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This Day in History: Rudy Hernandez's bravery in Korea

On this day in 1951, a paratrooper engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Rodolfo “Rudy” Hernandez was perhaps an unlikely hero? He was the son of migrant workers, and he’d admittedly joined the Army only for practical reasons.

“I was seventeen years old,” he laughed many years later, “and it’s kinda hard to get a job. I enlisted in the Army because I could send home money.”

Once Hernandez joined the Army, he served wholeheartedly. He volunteered to serve as a paratrooper and was soon parachuting into danger in Korea.

“The first time we went into actual combat, I felt like Superman,” he chuckled. “I had my BAR, I had my ammo clips. And all it took was for one artillery round to go over my head and make me a small thing, like an ant crawling. I knew I was in for a real interesting time.”

Corporal Hernandez’s heroic action came on May 31, 1951, as his company defended a hill outside Wontong-Ni.

It was dark and rainy when the enemy attacked at about 2:00 a.m. Hernandez was in his foxhole, shooting at the enemy, but combat was fierce. The enemy force was larger than the American one, and it was well-equipped with heavy artillery, mortar, and machine-guns.

Our boys were suffering too many casualties and Hernandez himself was already badly injured. “They must have been a special regiment,” Hernandez said, “because they all looked like they were six feet tall. I was struck all over my body by grenade fragments, and artillery shrapnel caused my skull injury at the same time.”

His commander ordered a retreat. Soldiers around him were withdrawing, but Hernandez just kept going. “I didn’t want to withdraw,” he shrugged. Unfortunately, his rifle jammed.

“I was just mad. It’s all I could think of. I was hurt bad and getting dizzy,” he later described. “I knew the doctors could not repair the damage. I thought I might as well end it now.”

The young paratrooper shoved his bayonet into his rifle and yelled, “Here I come!” He was soon rushing out of his foxhole, launching a one-man attack on the enemy.

“Every time I took a step,” he later told an interviewer, “blood rolled down my face. It was hard to see.” Perhaps adrenaline—or sheer determination—kept him going? He killed six of the enemy before finally falling unconscious. By then, he was covered in grenade, bayonet, and bullet wounds.

Hernandez’s action had been enough to halt the enemy advance, but his fellow soldiers didn’t know what had happened to him. It was hours before they were able to retake the hill. When they finally came back, they found Hernandez lying still among the bodies of the enemy he’d killed.

“I heard it through one of my buddies that they put me in a body bag and they thought I was dead,” Hernandez later said with a smile, “and later they kind of come around and they saw my hand moving, and this guy’s not dead!”

His recovery was grueling. Hernandez had taken severe injuries to his head, which left him unconscious for a month. When he finally woke up, he had to relearn how to walk and talk. He never regained full use of his right arm, and he would ultimately spend years in rehabilitation. Nevertheless, he’d made it! He was standing on his own two feet when he received the Medal of Honor from President Truman in April 1952, almost one year after his heroic action.

“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege to serve our country,” Hernandez concluded.

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