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Korean War Medal of Honor recipient Rudy Hernandez dies

Medal of Honor recipients Rodolfo Hernandez and Salvatore Giunta, after a wreath laying ceremony Friday, March 25, 2011 at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Cpl. Rudy Hernandez cheated death on the battlefields of Korea 62 years ago. But the Medal of Honor recipient and Fayetteville resident couldn't live forever. The 82-year-old Hernandez died early Saturday at Womack Army Medical Center, according to friends.

Cpl. Hernandez was honored last month as grand marshal of Fayetteville's Veterans Day Parade.

He rode the parade route in a Korean War-era jeep, waving alongside Gov. Pat McCrory.

But shortly thereafter, Cpl. Hernandez was diagnosed with cancer and several other ailments, said friend Steve Sosa, a retired Army major who serves as president of the Rudy Hernandez Chapter of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment Association.

Mr. Sosa said he last saw Cpl. Hernandez in the intensive care unit of Womack on Friday.

At the time, doctors were hopeful, he said. But Cpl. Hernandez passed away about 1:30 a.m.

"Rudy was quite a gentleman in war and peace," Mr. Sosa said. "He was a soldier's soldier. Everybody loved Rudy Hernandez."

Cpl. Hernandez, the son of a Californian migrant farm worker, is survived by his wife, Denzil, and three children from an earlier marriage.

He moved to Fayetteville in March 1980 after spending his post-war years working as a veterans benefit counselor in Los Angeles.

Cpl. Hernandez was awarded the Medal of Honor in April 1952 by President Harry S. Truman in a ceremony held in the White House Rose Garden.

Following the award, Cpl. Hernandez became a counselor to wounded veterans of Korean and Vietnam wars, working for the Veterans Administration.

That work, as much as his actions in Korea, has become his lasting legacy, and in August, Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion Complex was rededicated in his name.

It was just after 2 a.m. on May 31, 1951 when Cpl. Hernandez felt the warm trickle of blood from a shrapnel wound on his head.

Cpl. Hernandez and other soldiers of Company G, 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team were holed up in foxholes near the Korean town of Wontong-mi, during a North Korean assault.

From their hole, Cpl. Hernandez and another soldier watched as the enemy approached and the night erupted in artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire.

As the rest of his platoon retreated after nearly exhausting their ammunition, Cpl. Hernandez and his foxhole mate held their position and kept firing.

When he finally did leave his position, it wasn't for retreat. Instead, Cpl. Hernandez charged the enemy armed only with a grenade and a rifle with a fixed bayonet.

His bravery single-handedly stopped the enemy advance and spurred his fellow soldiers to a counterattack.

According to the Medal of Honor citation, "The indomitable fighting spirit, outstanding courage and tenacious devotion to duty clearly demonstrated by Corporal Hernandez reflect the highest credit on himself, the infantry, and the United States Army."

The morning after the attack, Cpl. Hernandez was pronounced dead after being found lying among the bodies of six North Korean soldiers who had been bayoneted to death.

When a soldier saw a slight movement of Cpl. Hernandez's hand, medics began frantically trying to save his life.

A month later, Cpl. Hernandez would wake up in a South Korean hospital.

Eight weeks later, he was sent to a hospital in San Francisco where doctors replaced part of his skull.

Cpl. Hernandez couldn't talk for months following his injuries and had to relearn to walk. Part of his body remained paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Speaking to the Fayetteville Observer in 1986, Cpl. Hernandez said it was anger that drove him past the pain in Korea.

"I was just mad. It's all I could think of. I was hurt bad and getting dizzy. I knew the doctors could not repair the damage. I thought I might as well end it now," Cpl. Hernandez said. "They gave the order to withdraw, but I didn't. My gun jammed, so I stuck a bayonet in my rifle and threw several grenades from my foxhole. Then I got up and ran out to meet the enemy.

"Every time I took a step blood rolled down my face. It was hard to see," he added. "They said I killed six with my bayonet."

Later in his life, Cpl. Hernandez was a fixture at veterans events on and around Fort Bragg.

He was known to wear a cowboy hat and a beard, which covered a bayonet scar on his smiling face.

Mr. Sosa, who was the best man at Cpl. Hernandez's 1995 wedding, said the old soldier was always smiling.

Mr. Sosa said it was fitting that Cpl. Hernandez was honored during the Veterans Day Parade this year.

"He had a good time," Mr. Sosa said. "Rudy is quite a patriot. He loved it all."

George Breece, co-chairman of the parade, said the community and country had lost a great patriot.

"God bless his memory. I was honored to visit with him in his home and to see that smile on his face in this year's Veterans Day Parade," Mr. Breece said. "As we left the reviewing stand, he grabbed my arm and said, 'I will never forget today. Thank you .' At that moment, I had a lump come in my throat and I had to gather my emotions. It was like he was thanking me and saying goodbye at the same time."

brooksd@fayobserver.com
 

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