The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (Hangul: 단장의 능선 전투; Hanja: 斷腸의 稜線 戰鬪; French language: Bataille de Crèvecœur), also known as the Battle of Wendengli (Chinese: 文登里战斗; pinyin: Wéndēnglǐ Zhàndòu), was a month-long battle in the Korean War which took place between September 13 and October 15, 1951. The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge was one of several major engagements in the hills of North Korea a few miles north of the 38th parallel (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.
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 US 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 single 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.
Initial attempts to take the ridge
All three of the 2nd Division's infantry regiments participated, with the brunt of the combat borne by the 9th and 23rd 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. The inevitable counterattack would then 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.
The battle progressed for two weeks. Because of the constricting terrain and the narrow confines of the objectives, units were committed piecemeal; one platoon, company, or battalion at a time. Once a unit could no longer stand the strain, a replacement would take its place, until the 23rd Infantry as a whole was fairly well shattered.
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, 23rd, and 38th,—launched coordinated assaults on Heartbreak Ridge and the adjacent hills.
By October 10 everything was ready for the main operation. On October 11, led by more than 30 tanks and supported by artillery and airplanes, the 2nd Division started advancing into the valley. 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. The Chinese unit under fire was the 610th Regiment of the 204th Division (Commander: Wenfang Luo), dispatched by the 68th Army (Commander: Niansheng Wen). The regiment's mission was to reinforce the North Korean defense along the valley against a possible American armored offensive; more specifically, it was ordered to prevent the Americans from reaching the town of Mundung-ni at all costs. Before the Chinese could dig in, the 2nd Division had already started the attack. Caught in the open, the Chinese division suffered heavy casualties from the American tanks as the armored vehicles penetrated to a depth of 6 km of the Chinese defense lines and caused great harm. However, the 610th Regiment managed to damage five Sherman tanks before the Americans halted the offensive. On October 12, the 2nd Division began an airborne and artillery bombardment that lasted for two hours on hill 635.8 and hill 709.6 before the 23rd Regiment, led by 48 tanks, assaulted Chinese defensive positions. Having learned the American tactics from the previous day, the 610th Regiment of the Chinese army had already reinforced the anti-tank trenches flanking the road that runs through the Mundung-ni Valley; in addition, a battalion of anti-tank guns was assigned to the regiment; 49 infantry guns, recoilless guns and rocket launchers were also distributed among the first-line soldiers. At point-blank-range, the Chinese infantry soldiers fired upon the advancing American tanks. Before the 23rd halted the assault at 1600hrs, the Chinese had destroyed or damaged 18 tanks at a high cost. The 23rd Regiment did not assault the hills on the next day. The South Korean 8th Division, however, starting from October 13, launched its attack on hills 97, 742.8, 650, 932.8 and 922. These battles were subsequently known to be brutal and costly; for example, a company of the Chinese 610th Regiment was defending hill 932.8. Under the attack of four battalions of South Korean soldiers, the company resisted for four days to the last man before the South Korean army took the hill on its 11th assault. On October 14, eight Sherman tanks in arrow formation attacked the Chinese positions along Mundung-ni Valley. All the tanks were knocked out by the cross-fire of Chinese anti-tank guns. Two more were lost on October 19 due to mines. During the 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. Yet the Sherman tanks did not penetrate through the Mundung-ni Valley and reach the town of Mundung-ni after 38 of the armored vehicles were destroyed and nine were damaged. The defense of the Mundung-ni Valley (or as it is known today in North Korea, the Battle of Height 1211), is today celebrated as a great victory in North Korea, with a claim of a total of 29,000 enemy casualties (certainly inflated), 60 tanks destroyed and 40 airplanes shotdown: North Korea propaganda today enhances the defense of the heights around the valley and a number of significant acts of courage and sacrifice (real or alleged), committed during the battle. Actually, the failure of the Allied offensive inside the valley and the heights above, gave to the North Korean Army one of the few victorious actions during the last phase of the war.
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 UN and US command, which decided that battles like Heartbreak Ridge were not worth the high cost in blood for the relatively small amount of terrain captured.
However, the UN offensives were to continue with equally high casualty rates for the 1st Cavalry in Operation Commando, and the 24th Division in Operation Nomad-Polar, which was the last major offensive conducted by UN forces in the war.
Public opinion had by this time turned against "limited-objective" operations of this nature, and military censorship resulted in far less media focus on the other October battles that followed Heartbreak Ridge.
Sporadic battles along the line of contact between UN 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.
In popular culture
Heartbreak Ridge is associated with the title and backstory of the 1986 movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. Eastwood's character is a fictional veteran of the battle at Heartbreak Ridge, (as is one other character), where he received the Medal of Honor. The movie itself is a fictional account of events that took place during actual operations in Grenada. The Korean battle was also mentioned in episode 25, (1982) of M*A*S*H.
Crèvecœur (Heartbreak) is a French combat documentary released in 1955 featuring the battle and uses actual war footage. It was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Documentary category 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.
- 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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