FORTUNE FAVORS THE BRAVE, SAYS the maxim. Especially if they're patient. On May 13, 1945, during the ferocious battle of Okinawa, James L. Day, then a 19-year-old Marine corporal, volunteered to lead a squad of men up Sugar Loaf Hill to help evacuate wounded Americans. By the end of the day, 8 of the 10 men in the squad had been killed—all but Day and comrade Dale Bertoli. And Bertoli lost the use of his hands when he was struck by dengue, a tropical disease that causes fever and severe muscle pain.

Day took refuge in a shell hole and, armed with his fallen buddies' weapons, single-handedly waged a three-day battle against the Japanese, by turns firing Ml rifles and a 30-cal. machine gun or lobbing grenades. When Day was finally relieved, the ground around his shallow redoubt was littered with the bodies of 158 Japanese soldiers. "I don't know why I was spared," says Day, who suffered shrapnel wounds and phosphorus burns. "I think it was plain luck."

Within a week, Day's battalion commander declared that he was recommending the young Marine for the Medal of Honor. But before the commander could forward the citation documents, he himself was killed. After the war, Day let the matter rest. "There were nine Medal of Honor winners from Okinawa, and all were killed in action," he says. "That made me think that [the medal] had to be for the supreme sacrifice."

But in 1995, after Day had retired as a general, his onetime company commander Owen Stubbens got the case reopened. Miraculously, some of the lost paperwork was found in the personal effects of a former officer on Okinawa. On Jan. 20, more than half a century after the teenage corporal had charged up Sugar Loaf Hill, the 72-year-old Day stood in the Red Room of the White House—his wife, Sally, and their four grown children by his side—to receive his medal from President Clinton. "They said I didn't cry," says Day of the presentation ceremony, "but I think I did."