Hector Cafferata, who received the Medal of Honor after waging a lone battle — in ankle-deep snow and in his stocking feet — against enemy forces during the Korean War’s storied Chosin Reservoir battle, died April 12 at a hospice in Venice, Fla. He was 86.
He had complications from an infection, said a daughter, Deborah Cafferata-ReFalo.
Mr. Cafferata, a burly 6-foot-2 semipro football player, joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1948. Activated for the Korean War in 1950, he was a private assigned to the 1st Marine Division. His unit was charged with protecting an escape route in a mountainous region near the Chosin Reservoir in present-day North Korea.
Because the snow-covered ground was frozen, Mr. Cafferata and the other Marines in his small forward unit were unable to dig foxholes. They cut tree branches for shelter, then climbed into their sleeping bags.
About 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 1950, Mr. Cafferata was jolted awake by the sounds of an attack by Chinese forces. Other members of his squad were either killed or seriously wounded in the early stages of the ensuing battle, forcing Mr. Cafferata to gather weapons from his fallen comrades. He was accompanied by a fellow Marine, Kenneth Benson, who was temporarily blinded when a grenade exploded near his face, shattering his glasses.
“I told Benson, ‘Hang on to my foot. We’re going to crawl,’ ” Mr. Cafferata said in a 2001 interview with Florida’s Charlotte Sun newspaper. “We crawled up to a wash, where rainwater cut a shallow trench into the side of the hill. I told him, ‘This is where we’re going to stay.’ ”
Mr. Cafferata, who grew up in rural New Jersey, was a crack shot and accustomed to rugged conditions.
“While his comrade reloaded his rifle for him, Cafferata lobbed hand grenades toward enemy troops,” according to a 2005 account in the Marine Corps Times. “He soon retrieved his rifle and quickly fired all eight shots, dropping eight enemy soldiers.”
With Benson reloading, Mr. Cafferata waged battle for more than five hours as a virtual one-man fighting force. He shot his M1 rifle so much, he later recalled, “that thing turned to charcoal. I had to put snow on it to cool it off.”
Under constant assault from rifle fire, grenades and mortars, he grabbed live grenades and threw them back toward the Chinese forces. He swatted others away with his folding shovel, or entrenching tool.
“For the rest of the night I was batting hand grenades away with my entrenching tool while firing my rifle at them,” he said in 2001. “I must have whacked a dozen grenades that night with my tool. And you know what? I was the world’s worst baseball player.”
One exploding grenade severed part of a finger and left shrapnel embedded in Mr. Cafferata’s right arm. Still, he fought on, shooting off enemy soldiers as close as 15 feet away.
As daybreak came, Mr. Cafferata was seriously wounded by a sniper and was rescued by other Marines. After he was evacuated to a first-aid tent, medics saw that his feet were blue from frostbite. He had fought for hours without wearing boots or a coat.
His Medal of Honor citation described Mr. Cafferata as “stouthearted and indomitable” and officially credited him with killing 15 Chinese soldiers, “wounding many more, and forcing the others to withdraw.”
According to Peter Collier’s 2003 book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty,” officers from Mr. Cafferata’s unit later “counted approximately one hundred 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.”
After spending 18 months in military hospitals to recover from his wounds, Mr. Cafferata was presented the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for wartime valor, by President Harry S. Truman at a White House ceremony in November 1952.
Hector Albert Cafferata Jr. was born Nov. 4, 1929, in New York City and later moved with his family to Boonton, N.J. His father ran a paper mill.
Mr. Cafferata returned to New Jersey after the war, sold hunting and fishing equipment and worked for the state fish and wildlife service. He owned a bar in Alpha, N.J., before moving to Venice, Fla., in the late 1990s. An elementary school in Cape Coral, Fla., was named in his honor in 2006.
Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, the former Doris Giblock of Venice; four children, Lynn D. Cafferata Coovert and Deborah Cafferata-ReFalo, both of Charlotte, N.C., Dale W. Cafferata of Pinellas Park, Fla., and Heather A. Cafferata of Budd Lake, N.J.; a brother; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Cafferata occasionally attended events for Medal of Honor recipients but generally kept quiet about his wartime experiences.
“I did my duty,” he told the Sarasota Herald Tribune in 2014. “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.”