As the Cold War escalated, North Korea, supported by the USSR, invaded South Korea. The United Nations (U.N.) 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 event that exemplified this seesawing battle with little gain and heavy losses for both sides took place at Heartbreak Ridge. Fighting on the Ridge 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. Their intentions were to acquire better defensive terrain, weaken the North Korean position and make an overall 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. The site was originally called Height 1211 by the North Koreans who had developed well-fortified defensive positions there.
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. U.N. forces, composed of troops from the United States, France, Thailand and the Netherlands, were on the east side. The east side was intersected by streams and obstructed roads. The west side, occupied by North Korean troops, was more open and permitted easier travel. However, 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 the battle of Heartbreak Ridge commenced on September 13 with an ill-conceived assault by a single regiment moving straight up the slope. This assault 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 and then infantry would scramble up the ridge. The infantry would end up 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 to their original position.
A Strengthened Assault
The second phase of the assault at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea 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. One hero of the battle was Herbert Pililaau who earned a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Heartbreak Ridge battles.
Battle of Heartbreak Ridge
The battle at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea 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.
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