Published October 24, 2021

From Farm to Front Lines

Written by
Kim Fundingsland
| The Dakotan
Ernie Hoelscher, 91, left his father’s Minot area farm at age 20 for the front lines in the Korean War. His combat action includes being one of only three survivors out of 40 occupying a hilltop defense against continual attacks by Chinese and North Korean forces. [Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan]
Ernie Hoelscher, 91, left his father’s Minot area farm at age 20 for the front lines in the Korean War. His combat action includes being one of only three survivors out of 40 occupying a hilltop defense against continual attacks by Chinese and North Korean forces. [Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan]

A Korean veteran's story

The stars and stripes fly proudly in his farmyard. His nights are still occasionally interrupted by vivid dreams, flashbacks of his most harrowing moments of military service. He was a member of the Color Guard for funerals of 300 fellow veterans.

The proud U.S. Army veteran is Ernie Hoelscher, 91, Minot, an example of what he calls “North Dakota determination.” He’s long since retired from working cattle and cropland, but still resides on the farm north of Minot purchased by his father in the 1920s.

A true patriot. A living definition of perseverance, someone who has always completely committed himself to the task in front of him. The 91-year-old says “maybe I’ll make it to 100”. Don’t bet against it.

In the shop located next to his farmhouse is an old tractor that Hoelscher is in the process of restoring, a project to keep active. Several times a week he rides his 4-wheeler to check on nearby fields and visit neighbors. Years ago, when his favorite horse passed, he had the hide made into a blanket so he could keep those memories close.

The family of 10 he grew up with on the farm has dwindled down to two, himself and a sister. Gone too are the men he trained with and fought alongside in the freezing temperatures of Korea. He was dug in, M-1 Garand in hand, on famous and bloody Pork Chop Hill when the Korean War ended.

His sudden transition from a hilltop farm home in rural North Dakota to fighting a determined enemy on hilltops in Korea began in October 1952 when the 20-year-old, 120-pound Hoelscher was selected for active service.

“I had 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky and then they shipped us out,” recalled Hoelscher. “I shot a lot of gophers on the farm, then it was humans in Korea.”

The Dakotan recently visited Hoelscher at his farm home. What follows is the interview with the veteran of the Korean War.

"I shot a lot of gophers on the farm, then it was humans in Korea."Ernie Hoelscher, Minot

The Dakotan – I noticed the U.S. flag in your yard. That has some special meaning for you, correct?

Hoelscher – Nobody is going to take that flag down. I’ve been on hills where you looked down in the night and there was a thousand Chinese coming up after you. We would shoot ‘em, use napalm. Some mornings they were laying two or three deep in front of you. We’d call in trucks to haul ‘em out. A bulldozer would push dirt over the top of them. The next night it was the same thing again.

The Dakotan – Once a soldier, always a soldier?

Hoelscher – In a way, yes. You always respect your fellow soldiers. If I go to town and see a veteran, I always shake his hand. You bet. I don’t care who he is.

The Dakotan – What was it like to be a North Dakota farm kid who traveled halfway around the world and was almost immediately fighting to survive?

Hoelscher—The first night out, there were 40 of us, the 2nd platoon. The third morning there was three of us left out of the 40. That was my first outpost.

The Dakotan – Ever wonder how you survived that?

Hoelscher – I had bandoleers and grenades hanging all over me. When I finally went in the next morning, I asked where the hell everybody was. They came out and said, you’re the only one left. That was my first combat. I fired so many rounds that I burnt the rifling out of my rifle. 

I told the sergeant that I wore my rifle out and they could send me home. He said, “It don’t work that way here Hoelscher. Here’s another one.”

The Dakotan – Would you say a North Dakota kid had some advantages?

Hoelscher – Determination. Some idiots would say they wished they would catch a bullet and get it over with. Not me. If they get to me, they’ve got to earn it. You don’t surrender. You might just as well fight to the end because they are going to shoot you anyway. Die fighting.

"You might just as well fight to the end because they are going to shoot you anyway. Die fighting."Hoelscher

The Dakotan – So you were a bit belligerent at times?

Hoelscher – In a deal like that you have to laugh once in a while or go nuts doing it, right?

One time I was helping the cooks, and my first sergeant said I was goofing off and was going to be put on point for a night combat patrol. I oiled my rifle, grabbed some ammunition, and we went out there where the Chinese were. Nobody screwed up, no fight. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning when we got back.

I said to the sergeant that I did a pretty good job. He had told me to behave myself and stay out of trouble. I told him I took the guys out and brought them all back and that I thought I did a pretty good job. He said, “Why don’t you just go to hell.”

The Dakotan – What did you feel, think about in your first combat?

Hoelscher – It’s either you or them. I got so damned used to shooting people. It was just something you do. If we didn’t go after them, they’d go after us.

One night Baker Company had 12 men on patrol and they never came back. The next day we went looking for them and found ‘em, all with their hands tied behind their back and all of them shot. We took them back.

That same day we saw some enemy coming up the hill in broad daylight, so we took care of them. That night we looked down the hill, and there they were again, coming up like ants. The commander put everybody in bunkers and told us to stay there. The enemy was just crawling everywhere.

From the bunker I was in I think we could have reached out and hit them in the head if we wanted to. All of sudden artillery opened up with air burst which sent shrapnel down to the ground. The next morning we came out and there were bodies of Chinese lying all over.

The company commander said to load them into trucks and to make damn sure they were all dead. If he wasn’t dead, he was when we put him in the truck. You get so battle hardened that you lose all honor. If the guy next to you gets shot it don’t bother you a bit. You keep right on going.

The Dakotan – How does a man deal with all that?

Hoelscher – Some guys would just fall down and cry like babies. That morning when I came in, only three of us left, I cried because I knew them all. It got me that way, but you gotta’ get up and go get ‘em.

"You get so battle hardened that you lose all honor."Hoelscher

The Dakotan – You were on Pork Chop hill?

Hoelscher – It was well known. You bet. We had some furious battles and lost a lot of men. I hauled men down the hill on litters and became blood soaked from my waist on down. I’ve seen so many dead. It was a long time ago.

The Dakotan – Some of these memories must stick with you?

Hoelscher – Every once in a while I’ll have a wild dream at night.

The Dakotan – What kind of soldiers were the Chinese?

Hoelscher – I think they were kind of doped up because they had no fear. They were blowing horns and screaming. When they came up the hill, we would just mow them down. You could kill 40, and there were more to take their place. They had a lot of men.

The Dakotan – Anyone else from your unit still alive?

Hoelscher – No. As far as I know, from the bunch I was with, I am the only one left, the last of the Mohicans.

The Dakotan – What was it like for a North Dakota farm kid to mix with servicemen from elsewhere in the U.S.?

Hoelscher – A lot of them came from the South. You know, in Korea it got cold like here in North Dakota, 20 to 30 below. They couldn’t handle the cold. I knew how to do it.

"A lot of [my fellow servicemen] came from the South. They couldn't handle the cold. I knew how to do it."Hoelscher

The Dakotan – You must have had your share of close calls?

Hoelscher – One time the shells were coming in, and this bunker fell in on this guy. I dug him out and got him breathing on his own. When I was hauling him down the hill, a piece of a shell came down and tore into my boot. When we headed for a jeep a big shell came in and blew the jeep all to hell. They shelled that hill for 2 ½ hours a day for 20 days.

There was a shell that blew me into the air. When I came to, the medic said, “I thought you went to hell that time.” I couldn’t say anything. I could hardly breathe. It took me a couple of hours to get enough oxygen back in me so I could even get up and move.

I took bullets in the back, probably from a burp gun that can put out about 600 rounds a minute. We had the Chinese we were fighting and the North Koreans too. I thought it was going to be the end of me. I thought I would bleed to death. They took X-rays and told me I was lucky to be alive, that the bullet had just missed an artery.

The Dakotan – Was there a time when that North Dakota determination, and being a good shot, got you maybe more attention than you bargained for?

Hoelscher – They took me out one night and had me memorize a map. I had to go in elephant grass two miles behind enemy lines. I had a corner that I had to get to by 3 o’clock in the morning. I laid in the grass like a snake. A guy came out and was looking around and I had to figure out if he was with a whole platoon or what. I crawled up a bit and took him out.

I was supposed to wait until daylight to get to this French army base where I’d be safe. It was about a mile-and-a-quarter away, so I took off running like hell. I was getting hungry, so this French soldier took me into the mess hall. A lieutenant came in, just lookin’ at me. He made me uneasy. Finally he said, “Were you the guy that shot that Chinese general down the road here last night?” I said no. He sat there lookin’ at me and said, “You know, you are small, you can hide in places a big man can’t. I bet you can run like a rabbit too.”

Later my guys came in a jeep. They grabbed me and flung me around. They said they never thought they’d see me again. They’d been listening to the Chinese on the radio and said the Chinese were out looking for me. I didn’t ask who I shot and they didn’t say. Nope. Nope. Nope. Three things – keep your mouth shut, do what you’re told, and don’t ask questions. Don’t let some secret out. It was an order for me to do it, so I had to do it.

"I took bullets in the back . . . I was lucky to be alive . . . the bullet had just missed an artery."Hoelscher

The Dakotan – Do you remember your last day of combat?

Hoelscher – I was along the 38th parallel, north of Seoul, when the war ended. We stood on our hill, and the Chinese were coming out of holes like gophers down there. We waved, and they waved back at us. After his discharge from the Army Hoelscher returned to his family farm near Minot. He and his wife Shirley still reside there today.

Stay connected to the latest news
Subscription Form (#3)

About the Author

Trending Now
The Dakotan Newsletter
Subscribe to get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox
Newsletter Form (#4)
© AndMuse, LLC 2024 Login Email
LIVE: 2022 Minot Mayoral Forum
Click to Watch Live
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram