As the Cold War escalated, North Korea, supported by the USSR, invaded South Korea. The United Nations responded, largely to contain Communism. The Korean War was characterized by a battle line that moved back and forth frequently, with no lasting gains on either side. One bloody battle that exemplified this seesawing, with little gain and heavy losses for both sides, took place at Heartbreak Ridge, where fighting lasted from September 13 to October 15, 1951.
Leading up to the Fight
Following failed negotiations in the summer of 1951, U.N. forces launched an offensive against an area called the Punchbowl, an important communist staging area, with the intention of acquiring better defensive terrain, weakening the North Korean position and making a political point. This offensive developed into fighting on a series of hills called Bloody Ridge. U.N. forces captured Bloody Ridge, and North Koreans took up position on a nearby mass of hills that came to be known as Heartbreak Ridge -- called Height 1211 by the North Koreans, who developed well-fortified defensive positions.
The Geography of the Battle
Heartbreak Ridge, located a few miles north of the pre-war boundary along the 38th parallel, consisted of three sharp peaks with steep slopes and deep valleys in-between. U.N. forces, composed of troops from the United States, France, Thailand and the Netherlands, were on the east side, which was intersected by streams and had obstructed roads. The west side, occupied by North Korean troops, was more open and permitted easier travel, but the North Koreans fortified their trenches well with timber and machine guns and were well prepared to repel U.N. forces.
A Seesaw Battle
Fighting at Heartbreak Ridge commenced on September 13 with an ill-conceived assault by a single regiment moving straight up the slope. This was met with fierce resistance. The fighting began to develop a pattern: U.N. aircraft, tanks and artillery would fire at the ridge for hours, then infantry would scramble up the ridge, only to be exhausted and low on supplies when they got to the top. Communist forces would counterattack -- often under the cover of night -- and force U.N. forces to scramble back.
A Strengthened Assault
The second phase of the fight at Heartbreak Ridge was called Operation Touchdown. On October 5, 1951, U.N. forces launched this operation, which involved increased artillery support and more tank units. They finally captured all of the peaks on the ridge by October 15, 1951.
The Aftermath of Fighting
The battle at Heartbreak Ridge was the last major U.N. offensive of the Korean War. In November, North Koreans attempted to recapture the ridge, but the U.N. forces fought them back and kept control over Heartbreak Ridge for the rest of the war. Operation Touchdown was declared successful, as U.N. forces held the small disputed area and the line changed slightly. Both sides suffered greatly: U.N forces suffered 3,700 casualties, while Communist forces lost an estimated 25,000 lives.
- The Korean War: Years of Stalemate; Andrew J. Birtle
- Wheeling Jesuit University/NASA-supported Classroom of the Future: The Korean War
- The Korean War: An Encyclopedia; Heartbreak Ridge; Elizabeth Schafer
- Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Army; Heartbreak Ridge; John Edgecomb
- Combat Operations of the Korean War: Ground, Air, Sea, Special and Covert; Paul M. Edwards
- Almanac of American Military History, Volume 1; Spencer Tucker
- Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images