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'Forgotten war' lives in memory

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden Dean Engel, retired UND professor, holds a photo of himself from his service in the military. Engel was one of only a few survivors from his company in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill.

GRAND FORKS -- Army 2nd Lt. Dean Engel and his platoon sergeant stood over the headless body of a Chinese soldier on a raised piece of Korean countryside named for its physical resemblance to a pork chop.

The body had been booby-trapped. Engel could see a green mortar or artillery round protruding slightly from beneath one leg.

Engel and Sgt. Marvin Ramthun stood there, discussing how best to clear the body so American infantry troops could move into the trench, when a Chinese mortar round hit just a few feet away. Engel escaped injury, but Ramthun was hit by shrapnel in the stomach, elbow and foot.

"He started to sag and would have fallen right on top of the booby-trapped body," Engel said. "I gripped his arm as hard as I could and told him to stand. He straightened his knees and stood right there, straddling the body ... until the dust cleared a bit and I got an infantry sergeant to help me lift him away."

It's been called "the forgotten war," the 1950-53 war the U.S.-led United Nations fought against North Korea and the People's Republic of China.

But "it's never been forgotten by me," said Engel, 84, a retired University of North Dakota professor.

Sixty years ago today, a battalion of Communist Chinese soldiers assaulted a company of U.S. infantry holding a forward outpost called Pork Chop Hill, initiating one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The story was told in a best-selling novel and in a 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck. Engel read the book and saw the movie. Before that, he was there.

Dirt and bodies

Engel graduated from high school in Kenmare, just after World War II. He earned a degree at what then was Minot State College and found a teaching job in Makoti.

He had been there just six months when the war broke out and he was drafted. After basic training and officer candidate school, he arrived in Korea early in 1953, assigned to the 13th Combat Engineers Battalion, 7th Infantry Division.

"They were on line when I got there, and they stayed on line until the war was over," he said. "We faced the Chinese there. Pork Chop Hill was an outpost in front of the lines."

Two days into the battle, after the initial Chinese charge had been pushed back, enemy artillery shells still fell at a rate of about five a minute. Engel and his sergeant made their way to the hill to look over trenches and bunkers to see if they could be rebuilt.

"There had been so much artillery, everything had been smashed up," Engel said. "There were Chinese still holed up in parts of the hill, and we ran into a couple of them. One shot my sergeant in the back, but the round didn't get through his armored vest. It just knocked him down.

"There was no vegetation at all, not a blade of grass -- just yellow-brown dirt. So many men had been killed or wounded, it always smelled bad. We were always digging up bodies even back on the line because the casualties of war were all over the place."

The worst moment for Engel came when six men of his platoon were digging a first-aid bunker. A shell came whistling in, the men dove into the hole they had been digging, and the shell followed. Four of the six died.

Engel came home with hearing loss from the shelling but no wounds. He went back to school, eventually earning a Ph.D. degree at the University of Minnesota. In 1964, he arrived at UND, where he taught in the field of speech and communication disorders until he retired in 1993.