By Katie Lange
Some of our nation’s biggest heroes come from humble beginnings. Army Cpl. Rodolfo Perez Hernandez’s story is a testament to that. The son of migrant farmers joined the Army to help earn money for his family in the late 1940s. He left the service a Medal of Honor recipient.
Hernandez was born April 14, 1931, in Colton, California, to David and Guadalupe, who emigrated from Mexico. At age 8, he left school to join his parents in picking crops in fields across the state to help provide for himself, his brother and two sisters.
By the time Hernandez was a teen, World War II had ended and many veterans had returned home, so there weren’t many options for work. To continue bringing in money for his family, he joined the Army when he turned 17. He volunteered to be a paratrooper and was eventually assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team.
Inevitably, his unit was sent to Korea.
On May 31, 1951, Hernandez’s platoon was defending its position on a hill near Wontong-Ni, Korea, when they were attacked by a much larger enemy force. Heavy artillery, mortar and machine gun fire led to casualties and low ammunition, so the soldiers were ordered to withdraw.
Hernandez was bleeding profusely from a head wound caused by artillery shelling, but he wasn’t ready to give up. He continued firing at incoming enemy soldiers until a ruptured cartridge made his rifle stop working. Hernandez later said that between the inoperable gun and his head wound, he thought that was the end of the road for him. So, instead of running for cover, he jumped out of his foxhole, threw several grenades and rushed the enemy.
Armed with only that inoperable rifle and a bayonet, Hernandez killed six enemy soldiers before the combination of grenade shrapnel, bullet wounds and bayonet stabs knocked him unconscious. But thanks to his actions, the enemy’s advance stalled, which led American troops to counterattack and retake their lost ground.
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Once the area was again secure, the corporal’s men found him surrounded by dead enemy fighters. A New York Times article said that Hernandez was so badly wounded that his comrades initially thought he was dead and started to put him in a body bag before one of them saw his hand moving.
Hernandez later learned that the head wound he suffered had sheared off part of his skull, paralyzing his right side. According to a 1967 issue of the Venice, California, Evening Vanguard newspaper, a bayonet had nearly ripped off his jaw. He had to relearn to walk and speak, and he learned to write with his left hand since his right was permanently damaged.
Hernandez was still recovering when he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at a White House ceremony on April 12, 1952, two days before he turned 21. By then he was able to speak a few words again, but his brother, Gilbert, escorted him to the ceremony to help him walk and communicate.
Hernandez spent years going in and out of hospitals, but his injuries didn’t slow him down.
According to the New York Times, after he left the Army Hernandez studied business administration for three years at Fresno City College in Fresno, California. He got married, had three children and became a counselor in Los Angeles for the Veterans Administration, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Hernandez retired from the VA in 1979 and moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, near the base where he began his Army career. Despite never regaining the use of his right arm, he took up golf and played into his 70s.
Hernandez’s first marriage ended in divorce, but he remarried in 1995. He and his second wife, Denzil, were together until he died on Dec. 21, 2013. He was 82.
Hernandez is buried at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake, North Carolina.
-This story originally appeared on defense.gov. It has been edited for USO.org.
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