Background and Initial Formation
The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge was a month-long campaign in the Korean War, lasting from the 13th of September until the 15th of October, 1951. The site of the battle was a seven-mile-long (11-kilometer) stretch of land over three sharp peaks, separated by steep valleys. The area is slightly north of today's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel that separated the two countries on the Korean Peninsula. United Nations (UN) troops had driven back the North Koreans and Chinese from Bloody Ridge a mile to the south, and the Communists had entrenched themselves at Heartbreak Ridge to slow their advance. The entire offensive in the area had been initiated by the United Nations, in an effort to disenfranchise the Communists of this important staging area for their attacks on South Korea.
MAKEUP OF THE FORCES
Communist North Korea had Chinese support on the ground for its attack on South Korea. To repel the attack, the United Nations had sent a force consisting chiefly of American and French troops, supported by nearby South Korean, Dutch, and Filipino forces. Major General Clovis Byers, commander of the United States X Corps, and the 2nd Infantry Division commander Brigadier General Thomas Shazo led the US forces. M4 Shermans from the 72nd Tank Battalion were called into play as well to bolster the infantry’s efforts. On the Communist side, the North Korean 6th, 12th, and 13th Divisions, and the Chinese CCF 204th Division led by Wenfang Luo, were under the ultimate command of Wen Niansheng of the Chinese 68th Army.
DESCRIPTION OF THE FIGHTING
The Communists had set up a formidable network of trenches on Heartbreak Ridge. This made it an even harder objective to assault from the steep inclines that led to the crests on the ridge line. Troop assaults were confined to twilight and nighttime, as the Americans were supported by aerial bombing as well as dense artillery and tank fire, which would commence in the morning and last all throughout the daytime hours. For weeks, the battle often seesawed between the opposing forces. One side would often capture a crest from the other, but only after suffering high casualties and depleting their ammunition. An inevitable counterattack would always follow, dislodging them, and the cycle would repeat itself. Desperate hand-to-hand battles punctuated the culmination of every assault. The American deployment of armor to actively support troop operations served as the turning point.
After two weeks of stalemate, the Americans determined that a lasting victory lay in destroying the resupply depots in the Mundung-ni Valley just west of Heartbreak Ridge. Anticipating this, the Chinese sent reinforcements to that very location. On the 11th of October, 30 M4 Shermans of the 72nd Tank Battalion, under the cover of air support and artillery barrages, raced across the valley. By coincidence, the Chinese 610th Regiment of the 204th Division was caught in the open, and was decimated. The following day, a larger armored force continued the relentless attack. Over the next two weeks, the Shermans overran all the supply depots, cutting off the Communist troops on Heartbreak Ridge. American and French forces finally eliminated all resistance in the hills through direct troop assaults by 13 October. Although the Americans and French suffered heavy casualties totaling over 3,700 men, the North Korean and Chinese forces lost an even more astronomical number of soldiers, in excess of 25,000.
Historical Significance and Legacy
Heartbreak Ridge was never again lost to enemy action after this decisive battle. Subsequent Communist assaults were bloody but unsuccessful and, although the United Nations' forces lost tens of thousands of troops, they did so without relinquishing the high ground. That the U.N. was willing to endure such terrible casualties for this objective demonstrated to the Communists that they would not win the war though brute force or intimidation. Furthermore, deprived of prime territory needed for their assaults on South Korea, the Communists realized that their dreams of unifying Korea under Communism was likely to become a lost cause. This convinced both sides to return to the armistice table.