Pvt. Hector Cafferata was a 20-year-old green Marine replacement. He joined Fox Company’s 2nd Platoon a few days before the first wave of Chinese troops attacked his listening post at the Toktong Pass during the early months of the Korean War that cold November night half a century ago.
Six hours later, the hulking 6-foot-3-inch Marine was a seasoned “Jarhead” who had survived a number of human wave assaults by the enemy. When daylight came more than 125 Chinese soldiers lay dead in front of his position. He was officially credited with killing 15 of the enemy and wounding many more because they didn’t think those considering him for a commendation would belive one Marine had killed that many Chinamen, according to his company commander.
Cafferata would receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. The young private played a key role in stopping the Chinese attack on his company’s defensive position atop a hill overlooking the pass that controlled the winding dirt road leading south to the coast and freedom.
Fox Company was surrounded by at least an enemy regiment. Even so, its job was to hold Tokfong Pass and the road that wound through it.
If it didn’t, parts of two Marine regiments at Yudam-ni, further to the north up the road near Manchuria and the Yalu River, could be cut off. If that happened 8,000 Marines might be annihilated by the enemy hordes flooding across the North Korean border from China.
When the 246 men of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment arrived on what would become known as “Fox Hill,” the temperature was well below zero. Despite the freezing temperatures, there was talk in the ranks of the war ending and the troops being home by Christmas 1950.
The 1st Marine Division—which included the 1st, 5th and 7th Regiments– more than 20,000 strong—was ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, NATO’s supreme commander in Korea, to march to the Yalu River and back. The distance from Hugnam, along the Sea of Japan, to Chosin was 76 miles. The general’s idea: Run the Communist troops out of Korea and unify the entire country as a democracy.
Before the march was over, the 1st Marine Division would be confronted by 21 enemy divisions, more than 200,000 soldiers. They would kill and wound 37,000 of the enemy. An additional 30,000 Chinese soldiers suffered frostbite. The Marines would lose 6,000 killed and wounded, and 6,000 more sustained frostbite.
“It must have been around 1:30 a.m. I was zipped up in my sleeping bag lying out on the frozen ground behind some rocks and pine trees we’d cut and put up as a wind break. My buddy, Kenny Benson, was next to me in his sleeping bag. We heard some rifle fire and a machine gun open up. I realized this was for real,” said Cafferata, who now lives in Venice, Fla.
“I unzipped my bag and grabbed my M-1 rifle. There were Chinese all around us. I shot five or six right in front of me immediately.
“I said to Benson, ‘What are you doing?”
“’Putting on my boots,’ he replied.
“’Forget the boots. Start shooting,’ I said.”
He grabbed his Browning Automatic Rifle, but it was frozen. It was 20 degrees below zero and nothing made of steel operated well in such severe temperatures.
“There were Chinese all around us, so I knew we had to get the hell out of there. Benson and I started crawling back toward our lines. I wasn’t sure where we were.”
All Cafferata knew for certain was that the enemy was shooting at them and they were shooting back.
“Then this grenade plopped down right in front of Benson. I threw myself off to the left to get as far away from it as I could. Benson picked up the grenade and threw it just as it exploded. The explosion broke his glasses and burned his face. He couldn’t see worth a damn and he was all shook up.
“I told Benson, ‘Hang on to my foot. We’re going to crawl.’ We crawled up to a wash, where rainwater cut a shallow trench into the side of the hill. I told him, ‘This is where we’re going to stay.’”
They found three members of their squad badly injured hiding in the same gully. Cafferata took the three injured Marines’ M-1s from them.
“By the time we looked up, the Chinese were right there on top of us again. Since Benson couldn’t see, because his glasses were broken, he loaded rifles and passed them to me,” Cafferata said. “For the rest of the night I was batting hand grenades away with my entrenching tool while firing my rifle at them. I must have whacked a dozen grenades that night with my tool. And you know what? I was the world’s worst baseball player. I couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a baseball bat, but I didn’t miss many that night.”
The first wave of Chinese troops had American-made Thompson sub-machine guns with 50-shot magazines. They charged the Marines on Fox Hill. They were followed by a second wave, shortly afterward, that threw hand grenades. Over and over they repeated that attack procedure and over and over they were repulsed by Cafferata and the Fox Company Marines.
The 3rd Platoon was on his left and the 2nd Platoon on his right. Cafferata was holding the middle all by himself. All the other members of his squad had been shot or killed.
As the enemy started pulling out at dawn, a live grenade landed in the gully next to the three injured Marines. Cafferata grabbed the grenade and tossed it out as it exploded. When it detonated, it blew the meat off one of his fingers on his right hand and severely injured his arm. He fought on.
“The next morning, Lt. McCarthy said to me, ‘There were over 125 bodies in that draw,’ where I was the only man shooting in that area,” he said.
In March of 1953 Lt. Robert C. McCarthy, commanding the 3rd Platoon wrote a personal account of the Marine’s defense of Fox Hill for The Marine Corps Gazette. It was McCarthy who recommended Cafferata for the Medal of Honor.
His article tells the story of their defense for five days and nights against overwhelming Chinese forces during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign in Korea. This story is now incorporated as part of the Marine’s Defensive Fundamentals, course taught at The Basic School for second lieutenants at Quantico, Va.
“The Fox Hill battle account by Lt. McCarthy provides the introduction to defensive fundamentals. It is a special and lasting tribute to those who fought that battle, gained that victory that your action has been chosen to motivate and instruct future combat leaders of the Corps,” official Marine Corps literature notes.
“There has never been a Marine company that stood up for five days against an enemy regiment. Not only that, but we were six or seven miles from the nearest Marine unit,” McCarthy explained. “During the course of the night action my squad got clobbered. I had 54 Marines at sundown and 22 the next morning. My 1st and 2nd squads got overwhelmed by the enemy.”
In the story the young lieutenant wrote for The Marine Corps Gazette, a half a century ago he said, “Two men from the 2nd Platoon joined this fire team when their fire team leader and BAR man was killed. One of these Marines, Pvt. Cafferata, was directly responsible for stopping what might have been break-through just to the left of the 3rd Platoon.
“Cafferata stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy fire of the enemy, and shot two M-1 rifles as fast as a wounded Marine could reload for him. Cafferata also grabbed one Chinese grenade, threw it out of the trench and pushed two others from the parapet.”
After the enemy advance was quelled, Cafferata decided to find his boots. Generally, enemy troops stayed out of sight during the day. They only came out in numbers to attack at night. He thought it would be okay to search for his missing boots to protect his freezing feet.
He walked by what he thought was a dead Chinese soldier. The injured enemy still had enough strength to lob a grenade at him that almost hit its mark. He went back and put the foe out of his misery.
As Cafferata continued to walk along on his boot quest, he suddenly realized people were shooting at him. The next thing he knew he was struck by an enemy bullet that shattered his right arm. He crouched down and made a run for it back to the wash where additional Marines had taken cover by then.
A short while later he found himself inside the company’s perimeter in a first-aid tent being treated for multiple gunshot wounds. He was not only shot in the arm, but he also had a second wound in his chest. And he suffered grenade damage, too.
Dick Bonelli was a 19-year-old Marine assigned to Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon. During the first night’s attack, he and a buddy spent the night throwing hand grenades at the enemy because their rifles were frozen and would not fire.
The next day Bonelli was made assistant gunner on a .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun. Just before the second day’s attack, Bonelli took over for the gunner.
“All of a sudden, on the second night, they broke through our front and we had to drop back. There were 40 or 50 of them milling around inside our perimeter. I turned my machine gun on them and so did Lt. Peterson. In a few seconds we cut them down.
“Once that was all over, I turned around and there were two more Chinese standing there with their guns yakking in front of me. I solved their problem. I turned my machine gun on them,” the Englewood, Fla. retiree said.
“Lt. Bob McCarthy, my platoon commander, told me to ‘bring that machine gun over here.’ So I brought it over and set it up in front of him. Capt. Barber, our company commander, came up to see what was going on.
“About that time, a burp gun opened up and a slug from the gun hit the captain in the leg. The bullet ricocheted and hit the lieutenant in the groin, too. They both went down.”
As it started getting light, the 3rd Platoon rushed the remaining enemy troops who had broken through their perimeter the night before and forced them to flee or die.
Despite his injuries Barber kept on fighting as he hobbled up and down the main line of resistance on a make-shift crutch. For his continuous efforts to keep his company in action, despite overwhelming odds and his own wounds, the captain would receive the second Medal of Honor at Toktong Pass.
For the next three days, Bonelli set up a machine gun position along the platoon’s perimeter and took on all comers. Waves of Chinese troops were cut down in front of his gun.
“On Dec. 2 a head popped over my machine gun nest. I said, “Who the hell are you?’
“Baker Company.’ came the reply. Marine reinforcements had broken through to Fox Hill. By this time, of the 246 men of Fox Company who had marched up the hill five days early, fewer than 90 were standing. The rest had been killed or wounded.
First Lt. Joseph Owen, one of the members of Baker Company who rescued Fox Company wrote, “Our first view of Fox Hill was from 1,000 yards out. It was an astonishing scene. It stopped our men in silent awe.
“The snow field that led up to Fox Company’s position was covered with bodies of several thousand Chinese soldiers. Many of them seemed to lie in peaceful sleep under blankets of drifted snow. Others had died in anguish, their bodies frozen in forms of pain. There were jumbles of dead men in padded green uniforms.
“Craters of dirt and snow made by 105 millimeter Howitzers from Hagaru were filled with bodies and parts of men. Thick bands of Chinese lay at the base of Fox’s perimeter. Most of them had fallen toward the Marines’ position. They had died as brave men facing the enemy.
“We stood in wonder. Many of us bowed heads in prayer. Some went to their knees. Others breathed quiet oaths of disbelief. Tears came to the eyes of raggedy Marines who had endured bitter cold and savage battle to reach that place of suffering and courage,” Owen wrote.
Seeing his buddy’s unit down the hill in front of his gun. Bonelli raced down to take his friend some food.
“Bullets started hitting all around me. The next thing I knew I took a round in the side and it knocked me ass over teacup,” he said. “I rolled behind a rock and passed out. Thank God someone saw me and dragged me to the first-aid tent.”
As Fox Company withdrew from the hill and began its march to Hagaru, 11 miles to the south, both Bonelli and Cafferata were put on trucks for the return trip. The Marines of Fox Company had held. This allowed thousands of fellow Marines to fight their way back to the pass and the start of the long road to freedom at the coast. It would be Dec. 12, 1950, before they reached the coast 70 miles away.
In 1951, negotiations for a cease-fire were begun. It was achieved on July 27, 1953.
Bonelli would receive the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest commendation for heroism.
One thing Bonelli remembers about the battle at Fox Hill was how much he prayed before, during and after each engagement. He carried a 3-by-5-inch prayer card of the Christ child with prayers on the inside. It’s worn and tattered from use, but he still has it in a scrapbook.
While recuperating from his injures in Japan he had an artist copy the picture on silk. The framed silk image is on his bedroom wall. In front of it on a dresser is a bud vase with a white carnation and a sprig of green fern.
‘Every day for more than 51 years I’ve put fresh flowers in front of this picture,” he said. “It saved my life.”
Cafferata’s thought about the long-ago war were pretty basic.
“Your fear is telling you, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ Your brain is telling you, ‘There’s no place to hide, you’ve got a choice—kill or be killed,” he said.
As for the Almighty, Cafferata noted, “I talked to God like He was a buddy. I’d say after a fire fight was all over, ‘Well, we made it again.’”
When it came time for Cafferata to receive the nation’s highest decoration for bravery, “above and beyond the call of duty,” he was back in the states. The young Marine was summoned to the White House. He told the person who called, “Just put the medal in the mail.” It took a call from the Commandant of the Marine Corps to convince Cafferata to fall out for the White House ceremony.
President Truman had trouble putting the ribbon around his neck.
“I was pretty tall and I was standing at attention. Finally, I had to bend over, but even then the President couldn’t get his arms around me to put the Medal of Honor around my neck without standing on my spit-shined shoes,” Cafferata recalled with a grimace decades later.
“Pvt. Hector A. Cafferata, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7thMarines, 1st Marine Division, Korea, 28 Nov. 1950.
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a rifleman with Company F, in action against enemy aggressor forces. When all the other members of his rifle team became casualties, creating a gap in the line, during the initial phase of a vicious attack launched by a fanatical enemy of regimental strength against his company’s hill position, Pvt. Cafferata waged a lone battle with grenades and rifle fire as the attack gained momentum and the enemy threatened penetration through the gap and endangered the integrity of the entire defensive perimeter.
Making a target of himself under the devastating fire from automatic weapons, rifles, grenades and mortars, he maneuvered up and down the line and delivered accurate and effective fire against the onrushing force, killing 15, wounding many more, and forcing the others to withdraw so that reinforcements could move up and consolidate the position.
Again fighting desperately against a renewed onslaught later that same morning when a hostile grenade landed in a shallow entrenchment occupied by wounded marines, Pvt. Cafferata rushed into the gully under heavy fire, seized the deadly missile in his right hand and hurled it free of his comrades before it detonated, severing part of one finger and seriously wounding him in the right hand and arm.
Courageously ignoring the intense pain, he staunchly fought on until he was struck by a sniper’s bullet and forced to submit to evacuation for medical treatment.
Cafferata by his fortitude, great personal valor, and dauntless perseverance in the face of almost certain death, saved the lives of his fellow marines and contributed essentially to the success achieved by his company in maintaining its defensive position against tremendous odds. His extraordinary heroism throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
Name: Hector Cafferata
Age: 73 (at the time of the interview – Dec. 2001)
Hometown: Parsippany, N.J.
Current: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 1948
Rank: Private First Class
Unit: Fox Company, 2nd, Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division
Commendations: Purple Heart, Medal of Honor, Presidential Unit Citation
Married: Doris Giblock
Children: Lynn Coovert, Dale Cafferata, Deborah ReFalo and Heather Cafferata
Name: Dick Bonelli
Age: 72 (at the time of the interview – Dec. 2001)
Hometown: New York, N.Y.
Current: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: November 1948
Discharged: October 1952
Unit: Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division
Commendations: Purple Heart, Silver Star Medal, Two Presidential Unit Citations, One Korean Presidential Unit Citation
Married: Mary Walker
Children: Richard II, Michael, Joseph, Stephen, Thomas, Theresa Colon, Marie Schwindt, Elizabeth Hoffler
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Friday, Dec. 14, 2001 and is republished with permission.
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4 November 1929 – 12 April 2016
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