Medal of Honor recipient Rudy Hernandez immortalized in exhibit
By Drew Brooks | The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer | Published: June 25, 2014
When Rudy Hernandez described how he earned the Medal of Honor, he often struck the pose of a man pushing forward through daunting odds, thrusting a bayonet into the enemy.
Hernandez, who received the nation's highest military honor while fighting as an Army corporal in the Korean War, died late last year. But the pose will live on.
The soldier has been immortalized in a new exhibit at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville, N.C.
The exhibit, which focuses on paratroopers during the Korean War, is already on display at the museum ahead of Friday's official unveiling.
It features artifacts from the Korean War, including a coat and helmet from other soldiers who served with Hernandez's unit, the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team — known as the Rakkasans — and a display of the four paratroopers to earn the Medal of Honor during the conflict.
But the focus of the exhibit is the life-sized depiction of Hernandez thrusting his rifle into the chest of an enemy fighter with five other soldiers sprawled around them.
It depicts the moment on May 31, 1951, when a bloody and battered Hernandez — armed only with a grenade and a bayonet — stormed out of a bunker on Hill 420, bursting toward a group of enemy soldiers.
Hernandez's assault single-handedly stopped an enemy advance and spurred his fellow soldiers to counterattack, even though many believed Hernandez to have been killed.
He was originally pronounced dead after he was found lying among the soldiers who had been killed by his bayonet. He later spent months recovering from his injuries in hospitals in the United States.
Hernandez carried wounds from that battle for the rest of his life, including scars from being stabbed in the face. He had a number of health problems caused by his injuries. He died after battling cancer and other ailments, according to family and friends.
The scene in the diorama, taken from the history books and Hernandez's own memories, is violent.
That's how Hernandez wanted it, officials said.
In his final months before dying at the age of 82, Hernandez helped consult on the diorama.
He selected the proper hair, eyes and uniform, officials said. He helped the artist capture the right pose and corrected a version that showed Hernandez with his mouth closed.
"No, my mouth was open," Hernandez told officials. "I was yelling."
When Hernandez first saw his likeness in person, he sat with it for an hour, according to museum curator Nicole Suarez.
After looking it over, he made a request.
"He wanted more blood on it," Suarez said. "Rudy wanted it that way. He wanted it to be accurate."
Unlike other exhibits, well-lit on the museum floor, the Hernandez scene is dark. Lights on the background — a scene that would have been similar to Hill 420 — simulate the flares of the night's battle.
Background noise plays Chinese propaganda, gun fire and the occasional, haunting call of a enemy bugle.
"It was a fine line on keeping it a PG experience," said Jim Bartlinski, director of the U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum.
The final touches for the exhibit were made by museum officials and Korean War veterans.
They include a blasted U.S. Army helmet, sitting as though it was blown from Hernandez's head, and tin ration cans strewn about, which were used as a crude warning system by U.S. troops during the war.
The details were important, Bartlinski said.
"It's exciting for us to get it right," he said. "The veteran who cares is going to know."
The unveiling of the Hernandez diorama will kick off a weekend dedicated to the Korean War.
On Saturday, the museum will host its annual event to remember veterans of the war. The event starts at 10 a.m. and will take place in the Yarborough-Bank Theater.