Duane Broten was 20 years old when he was captured by North Koreans who overran his U.S. Army regiment during intense fighting at Pork Chop Hill in what is now South Korea. The sergeant lay wounded in the trenches, drifting in and out of consciousness due to loss of blood from 27 shrapnel wounds.
When he was unable to walk with his captors to a POW camp, they apparently figured he’d die. So they left him lying on his back in a torn-up trench as the fighting continued. Five days later, he made a harrowing, now-or-never escape. That was on July 10, 1953, days before the war ended.
Due to Army paperwork mistakes and records lost for decades, officials said, the Roseau, Minn., native never received official recognition for being a prisoner of war.
On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., pinned a long-overdue bronze POW Medal to the lapel of a tearful Broten at a celebration attended by his family members as well as other veterans at the State Capitol.
“I want to thank my Lord and Savior for keeping me safe” during captivity, an emotional Broten read from notes before choking up. “I said many, many silent prayers.”
“Your prayers were answered, you spent six months in the hospital and you made it home,” Franken said. “I want to thank you for your courageous service. We are forever, ever in your debt.”
Broten, now 80 and living in Princeton, Minn., said: “I didn’t know until about a year and a half ago that there even was a POW Medal.”
He had received a Purple Heart for his injuries, which left him with poor vision in one eye, a missing finger and a serious shoulder injury.
Broten, uncle of the famous Broten hockey-playing brothers from Roseau, Minn., thanked Franken’s staff for pursuing the award.
Damien Drummer, of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ St. Paul office, unearthed the medical records that verified he was a POW.
Following the presentation, pictures were taken of Broten with his wife, three sisters, three of his six children and his four brothers, all four of whom served in the military.
After the photos, he recounted details of his saga:
Several times his enemies held guns to his head or started to choke him, he said.
But he was protected by a Chinese medic (Chinese Communists were fighting with the North Koreans) who persuaded the soldiers to let him live.
The medic also bandaged his badly bleeding foot (injured by a grenade), shared some crumbled bread with him and gave him water a few times, Broten said.
A few of his enemies were always nearby in the trenches until the fifth morning, he said.
“I woke up as normal but there was not a soul around,” he recalled. “I could hear them talking in the trenches. I thought: ‘This is my one chance.’
“I stood up and looked down the [curving] trench and saw nobody. I only had one boot on [the other foot was bandaged] and I climbed out and started running down the hill. They threw a grenade at me. I heard it behind me.
“I got tangled up in a roll of barbed wire but I kept going down Pork Chop Hill. I saw two American soldiers running up the hill and they helped me down the rest of the hill.”
Broten was flown to a Seoul hospital and eventually to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco. Over about six months, many pieces of shrapnel were removed, including a piece from his right eye, which never fully recovered.
After his honorable discharge, Broten returned home and had several jobs before becoming a U.S. mail carrier for 28 years until he retired.
“I am glad he is getting recognized,” said his son Rick Broten. “Anybody who lays their life on the line for their country deserves a little recognition … What more honorable thing is there?”