When one of the most vicious battles of the Korean War broke out, Marine Corps Pvt. Hector A. Cafferata Jr. almost single handedly kept enemy forces from pushing through a line that, if broken, would have left thousands of U.S. troops stranded. For his never-ending courage through that ordeal, he earned the Medal of Honor.
Cafferata was born on Nov. 4, 1929, in New York City. His father, Hector Sr., was a Peruvian immigrant who ran a paper mill. The family eventually moved to the area of Montville, N.J., where his mother, Helen, grew up. Cafferata had two brothers, Godfrey and William.
Those who knew Cafferata when he was young said he was always looking out for others. He liked chess and loved to hunt — even doing so on his way to school sometimes, according to the Daily Record newspaper out of Morristown, N.J.
After graduating from Boonton High School, Cafferata played semi-pro football while also working at a manufacturing plant for the Sun Dial Corporation. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve on Feb. 15, 1948, and served with a local unit until he was called to active duty on Sept. 6, 1950. Cafferata was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. By mid-October, he was on his way to Korea.
Once Cafferata arrived in the newly war-torn country, his unit was ordered to march 75 miles from the Sea of Japan up the frozen peninsula to the Chosin Reservoir to push North Korean forces over the border into China.
This mission led to the storied Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Starting in late November and lasting for about 17 days, the battle was one of the most brutal of the war. About 30,000 troops from the United Nations, many of whom were U.S. Marines and soldiers, were ambushed and surrounded by about 120,000 Chinese fighters. They were forced to beat the enemy back and escape despite the rugged terrain and subzero temperatures.
During this crisis, Cafferata was one of about 220 Marines in Company F who were tasked with holding a three-mile mountain pass called Fox Hill, which overlooked the Toktong Pass. The route was vital for about 11,000 trapped Marines and soldiers to break free from the enemy that surrounded them.
In the early hours of Nov. 28, 1950, Cafferata snapped awake to the sounds of about 1,400 Chinese troops ambushing his company on the hill. Very quickly, all the other members of his fire team were killed or seriously wounded, except for him and fellow Pvt. Kenneth Benson.
Cafferata knew that if the enemy took the hill, it would create a gap in the line that the trapped UN troops were using to escape. So, without stopping to put his shoes on — despite ankle-deep snow — he got to work defending the hill. For about five hours, he fought the enemy using grenades and his rifle, with Benson feeding him ammunition.
Despite being targeted by the enemy, Cafferata moved up and down the line delivering accurate and effective fire. He killed several enemy fighters, wounded many more and forced others to withdraw until reinforcements could consolidate the enemy position.
When an enemy grenade landed in a shallow entrenchment that was sheltering wounded Marines, Cafferata evaded heavy gunfire to grab it and toss it away. The device exploded as it was leaving his grasp, severing part of a finger and seriously wounding his right hand and arm. Ignoring the intense pain, though, Cafferata fought on until a sniper’s bullet struck him and forced him to evacuate to a first-aid tent.
By the end of the fight on the hill, only 82 Marines from Cafferata’s unit were left standing, Army records showed. However, Cafferata was credited with saving many more men from dying. He was also considered an essential part of his unit’s ability to keep the path open for the other thousands of trapped Marines to escape.
According to his Washington Post obituary, field medics who first treated Cafferata saw that his feet were blue from frostbite since he’d fought for hours without boots or a coat. He was flown back to the U.S. and spent about a year and a half in hospitals recovering from his injuries, with doctors unsure at first if he would live. He did, becoming one of the men who survived the battle and were notably dubbed the “Chosin Few.”
According to an Army writer, when the humble Cafferata first learned he had earned the Medal of Honor, he asked if it could be mailed to him. That request was turned down. Instead, Cafferata was flown to Washington, D.C. He received the Medal of Honor on Nov. 24, 1952, from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony.
Cafferata’s Medal of Honor citation said he killed 15 enemy fighters during the intense firefight. However, author Peter Collier wrote in a book about the battle that the private’s fellow Marines counted more than 100 dead around the ditch where he had fought. Collier said that those Marines decided they wouldn’t put that number in their reports because they didn’t think it would be believed.
Cafferata retired from the service due to his wounds. He returned to New Jersey and spent the next few decades selling hunting and fishing equipment, working for the state’s Division of Fish and Game and owning a bar. In 1965, he married Doris Giblock, and they had four children: Lynn, Deborah, Heather and Dale, the latter of whom attended the Air Force Academy and became a helicopter pilot.
The Medal of Honor recipient eventually retired to Venice, Fla., but continued to embrace the military community. Cafferata served as the parade grand marshal several times during the annual Armed Forces Day celebration at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. He also joined President Barack Obama in Seoul, South Korea, in 2010 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.
Cafferata died in Venice on April 12, 2016, at the age of 86. He was buried at Quantico National Cemetery in Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., about a week later.
To honor him, a school in Cape Coral, Fla., now goes by the name Hector A. Cafferata Jr. Elementary School.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.