American heritage is remarkable and incredibly inspiring. The celebration of the traditions and beliefs that society considers essential to its history and culture keeps that heritage alive. America is a country formed by diversity centered around the idea of freedom and opportunity. We are not free unless we are all free. What people are willing to do to preserve that freedom for us is a source of inspiration. The life of Joseph C. Rodriguez represents a tradition of recognizing heroes and the belief in a multi-cultural society. His actions and background is a prime example of American heritage that still inspires today.
Korean War Escalates
By 1950, the Korean War was in full swing. General Douglas MacArthur ordered an amphibious invasion of North Korea’s coast with 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division. The division landed in Pusan and continued to move to seize key terrain to cut off enemy escape routes. On November 27, the Americans came under massive attack from the Chinese Communist Forces who had intervened in the war. The attack caught the Americans off guard. Units were separated with some elements as far as 250 miles apart.
Drafted into service
Joseph C. Rodriquez grew up in San Bernardino, CA. While his family was impoverished, Rodriquez found the means to attend a few years of college and entered the workforce. As the conflict on the Korean Peninsula escalated, there was a need for soldiers. Rodriquez was drafted and joined service with the U.S. Army in October 1950. After completing training, he deployed to Korea as an infantryman in February 1951. The Army assigned him to Company F, Second Battalion, Seventeenth Infantry Regiment, Seventh Infantry Division. He became part of the follow-up operations following the Battle of Pusan Perimeter that occurred in the Fall of 1950.
A Private Takes Action
By May 1951, Private First Class Rodriquez was part of a counter-attack near the near the village of Munye-Ri. His unit was ordered to attack a hilltop dominating a ridgeline. The Chinese Forces defended the ridge with machine gun positions and entrenched infantry. American infantry would get within 100 yards before the enemy would repel them with a fury of fire. An adjacent platoon made three attempts to take the hill and were beaten back each time. The company commander ordered Rodriquez’s platoon to take the hill. They got within 60 yards before the enemy stopped them.
Rodriquez and his fellow soldiers were pinned down. They could not move without incurring massive casualties. The enemy began to roll hand grenades down the hill. Rodriquez recalls, “I just got angry. I got very angry. We were also helpless, and we couldn’t move.” He jumped into action and began running up the ridge. Bullets kicked up dirt around him as he made his way up the steep grade. He tossed five hand grenades and used his rifle to disable a pillbox and a machine gun position.
Rodriquez did not stop as the enemy continued to fire. He recalls, “All I knew is it was up on the top that the problem was. And I ran out of grenades. So, I ran back to where the men were at, still pinned down. And I collected a few more grenades and went back up. By then, I finished throwing those grenades, the firing stopped…When we were up on top, I knew they had some bunkers, pillboxes, and I knew there were men in there shooting at us yet. The grenades didn’t get them. So, I got some more grenades and tossed them into the bunkers.”
A Hero is Born
Rodriquez’s actions broke the enemy’s defense. It allowed U.S. forces to secure a strong strategic point and regain lost ground from the enemy assault the week before. A week later, Rodriquez entered the hospital for battle wounds. The Army sent him to Japan for recovery. Once he recovered in the Fall of 1951, the Army told Rodriquez that he could return to his unit, but he would not be allowed to fight. Commanders submitted his name for the Medal of Honor and did not want to risk losing him. He was frustrated since he was unaware of the award, but Rodriquez accepted his fate. After several weeks, the Army flew him back to the U.S. for President Harry Truman to present the Medal of Honor on January 29, 1952.
Inspiration for Action
After many years, an interviewer asked Rodriquez why he decided to take action, “It goes back to my upbringing, I guess. Dad is from the old country, Mexico. You know, that macho, machismo stuff. He had it. And he raised me up saying, son, you be a man. You be a man. And you don’t be afraid to die if it — if it takes it. I never gave it any thought.”
Rodriguez remained in the army and promoted quickly through the enlisted ranks. In June 1952, he earned a commission as an officer in the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers. For the rest of his military career, he served in the United States, the Far East, Vietnam, Latin America, Korea, and the Panama Canal Zone. After thirty years of service, Joseph Rodriguez retired as a Colonel in 1980.
In an interview with the Veterans History Project, Rodriguez shared what the Medal of Honor meant to him, “…it represents the actions of many that are never observed, never seen, accomplish what I did or even greater. It definitely changed our lives…the fact that I came from a poor family like many others, that I’ve been exposed to so much at high levels…It’s exposed us to many beautiful things.”
In his retirement, Colonel Rodriguez would talk to schools, civic groups, and veterans groups. He counts the experience as one of the beautiful things in his life. “A lot of us do not appreciate where we live. A lot of us have never experienced anything to compare it with. Well, I have. And, you know, many Americans don’t realize–how lucky–how fortunate we are to be living in our country.”
His message to school children is poignant, “Just ’cause I spent 30 years in the Army doesn’t mean you should…But whatever you do, make it good…Take pride in what you do.”
Rodriquez would tell folks, “I’m an American. We’re called Hispanic-Americans because of our heritage. And I’m proud of my heritage. And that’s something else I tell the youngsters, whether they’re white, brown, yellow, black. I tell them, be proud of your heritage. And whether you’re Irish-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, you be proud of your heritage. But remember most of all, you’re American. You are America.”
I share Colonel Rodriquez’s view. In my travels with the Army, I would stop and think how fortunate we are to have the freedoms and opportunities that we have. I look back to my own family at how they immigrated, farmed and worked the soil from sunrise to sunset each day for multiple generations. Their work created a new life for generations to follow. I look back at my extended family on my step-father’s side and see a similar experience. They were Mexican-American migrant workers who traveled the Southwest U.S. to earn a living in the fields and ranches to provide for their family. This story is not new. Many families from different cultures working to better their lives, their community, their country. That is the American heritage.
Colonel Rodriguez is a product of the American heritage that helped build the country. His life is a symbol of an immigrant nation in search of freedom and opportunity. Our country’s future depends on our ability to seek out similarities rather than our differences. His life represents the best qualities of America.
If you want to learn more about Colonel Joseph C. Rodriquez, watch his interview, Joseph Rodriguez, Medal of Honor, Korean War.
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