Nearly seven million people donned American military uniforms to fight in the Korean War.
Of those, just 145 received the highest military commendation this country can bestow…the Medal of Honor.
Saturday, at Arlington National Cemetery, the United States Postal Service, will issue a new set of stamps immortalizing a few of those Medal of Honor recipients, the 13 still alive when the series was commissioned. One of them was a man who called Fayetteville home.
His name is Rodolfo Hernandez. He preferred to go by Rudy. And though he spent much of his life in North Carolina – his life began near the vast farm fields of California in 1931.
"I was born in Colton, California. My parents were migrant workers."
Hernandez was one of 8 children. As he told the Medal of Honor Foundation’s Living History Project, he joined the Army at 17 because he couldn’t find a job. "I enlisted in the Army because I could send home money."
He volunteered to be a paratrooper and was first deployed to Germany. When fighting broke out on a peninsula that separates the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, Hernandez and the rest of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team were sent to war. The Living History narrator picks up the story:
"On May 31, 1951, Corporal Rudy Hernandez was part of a company assigned to defend a hill outside the small Korean town of Wonton-Ni. An overwhelming force of enemy troops had stormed the position in a fanatical fury. Raining artillery, mortar and machine gun fire down on Hernandez’s under equipped platoon."
Corporal Hernandez fired his rifle until it malfunctioned. He then exhausted his supply of grenades. Despite serious shrapnel wounds and a prior order to withdraw, Hernandez said he decided to fight on.
"I think no doctor was going to repair me so I might as well go out all the way."
Hernandez grabbed his bayonet and charged the oncoming enemy, yelling “here I come” as he began hand to hand combat. He fought until he fell unconscious. His actions are credited with giving his unit time to regroup and retake the hill.
Rudy Hernandez lay on the battlefield until the next morning. Still unconscious, and seriously wounded, he was put in a body bag. It was not until an army medic saw his fingers move did anyone realize Hernandez was still alive.
It took months of treatment, surgeries and rehabilitation before he was able to walk – and talk – again.
A little over a year after the battle at Wonton-Ni, Rudy Hernandez was in the White House Rose Garden, where he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.
Now he is honored again, with a new stamp that bares his image.
Hernandez died of cancer in late December of last year. And though the series officially honors the few surviving Korean War Medal of Honor recipients, the postal service decided to still print the stamps of Hernandez and three others who passed before this series could be put into circulation.