On this day in 2005, a hero passes away. Many years earlier, then-Private First Class Joseph Rodriguez had made a fearless charge up a hill in Korea, with enemy grenades steadily rolling towards him. His action would earn him the Medal of Honor.
Rodriguez must have had his father’s words echoing in his ears that day. “He raised me up,” Rodriguez later remembered, “saying: Son, you be a man. You be a MAN. And you don’t be afraid to die, if it takes it.”
He concluded with a chuckle: “Of course, dad wasn’t up in the front lines being shot at when he told me that.”
Rodriguez began his Army career in Korea. On May 21, 1951, his company was trying to obtain control of a strategically important peak near the small village of Munye-ri. One platoon had already tried to take the hill, but they’d suffered too many casualties and pulled back.
Rodriguez’s company was sent in to make another attempt.
Unfortunately, the soldiers didn’t make it too far. Rodriguez’s Medal citation describes the “withering barrage of automatic weapons and small-arms fire” that greeted them. The enemy was ensconced in five emplacements. They were firing at our soldiers and rolling grenades down the hill toward the Americans.
“We got pinned down, just like our predecessors,” Rodriguez later described. “We couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go backwards, sideways. We were just pinned down. Really couldn’t see ‘em. All I knew is, it was up on top that the problem was. They had some bunkers, pillboxes. And I knew there were men in there shooting at us.”
Rodriguez wasn’t just going to sit at the bottom of that hill, helpless. He decided to do something about it. “I felt something had to be done,” he concluded. “I didn’t even think about it. I just did it.”
The young soldier ran up the hill, risking his life. He found the first enemy foxhole and threw in grenades. Then he found another and threw in some more grenades. When an automatic weapon was aimed at him, he took that weapon out with a grenade, too. At one point, Rodriguez ran out of grenades, so he ran back for more. Within a matter of minutes, he’d completed his “whirlwind assault,” singlehandedly ensuring that the hill could be secured. The enemy was on the run. Fifteen of them lay dead.
Can you imagine what the other Americans must have thought as they watched their assistant squad leader run up the hill like that? He was a virtual one-man army, plowing a path for everyone else.
Amazingly, Rodriguez was not wounded during his solitary assault that day. He was, however, badly wounded in another incident about a week later. Those injuries would leave him recovering in a Japanese hospital for three months. When he was released, he returned to the States. He got engaged to his sweetheart, and he received the Medal of Honor.
Three very happy events.
Rodriguez later spoke of what the Medal meant to him. “It’s a great responsibility,” he concluded, “because I can be invited to talk to the kids in our country, and I tell ‘em . . . . You don’t realize how lucky we are, so appreciate it. You be proud of your heritage. You’re American. You are America.”
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America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (James Willbanks ed.; 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Joseph C. Rodriguez)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Joseph Rodriguez, Korean War)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
President Harry Truman, Remarks Upon Presenting Medals of Honor to M. Sgt. Hubert L. Lee and Sgt. Joseph C. Rodriguez, USA (Jan. 29, 1952)
Robert Montemayor & Henry Mendoza, Right Before Our Eyes: Latinos Past, Present, & Future (2004)
Texas State Cemetery: Joseph Charles Rodriguez