How 3 paratroopers earned the Medal of Honor in Korea
In response to the crisis in Korea, the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment was brought up to full strength and made a Regimental Combat Team on Aug. 1, 1950. The Rakkasans – a nickname of the 187th, from the Japanese word for “falling”– conducted two combat jumps in Korea. During the heavy fighting seen by the regiment, three members were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Beginning on Oct. 20, 1950, the 187th Regimental Combat Team began landing on drop zones around Sukchon and Sunchon as part of the larger Battle of Yongju. Richard Wilson, a combat medic attached to I Company, landed on Drop Zone William south of Sukchon.
The next morning, October 21, Wilson along with the rest of I Company moved out to clear the railway between Sukchon and Yongju. That afternoon the company was ambushed by a battalion-sized element of North Koreans.
As mortars and machine gun fire rained down on the paratroopers from three sides, numerous Americans became casualties. Wilson undauntingly began administering first aid to the wounded, ignoring the furious fire surrounding him. Disregarding his own safety, he continually treated casualties and assisted wounded men from the field.
When the company commander ordered the unit to withdraw, Wilson continued to evacuate the wounded and assured himself that no living men had been left behind.
However, word soon reached Wilson that a fellow soldier, thought to be dead, was seen trying to crawl to safety. Disregarding the protests of the other soldiers and his own safety Wilson returned to the battlefield to retrieve his stricken comrade.
He never returned.
Two days later, a patrol returned to the area and found Wilson lying beside the man he had returned to help. He had been shot several times attempting to administer aid and provide comfort. The two men died together.
Wilson received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
On Mar. 23, 1951 the 187th Regimental Combat Team once again donned parachutes and dropped into enemy territory. A week after landing, Company G was ordered to occupy Hill 420. That evening, the inevitable onslaught of Communists came for the paratroopers.
Bearing the brunt of the assault was the platoon of Cpl. Rodolfo Hernandez. As the enemy swarmed the hill under a barrage of artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, Hernandez held his ground and poured fire into the oncoming enemy.
The withering enemy fire wounded many of the men and forced the paratroopers to fall back. But Hernandez held firm. He exchanged grenades with the infiltrating enemy – receiving a painful wound in the process – and kept up the fire with his rifle.
As Hernandez continued to blast Communists with his rifle, a round exploded in the chamber, rendering his rifle inoperable. But Hernandez was undeterred. He fixed his bayonet and charged headlong into the enemy.
In the brutal hand-to-hand combat that ensued, Hernandez was indomitable. Shot and bayoneted multiple times, he dispatched his foes with bayonet and buttstroke. After killing six – and looking for more – he was finally taken out when an enemy grenade exploded nearby, delivering a grievous head wound and knocking him unconscious.
Hernandez’s sacrifice had halted the enemy advance. When friendly troops retook the position, they initially thought Hernandez was dead, but a medic noticed him moving his fingers and realized he was still alive.
Hernandez was presented the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1952.
In June 1951 the 187th left Korea for Japan where it would serve as the strategic reserve. But the Rakkasans were called back to Korea in 1952 to assist with quelling the Goeje POW camp uprising. After securing the camp, the paratroopers were recommitted to combat operations.
Sent to the hill fights near the 38th Parallel, the 187th began conducting combat patrols in support of operations there. On Aug. 14, 1952, a six-man patrol left for a deep penetration of enemy lines. Manning the radio that day was Cpl. Lester Hammond.
After going some 3,500 meters into enemy territory, the patrol made contact with a large hostile force. It was nearly surrounded and taking heavy fire. The men returned fire and attempted to break contact. They made their way to a small ravine that offered at least some cover but could go no further. They were trapped and several among them were wounded – including Hammond.
As the rest of the patrol sought shelter in the ravine, Hammond made the decision to stay in the open where he could observe the enemy and use his radio to massive effect. He began calling for fire on the encroaching enemy.
As the Communists picked up his position, Hammond held fast and continued to call for deadly accurate fire, breaking up several attempts by the Communists to overrun the paratroopers’ position. Hammond was wounded again but still refused to leave his position. His friends were in danger and he held their best chance for survival.
As friendly forces worked their way towards the beleaguered patrol, Hammond kept pounding the enemy with artillery. But the enemy was closing in and would soon overrun him and his teammates.
With no other choice, Hammond sent one last fire mission – on his own position. Maj. Walter Klepeis was on the other end and asked Hammond if he knew what he was asking for. Hammond knew full well what his actions would mean but his friends would have a chance at escape.
The final fire mission rained down on Hammond’s position and broke up another attack. A platoon from A Company soon arrived and evacuated the remainder of the patrol and recovered Hammond’s body.
For his selfless actions Hammond was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Two months later the Rakkasans ended their combat operations in Korea.