The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in 1951 was supposed to be a quick win by U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea. They had just pushed the North Koreans and Chinese off of the nearby “Bloody Ridge,” and they believed the communist forces could be pushed off the ridge quickly as they’d had a limited time to dig in, but it turned into a month-long slugfest that would leave almost 30,000 dead.
Here are six heroes who ensured most of those deaths came from North Korea and China:
Pfc. Herbert K. Pililaau
(Military Sealift Command)
Pfc. Herbert K. Pililaau
Infantryman Pfc. Herbert K. Pililaau’s company was holding a key position at Pia-ri on the ridge when, after repeated attacks, the platoon was nearly out of ammo. They needed to withdraw temporarily, but the near-continuous attacks made that challenging. Pililaau volunteered to stay in position as the men near him withdrew.
Communist forces charged the lines as the rest of the company withdrew, and Pililaau fired through his automatic weapon ammo, threw hand grenades until he ran out, and then fought hand-to-hand with his fists and trench knife until he was overwhelmed. He is thought to have killed more than 40 before dying and later received a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Sgt. 1st Class Tony K. Burris was part of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea.
(Pfc. James Cox, U.S. Army)
Sgt. 1st Class Tony K. Burris
Sgt. 1st Class Tony K. Burris was part of a series of attacks near Mundung-Ri from October 8-9, 1951. They hit an entrenched force and the attack stalled, except for Burris. Burris charged forward and hurled grenade after grenade, killing 15 and creating an opening. The next day, he spearheaded an assault on the next position.
He was hit by machine gun fire, but pressed the attack anyway. He took a second hit, but remained forward, directing a 57mm recoilless rifle team to come up. He drew fire from the enemy machine gun, allowing the team to take it out. Then, he refused medical evacuation and attacked again, taking out more machine gun emplacements before taking a mortal wound. He received a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Corpsmen assist wounded from the 7th Division at the Battle of Triangle Hill in 1952. May was from the 7th Division.
Sgt. Homer I. May
On September 1, 1951, Sgt. Homer May helped lead an assault squad against enemy positions, but the attackers encountered withering machine gun fire. The sergeant sent his men into cover and maneuvered against the guns himself and got eyes on three bunkers, and took one out with grenades.
He doubled back for more grenades and made his way back forward, taking out the other bunkers. The attack was successful, and May received the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts. He tragically died the next day while helping fend off an enemy counterattack against the hill.
U.S. infantrymen from the 27th Infantry Regiment defend a position near Heartbreak Ridge in August, 1952.
(National Archives Records Administration)
Cpl. James E. Smith
Army Cpl. James E. Smith was manning a defensive position on September 17 as waves of enemy forces attacked. His company was able to repulse attack after attack, but ammunition dwindled and the attacking waves got closer and closer to the American lines. As it became clear that the unit would need to pull back, Smith stayed in position to cover the withdrawal.
He fired through all of his ammunition and then fought with bayonet and his bare fists until he was killed. He is thought to have downed 35 of the enemy before succumbing, earning him a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.
French Sgt. Louis Misseri
French Army Sgt. Louis Misseri was part of an assault on September 29 against a hill that was part of Heartbreak Ridge. The French Battalion came under artillery and mortar attack but kept pressing forward. Misseri split his squad into two sections and led one of them against enemy bunkers on the hill, taking them out.
When the communist forces launched a counterattack, Misseri led the defense and, despite suffering a serious wound, hit 15 enemy soldiers with his rifle fire. He was able to reach the top of Heartbreak Ridge and remained in position until the rest of his force had withdrawn. He would later receive a Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S.
Infantrymen move to the firing line in July 1950 during fighting in Korea.
(U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Sgt. George R. Deemer
On October 10, Company F of the 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, was attacking Hill 800 as mortar and artillery fire rained down. Sgt. George R. Deemer went into the battle carrying a 57mm recoilless rifle. A companion helped him load and he advanced with the skirmish line, knocking out one enemy emplacement after another.
When the company took the Hill, he used the weapon to aid in the defense until he ammunition ran out. Then, he organized two machine gun teams and made three trips under fire to keep them supplied with ammunition. During the third trip, he was mortally wounded by mortar fire. He received a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.