Hector Cafferata, a Korean War “Medal of Honor” recipient died Tuesday, April 12, 2016, of natural causes at his Venice, Fla. home. He was 86.
When first interviewed by the Sun newspaper for a story published in 2001 he was reluctant to talk about his accomplishments on a frozen North Korean battlefield. At the time he was a rifleman attached to the 1st Marine Division during the battle at the Chosin Reservoir 50 years earlier. Since then the old Marine has became less reluctant to tell his story.
Shortly after Cafferata’s story appeared in the Sun, the Lee County Board of Education named a school after him: The Hector A. Cafferata Elementary School in Cape Coral. He attended its opening along with this wife, Doris.
During the war he arrived in Korea after 20,000 “Leathernecks” of the 1st Marine Division had already landed in Wonsan, North Korea. They marched north toward the Yalu River separating Korea and China at the Chosin Reservoir 75 miles away. Right after Thanksgiving in 1950 the invaders were still at the reservoir when attacked by 10 divisions of Chinese infantry who threatened to overwhelm them.
It was at this point Pvt. Cafferata arrived. He was flown into battle as part of a group of replacement troops. They joined Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division at what became known as “Fox Hill. He and his buddy, Pvt. Kenny Benson, were in a foxhole listening post forward of their front lines overlooking Tokfong Pass when the Communist troops sounded their horns and whistles and charged at night.
Six hours later the 20-year-old green Marine was a seasoned “Leatherneck.” He and Benson survived a number of human wave assaults by North Korean infantrymen who failed to breach their part of the front line. More than 125 Chinamen who attempted to overrun their position lay dead in front of them.
Months later Cafferata would receive the “Medal of Honor” from President Harry Truman for his bravery during a ceremony at the White House. The commendation accompanying this nation’s highest military honor hung around his neck by the President reads:
“CAFFERATA, HECTOR A., JR.
“Citation: 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 fire team became casualties, creating a gap in the lines, 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 1 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 Stouthearted and indomitable, Pvt. Cafferata, by his fortitude, great personal valor, and dauntless perseverance in the face of almost certain death, saved the lives of several 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.”
When the company commander, who nominated Cafferata for the medal was asked why the award said he only killed 15 enemy soldiers, but in reality he killed 125, the officer said, ‘No one would have believed that one Marine with an M-1 (rifle) had killed that many enemy.’”
After the assault on “Fox Hill” by the Chinese was stopped by Cafferata and his fellow Marines, he was flown out by transport to a hospital in Japan for treatment. He would never regain full use of his arm and hand from the explosion of a grenade he attempted to return to the enemy.
Cafferata was back home at his family’s farm in Tennessee recovering from his war wounds and involved in spring planting when he got a call from the Pentagon. The colonel who called instructed him to report to the Pentagon in full dress uniform at a certain date and time. The officer explained he would be the guest of honor at a White House ceremony where the President would present him with the “Medal of Honor.”
“Sir, I’m too busy planting crops,” he replied. “Just put the medal in the mail.” He hung up the phone.
The next call Cafferata received was from the Commandant of the Marine Corps. In no uncertain terms the four-star general told him he would be there in his Class-A uniform standing before the President to accept the commendation.
“I was pretty tall, I was 6-foot, 3-inches. The President was a little guy and he was having trouble putting the ribbon that holds the ‘Medal of Honor’ around my neck. Finally I had to bend over, but even then he couldn’t get the ribbon around my neck. He ended up standing on my spit-shine shoes,” the old Marine recalled half a century later as he finished telling his war story.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, April 19, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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