Roughly 60 years ago, 91 soldiers from Puerto Rico's 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers, were court-martialed and sentenced for desertion and disobedience during the Korean War (1950-1953).
Puerto Ricans at home were shocked by the news. This regiment had a "brilliant record of heroism in battle," according to General Douglas McArthur. Congress, the Puerto Rican government, and the press demanded an investigation. The U.S. Army backed down, attributed the breakdown to a language barrier and overturned all sentences. But the Army did not fix the damage undeservedly done to the regiment's overall reputation.
Most court-martialed soldiers continued to serve in the U.S. Army. The Borinqueneers would have been forgotten after the war but for dedicated individuals and organizations who want Congress to honor the regiment with the Congressional Gold Medal. To this effect H.R.1726 and S. 1174 have been introduced but to pass, the legislation must be cosponsored by at least 290 congress people and 67 senators. Surviving Borinqueneers are in their 80s and 90s, and time is of the essence.
The 65th Infantry Regiment was the last segregated unit in the U.S. Army, dating back to 1898 when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. Due to prejudices of the time, the regiment was not assigned, for the most part, to direct combat positions in World Wars I and II. Puerto Ricans would not see frontline action until the Korean War.
War is the great equalizer. For Puerto Ricans, the opportunity to prove their worth to the U.S. could not have come at a better time.
The early 1950s was a period of great political turmoil in Puerto Rico. Luis Muñoz Marín, the first elected governor, had just come to power in 1949. The following year the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party attacked the governor's mansion and attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman. Puerto Rico did not have its own constitution nor its own official flag until 1952. Puerto Rican participation in the Korean War would allay fears of sedition and prove that Puerto Rico, which was about to begin drafting a constitution, was a worthy partner of the U.S.
It was in Korea that the 65th Regiment adopted the moniker Borinqueneers, derived from the island's indigenous name, Boriquén. Even though the regiment was primarily Puerto Rican, it also included Mexican Americans, Virgin Islanders, Filipinos and African Americans.
Detractors called the regiment the "seeeexty feeeeth" but the Borinqueneers surpassed all expectations in the conflict between U.S.-backed South Korea and China-backed North Korea. They held back the Chinese while the Marines retreated from the Chosin Reservoir (North Korea). They charged the Chinese in the last battalion-sized bayonet assault in Army history. They saved the 3rd Division from being overrun by an entire North Korean regiment.
In 1951 General Douglas MacArthur wrote, "I am indeed proud to have them under my command. I wish that we could count on many more like them."
Unfortunately, in September 1952, the Borinqueneers experienced a reversal when tasked with defending Outpost Kelly (North Korea). Overrun by the Chinese, they suffered their highest number of casualties in the war and were traumatized by the sight of body parts and mutilated captured comrades, some still alive.
The commanding officer, a Puerto Rican lacking combat experience, was relieved of his duties. Blamed for insufficient discipline, the Borinqueneers were forced to shave their mustaches until they could prove their manliness.
But mass humiliation could not begin to address the regiment's endemic problems. These included ammunition and officer shortages; a rotation schedule that removed the most combat-experienced men; the arrival in 1952 of inexperienced soldiers with little understanding of English; the diversion of bilingual Puerto Rican officers to other units; insufficient military training and tactical errors. To worsen matters, the Chinese underwent a massive buildup in 1952. These factors, not cowardice, are to be blamed for the ensuing Jackson Heights debacle.
In October 1952 the Borinqueneers, tasked with the Jackson Heights (North Korea) defense, were pushed to the brink by the Chinese. Soldiers refused to fight. When Colonel Carlos Betances tried to convince his men to attack, one replied, "Colonel, I'd rather take a chance and be shot down here than stay up there and for sure I'll die."
Other units in Korea, like the 23rd Infantry, experienced mass disobedience but the Puerto Rican regiment was the only one singled out for courts-martial. Furthermore, prior to 1952, the 65th regiment had the lowest court martial rate of the three regiments in the 3rd Infantry Division.
In the spring of 1953, four months before the war ended, the 65th was integrated with 250 Puerto Ricans remaining. The regiment won accolades for its Outpost Harry (North Korea) defense.
By the end of the war the 65th had participated in nine campaigns. Soldiers earned 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, more than 250 Silver Stars, more than 600 Bronze Stars and more than 2,700 Purple Hearts.
About 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the Korean War, mostly with the 65th Infantry Regiment. Puerto Rico, a non-voting U.S. territory, had 764 war fatalities. Among the 50 states, it had the third highest number of deaths per capita. One out of every 45 soldiers who died in Korea was Puerto Rican.
The Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to only one Latino who was of draft age at the end of the Korean War -- Roberto Clemente. Clemente's peers, the Borinqueneers, deserve the Congressional Gold Medal not only for their merit but as representatives of the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Puerto Ricans who have served the U.S military from 1898 to this day.
If you support the Congressional Gold Medal for the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers, please click on the easy-to-use link to contact your congressional representatives: http://bit.ly/195bPvD