WASHINGTON – Rodolfo “Rudy” Hernandez, a U.S. Army paratrooper who received the Medal of Honor after single-handedly carrying out a bayonet assault on enemy forces during the Korean War, died Dec. 21 at a hospital in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was 82.
He had been treated for cancer and other ailments, the Fayetteville Observer reported.
Hernandez was a 20-year-old army corporal when, despite being severely wounded, he leapt from his foxhole and ran toward North Korean troops, armed with nothing more than the bayonet on his disabled rifle.
He was a member of Company G of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team when his unit was hit by an artillery barrage about 2 a.m. on May 31, 1951. Amid the rain-soaked darkness on what U.S. troops called Hill 420, Hernandez and his foxhole mate fired on enemy positions, even after both were wounded by shrapnel.
“I was struck all over my body by grenade fragments,” Hernandez told Larry Smith for the 2003 book “Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words.” A piece from an artillery shell pierced Hernandez’s helmet, shearing off part of his skull.
Then his rifle jammed.
“I was hurt bad and getting dizzy,” he told the Fayetteville Observer in 1986. “I knew the doctors could not repair the damage. I thought I might as well end it now.”
Although his commander had ordered a retreat, Hernandez summoned the will to keep fighting, later saying he was driven forward by his “inner man.” He fixed a bayonet to his otherwise useless rifle, threw six grenades at the North Koreans, then charged out of his foxhole, shouting, “Here I come!”
“Every time I took a step,” he recalled in 1986, “blood rolled down my face. It was hard to see.”
During the melee, Hernandez stabbed six enemy soldiers to death with his bayonet. His one-man assault caused the North Koreans to retreat and allowed his army unit time to regroup and launch a counterattack.
Injured all over his body from grenades, bullets and artillery shrapnel, Hernandez collapsed on the battlefield. His body was found the next morning, bloody and muddy, surrounded by the corpses of the enemy troops he had killed.
He had bayonet wounds in his back and through his lower lip and appeared to be lifeless. He was about to be carried away when a medic noticed some movement in Hernandez’s fingers. He was evacuated to a series of military hospitals and did not regain consciousness for a month.
He had lost several teeth, and his shattered lower jaw was rebuilt. Skin grafts covered a plastic plate that was inserted in his skull. He had to learn to talk and walk all over again and could speak only a few words by the time he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman in the White House Rose Garden on April 12, 1952.
Hernandez was one of eight Hispanics — and one of only three paratroopers — to receive the Medal of Honor in the Korean War.
Rodolfo Perez Hernandez was born April 14, 1931, in Colton, California. His parents were migrant farmworkers, and he grew up primarily in Fowler and Bakersfield, California. He joined the army in 1949, volunteered to serve in an airborne unit and parachuted into war zones in Korea.
After receiving the Medal of Honor, Hernandez spent years in therapy and rehabilitation. Volunteers in Fresno, California, built a house for him near a veterans’ hospital where he was being treated.
He spoke with difficulty for the rest of his life and never regained full use of his right arm, but he attended Fresno City College and later worked for the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles, counseling other wounded veterans. He retired in 1979.