Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Originally enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve, Hector Cafferata Jr found himself called to active duty at the outbreak of the Korean War. His unit was tasked with defending a hill at the critical Toktong Pass, where Cafferata fought to protect his fellow Marines from a wave of enemy soldiers.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
The son of a Peruvian immigrant, Private First Class Hector Cafferata Jr. was born on November 4th, 1929 in New York, New York. In 1948, Cafferata enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. His career as a reservist in the 21st Reserve Infantry Battalion was upended when the Korean War broke out and he was called up for active duty. Within a month, Cafferata shipped to Korea with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
For the South Koreans, the War looked like a lost cause until American troops landed. They reinforced the Pusan Perimeter, and launched a surprise amphibious assault at Inchon, retaking Seoul and routing North Korean troops. But the People’s Republic of China, North Korea’s neighbor and ally, intervened as the US and UN forces pushed the North Koreans to the border. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers flooded across that border.
Hector and his fellow Marines dug in around the Chosin Reservoir. It was nearly Thanksgiving, and many Marines believed they would be back in the States for Christmas. Cafferata’s unit, Fox Company, occupied a hill overlooking Toktong Pass, a key road winding through otherwise unnavigable mountains. As Chinese forces descended on elements of 7th Marines up that road, Fox was attacked by enemy troops looking to cut off their escape. Fox would hold the pass for a week, allowing friendly forces to withdraw.
One day in particular would test every ounce of Cafferata’s bravery. On November 28th, an enemy regiment assaulted Fox’s hill. Cafferata, Armed with his rifle and grenades, held the line against the enemy’s attempts to pierce their defenses. He killed 15 enemy soldiers and wounded many more. Running up and down the perimeter, Cafferata braved enemy machine gun fire, mortars, and grenades. Slowing the enemy attack allowed his fellow Marines to reinforce that perimeter.
When the enemy attacked again, a grenade landed in a fighting hole occupied by wounded Marines. Cafferata dove in, grabbed the grenade, and threw it back. It detonated after leaving his grip, far enough to save him but close enough to mutilate one finger and seriously wound his hand and arm. Cafferata kept fighting until a sniper wounded him, forcing him to be medevaced to Japan. In 1951, he was medically retired from the Marine Corps.
On November 24th, 1952, Cafferata received the Medal of Honor from President Truman. Speaking about his experience, he said: “I did my duty. I protected my fellow Marines. They protected me. And I'm prouder of that than the fact that the government decided to give me the Medal of Honor.”
After his retirement, Cafferata married his wife Doris and had four children. He sold hunting and fishing gear for a living, and passed away in 2016. Cafferata is buried in the Quantico National Cemetery.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Declan Rohrs is our producer, León Pescador is our associate producer, Nathan Corson is our engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.