Rodolfo "Rudy" Hernandez's platoon, part of the 187th Airborne, was holding a hill near the Korean town of Wontong-ni on May 31, 1951, when it heard the weird symphony of bugles, whistles, and human shrieks that typically preceded a North Korean attack. It was 2:00 a.m., pitch black and raining. Soon the night erupted with enemy artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. Seeing the enemy advancing in overwhelming numbers, twenty-year-old Corporal Hernandez and the other soldier in his foxhole opened up with their rifles; almost immediately, both men were wounded.
Though the rest of the platoon retreated, Hernandez and his foxhole mate held their position and kept firing. When a shell ruptured in the chamber of his weapon, Hernandez climbed out of the foxhole and charged the North Koreans armed only with grenades and a rifle with a fixed bayonet. His actions stopped the enemy advance and gave his comrades time to reload their weapons, regroup, and counterattack. But by then, his men had lost sight of him.
Hernandez was found the next morning near death, lying among the bodies of the six North Koreans he had killed before falling to bayonet wounds and fragments from artillery shells. He was initially pronounced dead, but then someone saw a slight movement of his hand, and medics frantically began to work on him. He finally drifted up to semiconsciousness in a South Korean hospital a month later, but he still couldn't fully comprehend where he was, and he was unable to move his arms or legs, talk, or swallow. Doctors explained that shrapnel from an artillery shell had torn away a portion of his brain. After eight weeks, he was brought home to Letterman Hospital in San Francisco, where doctors replaced the damaged part of his skull with a plastic plate and covered it with hairless skin. It was months more before he uttered his first word. After several compliments on the cheerful look he had worn during his darkest days, he realized that his frozen "smile" was the result of operations on the bayonet wounds to his face.
When he eventually learned to walk again several months later, he was told he was to receive the Medal of Honor. His brother accompanied him to Washington—he was still so disoriented that when he heard the things he had done recited in the citation, he thought someone else's actions were being described. President Harry Truman presented the medal to him on April 12, 1952.
It took Hernandez several more years of treatment and therapy before he could use his body, though he never regained use of his right arm. Twelve years after he returned from Korea, he became a counselor to wounded veterans of Korea and Vietnam at the Veterans Administration. By letting them know how he had worked his way back to a happy and productive life, Hernandez believed he could give them hope that they, too, could overcome their own problems.