate Army at the battles of Pea Ridge and later at Corinth, Miss., were he was wounded and captured. Anyone who has attempted to research Confederate units and actions will appreciate the difficulty I encountered, particularly where no personal accounts were left, and from this experience I felt an obligation to write this memoir. Therefore, my primary purpose in this writing is to leave an account of my experiences for my grandchildren, and great grandchildren; as I had wished that my great grandfathers had left an account of their experiences and impressions of battle. The narrative is, hopefully, written in a manner to address this audience.

Heartbreak Ridge

     For my contingent of green replacements, the call to duty came late in the evening of the third day of our arrival at the regimental Command Post. We were told to fall in, and every other man was instructed to pick up a stretcher. We were loaded onto trucks and were driven up the road a short distance to the base of a mountain. There a Major, who was noticeably drunk, told us to unload and to follow him up a trail leading to a high ridge of the mountain. By this time it was nearly full dark. We started up the narrow trail that followed a small mountain stream. The climb got steeper and more rocky as we went, and the darkness, which was now absolute, made progress with the stretchers awkward and very difficult. The column was moving too fast and the troops were falling over the rocks in the dark or slipping into the stream, all the while mumbling and grumbling about the officer that was leading us. Sometime about midnight, the column stopped as if for a break, but after several minutes I became uneasy. Then the word, passed from man to man back down the line, came to me that the column had been broken, and they wanted the ranking NCO to tell them what to do. It turned out that, as sergeant first class, I was the ranking NCO.

     The first combat related decision that I was to make had been forced on me much sooner than I had expected, and the moments that I spent in hesitation and reflection should be understandable. We could hear heavy firing and artillery coming from the mountain top. My appraisal of the situation was that we were in hostile territory, totally without guidance, with the chances of finding the main column in total darkness being very remote, and the chances of leading these men into the hands of the Koreans a real possibility--not to mention that I was scared. This was weighted against the ingrained principle of ‘always complete your mission.’ I determined that the best course of action was to return to where we had started, get a guide, or get new instructions. I thought we could likely find our way back, since we had followed the stream all the way.

     I had the word passed from man to man up the trail and to those behind me down the trail. I told them that we were going back and that no man was to lose contact with the man in front of him. I had no idea how many men I was leading out. I took the lead and we started down the stream in the blackness. I got in the stream bed itself rather than staying on the trail because I remembered on the way up that the path left the stream for short distances before coming back to it. Being totally blind in the dark I was unwilling to lose the stream for even a minute. As long as I could feel the water I felt confident that it would lead us out.

     We had not gone far when we came across another group from the original column. A sergeant had taken charge of this group and had decided to set up a defensive perimeter and wait for morning. This caused me to have some doubt as to the wisdom of my decision, but on short reflection I decided to stay with the conviction that the proper action was to get back and try to salvage the mission if possible. Still carrying the long and awkward stretchers in addition to the M1s and other gear on our backs, we slipped, stumbled, and fell over the rocks in the stream for what seemed like a very long time. Finally the stream widened out considerably and became almost level. This made walking easier, but we still were moving as quietly as possible, not knowing where we were or what we might run into.

     As we were moving down the stream bed I heard noises up ahead and stopped the column. I told the guys behind me that I was going to crawl up ahead, and for them to hold the column there until I came back. When I had crawled up a hundred yards or so I could make out voices, but I couldn't understand them. I crawled a little further and could hear well enough to determine that they were speaking French. I knew that a French battalion was attached to the 23rd Regiment and I felt some relief, but I was worried about how they might react to noises in the dark. Since I was well protected by the bank of the stream I decided to call out to them. I shouted ‘GI, GI.’ They suddenly stopped talking and I heard the ‘Clack-Clack,’ sound of a 50 caliber machine-gun being loaded. I lay there in silence waiting to see what their reaction would be, but there was only silence. They knew there was someone out in front of them, so I had better try to make them understand. I peered up over the edge of the bank and thought I could make out a bunker with a firing opening. I called out again ‘GI, GI, American, American.’ This time they acknowledged me by shouting back ‘Francsia, Francsia.’ I never dreamed I would ever use my half semester of junior college French but I called back ‘parlez English?’ I heard them talking to each other and assumed that this was as good a time as any to do what had to be done. I started shouting non-stop, ‘American GI, I’m coming out. Don’t shoot. American, American, GI, GI, don’t shoot.’ Keeping up this plea I slowly stood up in the ditch, and when they didn’t fire I started walking toward where I thought the bunker was. It was still pitch black.

     Two French soldiers stepped out from behind their bunker and looked me over, and I asked again ‘parlez English?’ Their response was ‘non, non.’ One of them pointed and I somehow understood that he would take me to someone who could speak English. I followed him through the dark until we came to a cave. He stepped in and I followed. What I saw, smelled and heard was straight out of Dante’s Inferno. I couldn't make out anything other than dark recesses and the scurrying shadows of a few men, since there was only the dim light of candles and it was almost as dark in the cave as it was outside. A heavy odor of medicine and alcohol hit me, and coming from somewhere back in the deeper recesses of the cave I heard the agonized moaning and loud cries of pain from several men. It was evident that I was in a forward aid station, but it appeared to me to be a pit from hell. I will never forget that scene.

     A French officer, that I gathered was a Doctor, came up and asked me in English if he could help me. I explained to him what the circumstances were and he directed a French soldier to guide me to the 23rd’s position. The Doctor also told us that we were very fortunate because a Korean patrol had slipped into their forward outposts less than an hour before our arrival and killed three French soldiers--one of which had his throat cut--and the guards were very nervous.

     I went back to the stream, called out the men and we arrived at a 2nd Division artillery position well before daylight. I told the men that we would wait there until someone claimed us. My devotion to carrying out the mission had cooled considerably. I settled down in the firing pit of a 4.2 mortar and tried to get some rest even with the constant booming of the big guns. I closed my eyes on my first day at the front.

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