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With Honor and Dignity: Restoring the Borinqueneers' Historical Record

On June 10, 2014, President Barack Obama signed bills H.R. 1726 and S. 1174 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to 65th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment—also known as el sesenta y cinco de infantería. Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned Gold Medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Since George Washington received it in 1776, only 158 individuals and entities have been awarded the medal to date. Few combat units have earned this accolade. The 65th is the first unit to receive it for service during the Korean War and they join Roberto Clemente as the only Puerto Rican or Latino recipients.

For those who served in the 65th, the Congressional Gold Medal is part of a broader phenomenon. In recent years, the Borinqueneers, as the men of the 65th are known, have been honored across the United States with avenues, boulevards, parks and monuments taking the regiment’s name, and parades and days dedicated to its men. A decade ago no one would have predicted such accolades. Not only was el sesenta y cinco virtually forgotten or unknown to Puerto Ricans, but the sacrifice and contribution of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have served in the United States Armed Forces since 1899 had also been largely ignored by the general public.

The 65th was a distinctively Puerto Rican outfit. The enlisted men, non-commissioned officers, and some junior officers in the 65th were Puerto Ricans, while most senior officers were continental Americans. The origins of this segregated unit are found in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898 with the creation of what came to be known as the first “American Colonial Army.” Intended for service on the island, regarded as unfit for combat and overseas deployment, and colloquially called a “Rum & Coke” outfit, the 65th was kept far from combat until the Korean War, when it was sent to fight as first line troops for the first time.

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Puerto Ricans and the continental officers assigned to the regiment had a different opinion of the 65th. From its inception on May 20, 1899, to its transformation into an integrated outfit in 1953, the 65th never lacked for enthusiastic volunteers to fill its ranks. Most Puerto Ricans regarded the 65th as “our heroic regiment.” During the Korean War, thanks to the efforts of the press and the private and public sector, and the overt support of political leaders in  Puerto Rico, el sesenta y cinco became a Puerto Rican icon. However, little or nothing was known about the 65th a few decades after the war. Those growing up in Puerto Rico and many visitors have seen the monuments or transited through the Avenida 65 de Infantería. But the role that these soldiers played during the Korean War and what their sacrifice meant for Puerto Rico and the United States, for Puerto Ricans and Latinos, was mostly forgotten or simply unknown.

In 1999, when I was preparing to initiate graduate studies in Philadelphia, I came across a Sunday edition of the San Juan Star featuring Noemi Figueroa Soulet and her efforts to produce a documentary on el sesenta y cinco. I was impressed with what I read and decided to conduct my own research on the 65th as I trained as a military historian. Figueroa Soulet ignited the flame that led many individuals and groups to dedicate their time to rescue the regiment’s history. Now, a first rate documentary(The Borinqueneers), an official battle history (Honor and Fidelity), several magazine articles, academic works and studies, oral histories, as well as many fiction works, explore the 65th’s trajectory.  

Recovering the history of the 65th requires researchers to face moments of the regiment’s history which are not easy to digest. At moments their story reads as glorious, at other times like tragedy and injustice. It is because of the particular nature of the 65th and the special circumstances surrounding its participation in the Korean War that their heroics are recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal. It is important, then, to understand the unit’s history to fully comprehend the significance of their participation in that war and of finally earning the Congressional Gold Medal.  

Not too long after the cannons felt silent in the Spanish-Cuban, Filipino-American War of 1898, Puerto Ricans started to serve in the U.S. military. On May 20, 1899, General Davies published General Order No. 65 authorizing the formation of the Battalion of Porto Rican Volunteers. The military authorities added a cavalry battalion and changed the unit’s name to the Porto Rico United States Volunteers in 1900. With World War I imminent, Puerto Rican troops saw their role extended to include the defense of the Panama Canal. Upon their return to Puerto Rico in 1920, the National Defense Act of 1920 changed the unit’s name from the Porto Rican Regiment to the 65th Infantry, U.S. Army.   

The 65th served in North Africa and Europe during World War II, although not as first-line troops, while the defense of the Panama Canal and the island was entrusted to the Puerto Rico National Guard which had been established right after WWI. The 65th was a superbly trained and well-disciplined combat regiment. However, military authorities, driven by the racial prejudice of the time, kept the regiment far from the front. The military followed a policy of racial segregation in which combat roles, with a few exceptions, were reserved for White troops. However, the men of the 65th did what was asked of them. Upon their return home in 1945, they were received like heroes by an enthusiastic multitude crowding the streets of San Juan.

On June 24, 1950, war broke out in Korea. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard was activated, and the 65th was mobilized and soon ordered to Korea. The island’s participation in the Korean War was more significant than in previous wars since Puerto Ricans were entering this conflict very early, and they were going in as first-line combat troops as part of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. The decision to send the Borinqueneers as combat troops was influenced by several factors. Chief among them was Executive Order 9981, signed in 1948 by President Harry Truman, which paved the way for the desegregation of the armed forces. The degree of unpreparedness crippling the U.S. Army, which had rapidly demobilized after WWII, meant that well-trained units, like the 65th, were going to see action. The 65th had also impressed military observers during Operation Portrex—a combined arms military exercise that took place earlier that year in Vieques and its surrounding waters. Circles within the military continued to argue that “colored” troops could not make good combat soldiers. Hence, the performance of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in combat was to be heavily scrutinized by both the champions and the detractors of racial integration. 

On October 12, 1950, Puerto Ricans learned that the 65th was fighting in Korea.  The island’s newspapers were full of stories and pictures of the soldiers and the ceremonies held previous to their departure. Island-wide, the people of Puerto Rico joined to support the 65th throughout the war. Governor Luis Muñoz Marín often made reference to the men of the 65th in his speeches. The crest of the 65th was often displayed in public buses and train cars. Plazas and avenues were named to honor the regiment. Returning soldiers, especially the wounded, were received as heroes and treated to public receptions by government officials. Muñoz Marín himself attended the burials of the fallen and sent his recorded speeches to the troops in Korea. In those early days of the war, a day did not pass in which the island’s press failed to write about the Puerto Rican soldiers. Soldiers were paid to endorse local products, from non-alcoholic malt beverages to powder milk. Some of the soldiers’ exploits even found their way to comic strips. The 65th had become a national icon on the island and among the growing Puerto Rican communities in the mainland.

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It is not surprising then that over 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War. Many served with the 65th. The vast majority were volunteers who several times completed the island’s monthly recruiting quota. The chance that they may be sent to the 65th motivated thousands of Puerto Ricans to volunteer for service both in the mainland and on the island. Puerto Ricans participated fully in the war and suffered accordingly. Throughout the conflict 3,540 Puerto Ricans became casualties of war, of whom 747 were killed in action.

The Borinqueneers knew they were in the spotlight, and came to internalize their iconic status. On Christmas Eve of 1950, the men of the 65th, the last United Nations troops in Hungnam, were finally evacuated from the besieged port. As the 65th’s commanding officer, Colonel William W. Harris, boarded the last transport, someone handed him a copy of an article from the Pacific Stars & Stripes. The article quoted Corporal Ruiz of Puerto Rico as saying:

We are proud to be part of the United Nations Forces, and we are proud of our country. We feel that too many people do not know anything about Puerto Rico; they think that we are all natives who climb trees… We are glad for the chance to fight the communists and also for the chance to put Puerto Rico on the map. It will be a great accomplishment if we can raise the prestige of our country in the eyes of the world.

Things would change during the second half of the war and the record of the Borinqueneers would be temporarily stained. The replacement of combat-hardened troops with poorly trained—yet enthusiastic—recruits who spoke little English; an acute dearth of bilingual NCOs; and new Continental officers that did not speak Spanish (some of whom openly showed their disdained for Puerto Rican soldiers) led to tragic events during the battles of Outpost Kelly and Jackson Heights in the autumn of 1952. The back-to-back debacles were followed by a series of mass court martials in which eighty-seven enlisted men and one Puerto Rican officer received sentences ranging from six months to ten years, and total forfeiture of wages and dishonorable discharges for charges varying from willful disobedience of a superior officer to cowardice before the enemy.   

Such news was hard to swallow for the Puerto Rican public and an assembly of the soldiers’ parents drafted and sent a rather Spartan message to President Dwight Eisenhower: “PREFERIMOS VERLOS MUERTOS”. The parents’ resolution, published in the January 26, 1953 edition of the daily El Imparcial, stated;  “We prefer to receive the corpses of our sons, killed heroically on the battlefields of Korea, than to have them return stained with the stigma of cowardice.” The parents asked for their sons to have the chance to prove their accusers wrong by returning to the battlefield. Many of the sentenced soldiers wrote similar letters which were then published in the local press.  Governor Muñoz Marín formally demanded that the army allowed a delegation of Puerto Rican lawyers to travel to Korea and meet with the condemned soldiers. In a rare display of national unity, Puerto Ricans from different walks of life, and different political affiliations and ideologies, found common ground and rallied in defense of the Borinqueneers. They were joined by Continental officers who had served with the regiment. General J. Lawton Collins, who had visited the training camps in Puerto Rico and was very familiar with the 65th, told the House Armed Services Committee: “The Puerto Ricans have proved that they are brave and can fight as well as any other soldier when properly trained and equipped.”

Under pressure, the military agreed to conduct a review of the sentences—which ended up largely confirming the findings of the original trials. Few of the soldiers from the 65th had their sentences reduced. The review board found the verdicts and sentences to be correct in law and fact. In June and July of 1953, however, the Secretary of the Army reviewed the cases and remitted the unexecuted portions of the sentences of all but four of the accused. The soldiers who had their sentences remitted were returned to duty.

The Puerto Rican public was still roiling from the effects of the mass trials when more bad news reached the island. On March 4, 1953, an Army spokesman announced that the Army had decided to integrate the 65th Infantry with Continental troops, and to redistribute to other units the excess Puerto Rican troops. The 65th would cease to exist as a Puerto Rican unit.

The vast majority of the Puerto Rican soldiers serving with the 65th Infantry promptly condemned the army’s decision. Pedro Martir, a member of the 65th for seventeen years, declared that he would rather lose his pension than continue to serve in an integrated 65th. Other soldiers objected to integration on the basis of unit pride and the fear of being laughed at by continental troops because of cultural differences and their difficulties with the English language. Corporal Felix Rodríguez insisted, “I think is better to fight with my own people, we understand each other.” Private First Class Antonio Martínez, a Borinqueneer from New York, commented that racial prejudice might make life hard for Puerto Ricans serving in other regiments. The regiment, however, was quickly integrated as planned. 

Eventually, the Borinqueneers’ record would be restored greatly in part to the recovery efforts above mentioned. But the process began much earlier. In 1954, the 65th Infantry returned to Puerto Rico and was reconstituted as an all-Puerto Rican formation. The island had its regiment back, but not for long. The 65th was de-activated in 1956. But the unit’s story did not end in there. Colonel César Cordero, who had led the 65th during the battle for Outpost Kelly, and who had advanced to brigadier general and adjutant general of Puerto Rico’s National Guard, led an active campaign that culminated with the reactivation and transfer of the 65th from the regular army to the Puerto Rico National Guard in 1959. Unlike its participation during the war, this event received scant publicity and soon el sesenta y cinco and its epic ordeal during the Korean War faded into a distant and distorted memory. The regiment had been rescued but its history had not been restored.

The culmination of the recovery and restoration process is the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal. Obtaining the award comes from the efforts of the Borinqueneers CGM Alliance (BCGMA), founded by former Army Captain and Iraq War veteran Frank Medina. The medal has been awarded to other famous minority units including the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers, the Nisei Soldiers, and the Montford Point Marines. The Borinqueneers are the first unit from the Korean War to receive the award. The ethnicity and race of former recipients is no coincidence. All of these recipients fought during times of crisis to defend a country that at the time treated them, at best, like second class citizens. The medal recognizes the valor and sacrifice of units like the African-American marines and aviators whose bravery in combat, at a time when lynching was common and racial segregation the norm, disproved the myths of racial inferiority and unfitness for military service; Navajo code talkers, who at a time when their language was prohibited in Indian and reservations schools used it for communications in the battlefield and saved countless American lives; or Japanese-American soldiers who volunteered to join the army and requested combat duty while their families were kept in internment camps. The Borinqueneers made a similar contribution. The men of the 65th were willing to pay the ultimate price at a time when Puerto Ricans were openly labeled in the press and in academic circles “a problem” to be dealt with.  

The bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal passed both houses of Congress unanimously. When President Barack Obama signed the bill, it recognized the honorable service of the 65th, which during the Korean War had to fight on two fronts. On both fronts the Borinqueneers conducted themselves with honor and dignity.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published on 5 November 2014.