Benjamin Wilson was in Hawaii when the Japanese unleashed their infamous attack on Pearl Harbor during the morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941.
The Washington state native had enlisted in the Army as an infantryman only a year before the attack and found himself stationed at Oahu’s Schofield Barracks, watching as Japanese planes devastated the unsuspecting naval base.
Despite the timing of his enlistment, however, Wilson would miss combat entirely during World War II, attending Officer Candidate School in 1942 and getting subsequently assigned to stateside training roles despite multiple requests by the young officer to lead men into combat.
At the war’s conclusion, Wilson would go back to Washington to work in a lumber mill, but the life didn’t agree with him, and the desire to serve called Wilson back to the Army.
Because the service was drawing down its officer ranks, Wilson signed back up as a private, but quickly rose through the ranks due to his previous experience.
It didn’t take long before he found himself as a first sergeant on the front lines of the Korean War, where he would become a legend among his men.
In June 1951, the men from I Company, 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment were tasked with taking the largest hill overlooking the Hwachon Reservoir in what is now the northeastern region of South Korea. The hill would later become known as “Hell Hill."
A higher ranking soldier, Wilson could have easily directed the charge up the hill from a safer position, but after missing combat in WWII, he was practically salivating for battle.
Wilson’s men quickly became pinned down by heavy machine gun fire as they made their way up the hill. Seemingly unfazed, the incensed first sergeant charged one of the machine gun bunkers and killed all four of its occupants with his rifle and grenades.
He then rallied his men for a bayonet charge of the entrenched Chinese soldiers, an assault that killed 27. But as more men caught up and rejoined the forward line following the charge, the enemy launched a counterattack to retake the position.
Sensing his men could be overrun, Wilson left cover and took off on a one-man charge across open ground against the oncoming enemy, killing seven and wounding two more as the rest scattered.
With his men now organized, Wilson led another assault that reached within 15 yards of the objective before a wave of enemy fire stonewalled the advance.
Wilson was wounded in the advance, but remained to provide cover fire after ordering his men to withdraw from the vulnerable position.
When the company’s commanding officer and another platoon leader were hit by enemy fire, Wilson charged — alone once again — on the enemy trenches, killing three with his rifle before it was wrested from his hands in fierce hand-to-hand combat.
Without hesitation, Wilson grabbed his entrenching tool and beat four more Chinese soldiers to death.
His mad scramble provided the time necessary for his unit to arrange an orderly withdrawal, during which time Wilson was wounded once again. Despite his mounting injuries, he continued to provide cover fire as his men moved down the hill.
Wilson would go on to receive the Medal of Honor for his herculean feats that day, but his story doesn’t end there.
With his men safely evacuated, the injured Wilson finally vacated his forward position when he was carried down the hill on a stretcher by two soldiers. Half way down the hill, the soldiers set Wilson down so he could get patched up and rest.
Rest evidently didn’t go over well with Wilson.
Without saying a word, he ditched the stretcher and quietly made his way back up the hill to rejoin the most forward detachment, where only days later, he’d once again engage in ferocious combat.
With his men pinned down once more while trying to take a separate hill, Wilson, with fresh wounds, again charged the enemy emplacements alone and personally repelled a counterattack over open terrain, killing a total of nine enemies and sending the rest into retreat.
Only when his days-old wounds reopened did Wilson finally acquiesce to requests by his men to leave the battlefield and receive medical care.
Once again, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but having already been put in for one for actions just days before, he received the Distinguished Service Cross instead.
In the end, the man who regretted missing combat in World War II despite being present for the conflict’s opening shots retired from the Army a combat-hardened major in 1960 — he was commissioned once again upon returning to the U.S. from Korea.
He passed away in 1988 at the age of 66.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.