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Personal Stories

The Fight for the 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.


When recently talking about the Korean War website with a fellow veteran we noted that there were no stories that told of the misery that soldiers faced in the war. The following story relates some of my experiences on Heartbreak Ridge, one of the bloodier battles of the war. I have eliminated some of the gruesome parts, but it still makes you feel glad that you were not there. Real war is not frivolous.

I was the platoon sergeant of the 3rd Platoon, Company I, 23rd Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division from early October 1951 to early April 1952 (approximate). This is my personal account of the fighting that took place during the second attack against North Korean and Chinese forces dug in along the high ridge that came to be known as Heartbreak Ridge. Although my recall may not be accurate in minute detail, it is accurate in substance.

Prior to the beginning of the battle, the top of the mountain and the ridges and fingers radiating from it had been covered with pine and spruce trees, very similar to our Rocky Mountains. Since that time, thousands of artillery rounds had been fired onto the peaks and ridges. We were aware of the magnitude of this heavy shelling by the signs we saw posted near the gun batteries we passed as we moved up to the line. Each sign boasted of the number of rounds that had been fired by that battery. By the end of the battle, hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds, ranging in size from 75-mm to 8 inch, had been sent against the enemy. There was no tree left standing or any piece of wood larger than a manšs forearm remaining on the top half of the mountain or its ridges. The rocky ground had been pulverized as though it had been plowed.

The 23rd Regiment had made an unsuccessful attack against the ridge in the last two weeks of September. I joined the regiment on my 23rd birthday, the 27th of September. The new replacements spent the first week as stretcher-bearers, carrying food and ammunition up the hill and wounded back down. I joined my company as a rifleman the 2nd or 3rd of October; I was not assigned as platoon sergeant until after our return to the Regimental Command Post (CP). The second attack against the ridge was launched on the 5th of October. The 3rd Battalion moved up in support of the 2nd Battalion, who was leading the attack.

The 2nd Battalion was successful in taking the prominent peak on the ridge that was designated Hill 931. Our 3rd Battalion now moved through the 2nd Battalion's position to secure the ridge leading north to Hill 851. As we climbed up the narrow trail that wound up Hill 931 we saw that it was lined with the bodies of GIs, covered with ponchos or blankets. They had been laid head to foot as you might line a path with logs or timbers. All around Hill 931 the mountain was littered with dead Koreans and Chinese. It appeared that there were hundreds of them lying everywhere. Seeing the enemy dead did not bother me so much. I looked on them with troubled curiosity but with emotional indifference. But every time I looked at a dead GI I got a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. While passing by the peak of the mountain, I noticed a rifle stock that had something carved on it. It was half buried in the loose earth, and I bent over and picked it up. Carved on the stock was a Hail Mary that read "Hail Mary, full of grace, Hail Mary, full of grace. Have mercy on us snipers in this our hour of death." I felt a heaviness in my chest and I tossed the splintered stock aside.

We moved forward of Hill 931 and occupied positions on the ridge previously held by Company K a week or more earlier. There we waited, but the next couple of days passed with no effort made by the Koreans and Chinese to counter attack. A couple of times we were brought to the edge of tension. One night we definitely heard movement right below and not far away. We opened up with heavy fire from our rifles for a few minutes and waited, but could not hear any further movement. We stayed alert the rest of the night, and when dawn appeared we could see two very dead wild hogs not too far below us, but no North Koreans appeared. I am sure some Korean patrols must have been sent out, and on occasion we would hear rifle fire from nearby on the ridge, but none came to our sector.

We did watch a hard fight that broke out in the mountains on our right flank one night. I should mention here that the battle for Heartbreak Ridge was largely fought at night because the darkness provided the cover essential to climbing up a mountain to dislodge an enemy that was looking down on you. Most all assaults were at night. A Marine Division was on our right flank over in the Punch Bowl, and they attacked the ridges to their front, creating a light show with tracers and shells. We watched the ebb and flow of the fight all night. We never learned what they were doing or how it came out.

One of the dominant aspects of daily life for an infantryman--seldom brought to anyone's attention in discussions, writings, or films--is the smell of death, of rotting flesh. This is the most repulsive, nauseating, and sickening of odors. About two or three feet from the edge of our hole was a dead North Korean who I would judge to have been there a week or ten days, but it was hard to tell with the very hot late summer weather that we had been having. There were other bodies all around us, and the mountain top reeked with the odor of death, but none were so close or so ripe as this one, and the aura of him night and day was almost more than we could bear. We had reached the point of desperation that led us to using our empty C ration cans to scoop dirt from the bottom or sides of our hole to try to bury him. We never got the job done. When we went down to the Regimental CP a week or so later, I noticed that the smell was still with me. My clothes and skin had absorbed the stench.

The artillery attacks against us were at irregular intervals and happened once or twice a day, mostly in daylight. The Koreans used the age-old system of a rolling barrage. They started at the bottom of our ridge and kept elevating after each fusillade to walk the barrage up to our line and over us. We could hear it coming, feel it hit, and hear it go. All we could do was hunker down in the bottom of the hole and hold our breath. Often these barrages were successful in that rounds hit close enough to a foxhole to cause casualties, and on occasion, a hole would take a direct hit. The worst attack that we ever had to endure, however, was from our own guns. A 155-mm battery shelled us late one afternoon, causing several casualties and two or three KIAs in the small portion of the line that I could see. My buddy, Babe, and I scrambled out of our hole after the barrage and ran to the hole next to us. A round had blown the hole in on top of the guys, but they were not seriously hurt. In the next hole, one of the GIs was standing up with a shocked look on his face, holding the barrel of his M1, but the wood stock had been completely torn away. Further down, a hole had been completely blown in and no one was to be seen, so we started digging and uncovered one occupant, scratched up but alive. One man was missing, and further down the line there were bodies. Artillery was a daily fact of life almost every day that we were on the hill.

The Brass must have been getting nervous about the lack of action to our front. Our artillery kept up an intensive fire with 8 inch, 155-mm howitzers and 4.2 mortars. The artillery batteries were in the valleys behind and below us and fired very frequently over the peaks and ridges that we occupied, particularly during the night. On occasion, the Navy battleships off the coast would fire their 16-inch guns over our positions. The 8 inch and 155-mm rounds that passed over our heads sounded low enough that we could have reached up and grabbed one. The 16-inch shells sounded like eighteen wheeler trucks speeding down a wet highway and they shook the ground under us. The most haunting of the night sounds was the hollow bass boom and reverberation of the 4.2 mortars that echoed through the valleys below us. There was something spectral, disturbing, and, at the same time, quieting about the sound. I can, on occasion, still hear the echoing of them through those deep valleys. After several days on the ridge we were taken back to the Regimental CP for an overnight break. While there we picked up a number of replacements.

We came back up on the ridge and were placed in positions on a finger that faced north with a clear view of the Mundung-ni Valley and the mountains to the north. The fatigue, sleep deprivation, bowel movements delayed for three or four days; forgetting to eat for a day or two at a time; matted, twisted hair with heads painfully sore from wearing a steel helmet night and day; beards itching and full of C ration leftovers; leg cramps, other discomforts too numerous or too personal to mention continued to be the condition of our daily lives. Above all, the stress of artillery and mortars coming down on us added to our misery. Also, we had not forgotten the fear of being overrun and the possibility of suffering the fate of Company K. The evidence was still lying on the ridge in the parts and pieces of its members. The shelling continued, theirs and ours.

The fighting intensified, and a French Battalion moved through us to take a Hill (851) to our front, and there was heavy, bunker by bunker, fighting for that hill for the next couple of days. They secured Hill 851 on the 13th or 14th of October. The 2nd Battalion of the 23rd moved against a Hill (520) on the west end of the finger we occupied and took it by means of one of the few bayonet attacks of the war. We took positions on the finger between these two battalions. I had no idea of why we were there or what our mission was other than to hold the ground we occupied. But we feared that whatever was happening, a North Korean/Chinese counterattack was certain.

After Hills 520 and 851 were secured we launched no further attacks nor pulled any patrols. We dug in our positions, along the northern-most point of the ridge, rode out the artillery and mortar barrages, watched and waited for them to come, listened to the fighting around us--but they didn't come. One night, about a week after we had returned to the ridge, the constant shelling stopped and all was quiet. The next morning dawned, a bright and clear mid-October day, but the enemy guns did not fire, and the quiet continued all day. Although unnerved somewhat by the silence, we were eager to get out of our holes to stretch, and since the quiet had lasted so long, by afternoon we felt it worth the risk to raise shoulder high above the rim of our holes. Some were even sitting on the edge of their foxholes, looking around and taking in the warm sun. In the very late afternoon, only a few minutes before dusk, we heard the rumbling of tanks coming from the valley far below us and to our left. All the time we had been on the ridge we had never seen anyone or anything in that valley and we weren't sure whether the tanks were theirs or ours. The action had always been to our front or in the valley to our right in the direction of the area called the Punchbowl. We thought the appearance of tanks in the valley was strange and our concern and curiosity was tempered with fear. With great relief, they turned out to be ours. I later learned that this breakthrough was the result of those first explosions that we heard the day we left Division Headquarters to move up to the 23rd Regiment. The Engineers had succeeded in blasting open a road from the Sat'er-ri Valley through a North Korean generated landslide that blocked passage into the Mundung-ni Valley.

The tanks rolled into view from behind the hills to our rear and headed north up the valley. The clanking of the tracks and the roar of the engines grew ever louder until there were a bunch of them moving at a high speed, kicking up a large cloud of dust. When they had moved up almost parallel with us, all the artillery batteries to our rear opened up with all guns directed on the mountains to our front. As if on signal, the tanks opened up with their guns at the sound of the artillery. It was not long before the Korean and Chinese artillery answered, taking out some tanks. The tanks raced at high speed up to a point about parallel to our position, fired all their ammunition, then turned and raced to the rear, I presumed to reload and return. Tanks were coming and going at an almost frantic rate. We had a ringside seat on our ridge high above the valley, with a clear view of the mountains erupting from the intensity of this attack. Although all the action made us nervous, we were fascinated by this spectacle and continued to watch as dusk deepened.

As darkness descended, we saw a very large column of what appeared to be North Korean civilians string out in a file across the valley a mile or so north of the tanks. It appeared that they were starting to dig, but it soon got too dark to see anything other than the muzzle flashes of the tank guns and the impact of the artillery rounds. The artillery had zeroed in on the Korean column and kept up a continuous, concentrated fire all night. When the sky had lightened enough to see the valley again, it revealed an unimaginable scene. A ditch had been dug across the valley from the mountains in front of us to the hills on the other side of the valley that must have been a mile distant. On top of the banks of dirt that had been thrown out of the ditch, and in the ditch, were bodies. A large number of bodies. Our artillery had kept up a steady fire at the ditch all night. At the crack of dawn, the tanks rolled up again and opened fire. When they had advanced to the ditch, some tanks with dozer blades filled in portions of it, and the column continued on to the village of Mundung-ni. The spectacle went on all that day and night. We received no further fire from the Koreans or Chinese for a day or two.

It probably wasn't more than two or three days later that we received word that the 23rd was being relieved. At dusk one evening, we were told to leave our holes and move back to the peak and down the trail to the Regimental CP. I experienced a momentary fright when I first got out of my hole and started to walk up to the peak. My knees buckled from being too long confined in a foxhole and I went down under the weight of my gear. The one desire I had in life was to get off that mountain, and it looked like my legs weren't up to the task. My first thought was, "I'll crawl off this damned mountain if I have to," and I started to crawl. The muscles in my legs soon began to function and I willingly surrendered the ridge to the Ethiopian troops that came up to relieve us. My platoon made one more trip up on the ridge a couple of days later, taking four or five casualties from artillery fire.


Note: From Army records it is reported that the 2nd Division had suffered over 3,700 casualties during the Sept. 13 - Oct. 15 period, with the 23rd Regiment and its attached French Battalion incurring almost half of this total. On the enemy side the North Korean 6th, 12th, and 13th Divisions and the CCF 204th Division all suffered heavily. Estimates by the 2nd Division of the enemy losses totaled close to 25,000. Approximately half of these casualties had come during the fight for Heartbreak Ridge. It was also reported that the tank and artillery attack had caught 3 fresh Chinese divisions moving in to position to renew the attack against the ridge. They were badly mauled. .

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