At the outbreak of the Korean War, Hector Cafferata, Jr. was a semi-professional football player serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He received just two weeks of additional training before being shipped overseas.
Assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines just days before landing at Inchon, he, along with the rest of the 1st Marine Division, battled his way into North Korea. By November 1950, Cafferata and the Marines were preparing for an offensive in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir.
As the Battle of Chosin Reservoir began, the Marines of Fox Company were defending the Toktong pass. On the night of Nov. 28, the Chinese attacked to dislodge them.
What happened next is a legendary story in the Marine Corps — and Cafferata had a large role to play in that.
The Marines of Fox Company had been unable to properly dig in due to the frozen ground and instead cut and gathered tree branches and whatever else they could find to provide cover and concealment.
Due to an intelligence failure, the Marines were unaware that the entire Chinese 9th Army was advancing on their position. That night they crawled into their sleeping bags with minimal security on watch.
At around 0130, the Marines of Fox Company were awoken to a terrible surprise as all hell broke loose around their position. An entire Chinese division, the 59th, were attacking into the Toktong pass to cut off the 1st Marine Division.
The only things standing in their way were Cafferata and the rest of Fox Company.
Hearing the sounds of the attack, Cafferata sprung from his sleeping bag and hurried into the firing line. In his rush to get into the action, he left behind his boots and heavy coat.
In the opening minutes, most of Cafferata’s squad became casualties so he rushed from position to position gathering ammo and pouring fire into the attacking Chinese.
This video is an animation produced by Veterans Expeditionary Media that depicts the battle conditions that night.
He was joined by another Marine, Kenneth Benson, who was temporarily blinded after a grenade explosion had ripped his glasses right off his face. Together they made their way to a small depression and set up to make their stand against the Chinese onslaught.
As the Chinese pressed forward, Cafferata, a crack shot with his M-1 Garand, would empty his clip into the advancing infantry — eight shots, eight communists down.
He would then hand the weapon to Benson to reload while he threw grenades. When the Chinese attacked with their own grenades, he threw them back.
At one point he picked up his entrenching tool and batted the enemy’s grenades right back at them. According to a 2001 interview, Cafferata said he “must have whacked a dozen grenades that night.”
As the Chinese continued to advance, threatening to breakthrough his thinly held portion of the line, he gave them everything he had. He fired his weapon so much he had to pack snow on it to cool it off.
Eventually, Cafferata’s luck began to run out. As he hurled back yet another Chinese grenade, it went off just after leaving his hand. The explosion severed part of his finger and severely damaged his right hand and arm.
Though he was injured, Cafferata’s quick reaction saved several of his comrades.
Despite his wounds, he fought on. The Chinese couldn’t get past him.
Finally, just after daybreak, Cafferata was wounded by a sniper’s bullet and evacuated from the line. When the medics brought him to the aid station, they realized he was suffering from frostbite after fighting in subzero temperatures in his socks all night.
Despite Cafferata being out of action, the rest of Fox Company and the Marines at Chosin Reservoir still had quite a fight on their hands.
According to the Medal of Honor citation for Capt. William Barber, Fox Company’s commander, his 220 Marines held out “5 days and 6 nights against repeated onslaughts by fanatical aggressors.”
And of those 220 Marines, only 82 “were able to walk away from the position so valiantly defended against insuperable odds.” They carried their wounded out with them, including Cafferata and Barber who were both wounded on the first day of fighting.
Cafferata’s wounds earned him 18 months of recovery in various hospitals. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor.
The day after Cafferata’s amazing stand, the Marines “counted approximately one hundred Chinese dead around the ditch where he fought that night,” but according to one source, they “decided not to put that figure in their report because they thought no one would believe it.”
Cafferata was officially credited with fifteen enemy kills.
Cafferata, always humble, would later state, “I did my duty. I protected my fellow Marines. They protected me. And I’m prouder of that than the fact that the government decided to give me the Medal of Honor.”
Hector Cafferata, Jr. passed away on April 12, 2016 at the age of 86.