Thursday, April 1, 2010

The "Borinqueneers”

I must admit my ignorance. Before yesterday, I did not know who the “Borinqueneers” were, or the history of the 65th Infantry Regiment. Now that I am enlightened to the contributions of this military unit, I had to share the information with you. First, hear the how and the why that led me to read a little bit about this historic unit.

I have a particular interest in the Korean War, as my father was a combat veteran of that conflict, besides my being a military historian. Korea came up on my radar last week due to an article in the NY Times that tells us that North Korea is threatening reprisals if South Korea and the United States do not stop civilian tours to view the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). As we approach the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War (June 25, 1950) it is appropriate that we take the time to remember the sacrifices of the veterans who have served in that “forgotten war.” Remember that not only do we still have troops stationed in South Korea, but also that the Korean War technically is still going on. Hostilities ceased with the signing of an armistice on July 27, 1953, but the war was never officially ended.
[Photo is of a U.N. cemetary in Pusan, Korea, 1950. Image archived at the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA.]

With that motivation, I searched the NY Times for other recent articles about Korea and came across the obituary for Modesto Cartagena, who as a staff sergeant serving with the 65th Infantry during the Korean War was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and is the most decorated Puerto Rican soldier in history. Mr. Cartagena passed away at his home in Puerto Rico on March 2, 2010 at the age of 87. His obituary in the Times explained that the 65th Infantry was an all-volunteer unit from Puerto Rico. Since I had never heard of this unit of Puerto Ricans, I had to satisfy my curiosity.

A simple Google search provided me with the story. Here is a link to the Borinqueneers’ website that contains photographs and archival video. In addition, here is a link to an excellent Wikipedia article summarizing the history of the unit. It would seem that the 65th Infantry Regiment experienced similar prejudices as other ethnic units in the history of the United States Army. Moreover, like the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Japanese-American), the 92nd Infantry Division (African-American), and others, this unit distinguished itself beyond all expectations.

The unit’s nickname, “Borinqueneers,” is a combination of the words Borinquen, which is what the Puerto Rican natives called their island before the arrival of the Spanish, and Buccaneers. The soldiers coined this name during an exhausting month long boat trip from Puerto Rico to Pusan, Korea in September 1950.

The unit met its greatest challenges in Korea. Many new officers transferred into the unit by the army where white continentals who could not speak Spanish, the native language of the common soldier in the unit. After more than two years of distinguished service in combat, an action occurred in which one of the regiment’s line companies was pushed off a hill by Chinese forces. A new Regimental Commander, a continental, accused the unit of cowardice. The commander ordered the unit to stop calling themselves Borinqueneers, took away their special ration of beans and rice, ordered the men to shave off their distinctive mustaches, and even had one soldier wear a sign that said, “I am a coward.” Due to the humiliation, combat exhaustion, and cultural barriers, it is understandable that the unit rebelled and refused to continue fighting. Ninety-one of the unit members were found guilty at court martial and sentenced to prison. Later, the sentences were remitted through intervention by the Puerto Rican government. Though the men who were court martialed were pardoned, there currently is a campaign for a formal exoneration.

This “mass court martial” does not take away from the fact that members of the unit were awarded 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, 256 Silver Stars, and 606 Bronze Stars during their time in Korea. The 65th Infantry Regiment earned streamers for nine campaigns during the Korean War. Approximately 61,000 Puerto Ricans served during the Korean War, most of them were volunteers.
The island of Puerto Rico became a U.S. Territory in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. The United States immediately appointed a military governor of the island and the army established a presence there. The Army Appropriation Bill passed by Congress in 1889 authorized the creation of the first unit of “native troops.” The “Porto Rico Provisional Regiment of Infantry” first formed in 1901 would evolve into the 65th Infantry Regiment in the Regular U.S. Army. The unit fought in WWI, WWII, and Korea. The unit was transferred to the Puerto Rico National Guard in 1956, the only active army unit to ever be transferred to the Guard. As National Guard units, members of the 65th Infantry have deployed in support of the Global War on Terror to Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and the horn of Africa.

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