Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient Hector A. Cafferata remembered as humble hero

By Frank Misurelli (Commentary), Picatinny Arsenal Public AffairsMay 26, 2016

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PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- This Memorial Day another great American hero will be mourned. United States Marine Corps Pfc. Hector Cafferata would tell you, however, that he was not a hero.

In the many years that Picatinny Arsenal has hosted its annual Armed Forces Day celebration, Cafferata served as the parade grand marshal and I had the honor of greeting him. I was amazed by his humility. He told me that when he was informed of his nomination for the Medal of Honor, he asked his commanding officer, "could they mail the medal to me?" They would not, and Hector was ordered to the White House to receive his Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on Nov. 24, 1952.

President Truman was much smaller than the six-feet tall Montville, New Jersey, native. "When Truman gave me the medal, he had to step on my spit-shined shoes to reach my neck and place the ribbon and medal over my head," he said. "He ruined my spit-shine on my shoes." Cafferata added. "I should have kept those shoes, because they had the foot prints of the President of the United States."

Hector Albert Cafferata, Jr, joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve on Feb. 15, 1948. He was assigned to the 21st Reserve Infantry Battalion in Dover, New Jersey, until he was called to active duty on Sept. 6, 1950. He embarked to Korea with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division and participated in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. This battle is well-remembered by surviving Marines because the 1st Marine Division fought in subzero temperatures and was surrounded and outnumbered. It has been said that this battle is where another chapter of Marine Corps history was written, because the Marines would never leave their dead behind.


Cafferata and his fellow 219 Marines were assigned the mission of holding a three-mile mountain pass called Fox Hill that was vital for the remaining Marines of the 1st Marine Division to breakout. The stakes were high, putting nearly 11,000 Marines in jeopardy.

Against this small force, an estimated 1,400 Soldiers of the People's Republic of China attacked, from Nov. 8 to Dec. 2, 1950. Cafferata and another New Jersey native, Kenneth Benson, found themselves the last two remaining Marines of their fire team. Cafferata waged a lone battle with grenades and rifle fire, exposing himself repeatedly, making him a target. Benson, or as Cafferata called him "Bens," reloaded his rifles and automatic weapons as quickly as he fired them. He and "Bens" held the line: Cafferata killed fifteen enemy Soldiers and wounded many more. When an enemy grenade was tossed near wounded Marines, he picked it up to hurl it away, but it exploded, severing part of one finger and seriously wounding him in his right hand and arm. A sniper bullet wounded him further, forcing him to seek medical treatment. At the end of the battle, 82 Marines were left standing.


Years later, Cafferata petitioned the Marines to have Benson also receive the Medal of Honor. It wasn't until early 2000 that Harvey Barnum, Jr, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs, and himself a Marine Medal of Honor recipient, awarded Benson the Silver Star, our nation's third highest award for valor, for his actions that day, at a ceremony at Picatinny Arsenal. Benson passed away on March 23, 2012 at the age of 80.

Cafferata's son Dale graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and became a helicopter pilot. Whenever his father visited him at an Air Base, the Air Force senior leadership would render honors to him, which he shunned.

Cafferata's Medal of Honor citation has the words "stout-hearted" and "indomitable" but should have included "humble," which he truly was. Cafferata passed away on April 12, 2016 at age 86 and was buried at the Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia.