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Battle of Heartbreak Ridge: Wikis

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Battle of Heartbreak Ridge
Part of the Korean War
Date September 13 – October 15, 1951
Location 38°18′N 128°1′E / 38.3°N 128.017°E / 38.3; 128.017Coordinates: 38°18′N 128°1′E / 38.3°N 128.017°E / 38.3; 128.017 in Yanggu County, Gangwon Province, South Korea
Result United Nations victory
Belligerents
 United Nations
 North Korea
 China
Casualties and losses
3,700 25,000

The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge was a month-long battle in the Korean War fought between September 13 and October 15, 1951. The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge was one of several major engagements in an area known as "The Punchbowl", which served as an important Communist staging area. The United Nations first initiated limited operations to seize the high ground surrounding the Punchbowl in late July.

The battle site is located in the hills of North Korea a few miles north of the 38th parallel north (the pre-war boundary between North and South Korea), near Chorwon.

For the Chinese, this battle is often confused with Battle of Triangle Hill, which occurred a year later.

Contents

Background

After withdrawing from Bloody Ridge, the Korean People's Army (KPA) set up new positions just 1,500 yards (1,400 m) away on a seven mile (11 km) long hill mass. If anything, the Communist defenses were even more formidable here than on Bloody Ridge. The U.S. 2nd Infantry Division's acting commander, Brigadier General Thomas de Shazo, and his immediate superior, Major General Clovis E. Byers, the X Corps commander, seriously underestimated the strength of the North Korean position. They ordered a lone infantry regiment—the 23rd—and its attached French battalion to make what would prove to be an ill-conceived assault straight up Heartbreak's heavily fortified slopes.

Battle

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Attempts to take the ridge

All three of the 2nd Division's infantry regiments participated, with the brunt of the combat borne by the 23rd and 9th Infantry Regiments, along with the attached French Battalion. The attack began on September 13 and quickly deteriorated into a familiar pattern. First, American aircraft, tanks, and artillery would pummel the ridge for hours on end, turning the already barren hillside into a cratered moonscape. Next, the 23rd's infantrymen would clamber up the mountain's rocky slopes, taking out one enemy bunker after another by direct assault. Those who survived to reach the crest arrived exhausted and low on ammunition. Then the inevitable counterattack would come—waves of North Koreans determined to recapture the lost ground at any cost. Many of these counterattacks were conducted at night by fresh troops that the North Koreans were able to bring up under the shelter of neighboring hills. Battles begun by bomb, bullet, and shell were inevitably finished by grenade, trench knife, and fist as formal military engagements degenerated into desperate hand-to-hand brawls. Sometimes dawn broke to reveal the defenders still holding the mountaintop.

And so the battle progressed for two weeks. Because of the constricting terrain and the narrow confines of the objectives, units were committed piecemeal to the fray, one platoon, company, or battalion at a time. Once a particular element had been so ground up that it could no longer stand the strain, a fresh unit would take its place, until the 23rd Infantry as a whole was fairly well shattered.

The fighting was savage—no quarter was given or asked by either side—and the ridgeline (called Heartbreak by the American infantrymen) changed hands many times in an exhausting series of attacks and counterattacks. Several units up to company size (100-200 men) were wiped out. The Americans employed massive artillery barrages, airstrikes and tanks in attempts to drive the North Koreans off the ridge, but the KPA proved extremely hard to dislodge.

Regroup and replan

Finally, on September 27, the 2nd Division's new commander, Maj. Gen. Robert N. Young, called a halt to the "fiasco" on Heartbreak Ridge as American planners reconsidered their strategy.

As long as the North Koreans could continue to reinforce and resupply their garrison on the ridge, it would be nearly impossible for the Americans to take the mountain. After belatedly recognizing this fact, the 2nd Division crafted a new plan that called for a full division assault on the valleys and hills adjacent to Heartbreak to cut the ridge off from further reinforcement. Spearheading this new offensive would be the division's 72nd Tank Battalion, whose mission was to push up the Mundung-ni Valley west of Heartbreak to destroy enemy supply dumps in the vicinity of the town of Mundung-ni.

It was a bold plan, but one that could not be accomplished until a way had been found to get the 72nd's M4A3E8 Sherman tanks into the valley. The only existing road was little more than a track that could not bear the weight of the Shermans. Moreover, it was heavily mined and blocked by a six foot (2 m) high rock barrier built by the North Koreans. Using shovels and explosives, the men of the 2nd Division's 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion braved enemy fire to clear these obstacles and build an improved roadway. While they worked, the division's three infantry regiments—9th, 38th, and 23rd—launched coordinated assaults on Heartbreak Ridge and the adjacent hills. By October 10 everything was ready for the big raid. The sudden onslaught of a battalion of tanks racing up the valley took the enemy by surprise. By coincidence, the thrust came just when the Chinese 204th Division was moving up to relieve the North Koreans on Heartbreak. Caught in the open, the Chinese division suffered heavy casualties from the American tanks. For the next five days the Shermans roared up and down the Mundung-ni Valley, over-running supply dumps, mauling troop concentrations, and destroying approximately 350 bunkers on Heartbreak and in the surrounding hills and valleys. A smaller tank-infantry team scoured the Sat'ae-ri Valley east of the ridge, thereby completing the encirclement and eliminating any hope of reinforcement for the beleaguered North Koreans on Heartbreak.

The armored thrusts turned the tide of the battle, but plenty of hard fighting remained for the infantry before French soldiers captured the last communist bastion on the ridge on October 13. After 30 days of combat, the Americans and French eventually gained the upper hand and secured Heartbreak Ridge.

Aftermath

Both sides suffered high casualties: over 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Korean and Chinese. These losses made a deep impression on the U.N. and U.S. command, which decided that battles like Heartbreak Ridge were not worth the high cost in blood for the relatively small amount of terrain captured. For this reason, Heartbreak Ridge was the last major offensive conducted by U.N. forces in the war.

Sporadic battles along the line of contact between U.N. and communist forces continued to be fought until the armistice was signed in July 1953, but they were usually initiated by the North Koreans or Chinese.

Private Pililaau

Private First Class Herbert K. Pililaau of Company C, 1st Battalion, 23d Infantry, was clinging to a small stretch of Heartbreak's ridge top on the night of September 17 when a battalion of North Koreans came charging out of the darkness from an adjacent hill. The company fought valiantly, but a shortage of ammunition soon compelled it to retreat down the mountain. After receiving reinforcements and a new issue of ammunition, the Americans advanced back up the ridge. North Korean fire broke the first assault, but Company C soon regrouped and advanced again, recapturing the crest by dawn. But by midday the men of Company C were once again fighting for their lives as the North Korean battalion surged back up the hill. Running low on ammunition, the company commander called retreat. Pililaau volunteered to remain behind to cover the withdrawal. Pililaau wielded his Browning automatic rifle with great effect until he too had run out of ammunition. He then started throwing grenades, and when those were exhausted, he pulled out his trench knife and fought on until a group of North Korean soldiers shot and bayoneted him while his comrades looked on helplessly from a sheltered position 200 yards (180 m) down the slope. Determined to avenge his death, the men of Company C swept back up the mountain. When they recaptured the position, they found over forty dead North Koreans clustered around Pililaau's corpse.

Pililaau's sacrifice had saved his comrades, and he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Popular culture

Heartbreak Ridge was used as the title and backstory of a 1986 movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. It was also mentioned in episode 25 1982 of M*A*S*H

Crèvecoeur (Heartbreak) is a French combat documentary released in 1955 featuring the battle and using actual war footage. It was nominated for the Academy Award Best Documentary Award for 1955.

Heartbreak Ridge (단장의능선) is a map for the RTS (Real-Time Strategy) computer game StarCraft. It was released in South Korea in 2009 and has since then been used in many leagues in the professional StarCraft scene, as well as in Non-Korean leagues and in amateur play.

References

  • Blair, Clay, The Forgotten War, Times Books, NY(1987)
  • Fehrenbach, T.R., This Kind of War, Macmillan, NY(1964)
  • Encyclopedia of the Korean War, ed., Spencer Tucker, Checkmark, NY(2002)

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