Published: Sep. 28, 2012 at 6:53 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 1, 2012 at 11:40 AM HST
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Hector Cafferata was a Marine reservist on inactive status when the Korean War broke out. At six feet two inches, 220 pounds, and a former semipro football player, Cafferata was a big, strong Marine. He also was an excellent marksman, having been a hunter since he was twelve years old.

On November 28, 1950, Cafferata's company was on a barren Korean mountainside overlooking a narrow road near the Chosin Reservoir. Under the command of Captain William Barber, its orders were to hold the Tokong Pass, the escape route for two Marine regiments in the area in danger of being cut off. Cafferata was unaware that a massive Chinese unit was very close by.

As darkness fell and the temperature plummeted below zero, the company commander sent Cafferata and three other Marines out to a listening post just beyond the American perimeter. They decided that Cafferata and his friend Kenny Benson would sleep while the other Marines took the first watch. Unable to dig a foxhole in the frozen ground, the two men cut down pine trees to serve as a windbreak, then took off their parkas and boots and climbed into their sleeping bags.

Around 1:30 a.m., the Chinese began a sudden massive assault; Cafferata and Benson awoke to a cacophony of enemy screams, bugles, and gunfire. Cafferata struggled out of his sleeping bag and grabbed his rifle. With Benson firing beside him, he emptied a clip into the troops closing in on them. Eight Chinese soldiers fell.

Cafferata and Benson moved back to take cover in a dry wash in which several Marines lay dead and wounded. They decided to stay to protect their fallen comrades. As they began shooting, a Chinese soldier heaved a satchel charge. It hit about 30 yards away, blowing several of the Marines into the air. When a grenade landed a few feet away, Benson picked it up to fling it back, but it exploded near his face, blinding him. Cafferata grabbed several weapons from the fallen Marines and shouted at Benson to load for him by feel.

Over the next seven hours, Cafferata never stopped shooting. The wooden front hand guard on one of his rifles started to smolder from the heat generated by his rapid fire. He moved along the wash, shooting the Chinese as they came up over its lip and batting away enemy grenades with his entrenching tool. During the battle, a grenade fell near Benson and him; Cafferata tried to throw it away, but it exploded as soon as it left his hand and blew the flesh off his frozen fingers. Isolated and alone except for his blind comrade, he fought until dawn, when some Marines finally made their way to the ditch.

Only after the Chinese force finally withdrew did Cafferata realize that he had fought through the freezing night in his socks and shirt. As he tried to retrieve his boots and parka from his sleeping bag, he was hit in the arm and chest. He was evacuated and hospitalized for 18 months. Later he learned that American officers had counted approximately 100 Chinese dead around the ditch where he had fought that night but had decided not to put the figure into their report because they thought that no one would believe it.

In 1952, back home in New Jersey, Cafferata was informed by telegram that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor and was to go to Washington to receive it. When he replied that he'd prefer to have it mailed to him, he was contacted by a Marine officer who barked at him, "You will get down here so that President Truman can personally give this Medal of Honor to you!" It was presented on November 24, 1952.