Congress Honors Puerto Rican Regiment for Heroic Korean War Service
Puerto Rican soldiers have fought for America since the Revolutionary War, but the most-famous Puerto Rican unit has been the 65th Infantry Regiment, the last desegregated unit, which was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal this past April.
National Hispanic Heritage Month runs Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, celebrating the history, culture and contribution of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Many members of the 65th Regiment, known as Borinqueneers, were honored to serve, and would gladly do it again.
“I’m so proud to have served. It was a big part of my life,” said former Army Sgt. 1st Class Santiago Pabon, who served with the 65th in World War II and Korea. He served for 29 years, from 1943-1975. “It was a hard time, a tough time but there was a brotherhood and camaraderie, and I could send money home to my family. We made it through together as a group.”
World War II
According to the Department of the Army’s Center of Military History, during World War II, the 65th Infantry Regiment performed security missions along the Puerto Rican coast and stood guard over the island’s key areas. By December 1941, nearly 58,000 Puerto Rican soldiers were stationed in Puerto Rico, Panama and along the vast arc stretching from Surinam, north along the Antilles screen, to the Yacatan Channel. The 65th’s soldiers continuously rotated through jungle training, and in 1944 they deployed to Europe. Due to their success in Europe, the 65th’s soldiers had earned a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and 90 Purple Hearts in combat. They were credited with battle participation in the Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arnio, Central-Europe and Rhineland campaigns.
Korea -- 1950
During the invasion of South Korea by the North Korean People’s Army, the 65th was scattered among three different posts on Puerto Rico, conducting small-unit tactical training. Although authorized almost 4,000 personnel, the regiment had only 92 officers and 1,895 enlisted men. It was composed entirely of Puerto Rican enlisted personnel, the majority World War II veterans with many years of service in the regiment. About 60 percent of the officers were continental, and 40 percent were Puerto Rican.
Army Col. William W. Harris commanded the regiment at the time. From Aug. 11 to 22, 1950, 1,800 Puerto Ricans who primarily spoke Spanish were recruited and trained at the Replacement Training Center at Camp Tortugero, Puerto Rico, to join the 65th.
The 65th’s soldiers proved themselves in many battles during the Korean War. Between Sept. 23 and Oct. 31, 1950, the 65th Regimental Combat Team was engaged in blocking the escape routes north of isolated NKPA units and in anti-guerrilla operations. When 500 North Korean soldiers attacked Company F at Kumpchon Oct. 17, the company killed 79 enemy combatants and captured 85 prisoners, while suffering 11 deaths and 13 wounded.
During the same time period, the 65th attached to the IX Corps inflicted more than 1,500 casualties on the enemy while suffering 221 deaths. During that period, the men from the regiment earned five Silver Stars for gallantry in combat. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur said the unit’s men were, “Showing magnificent ability and courage in field operations. They are a credit to Puerto Rico, and I am proud to have them in my command.”
At the end of November, the Chinese attacked U.S. forces in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir. The 65th Infantry Regiment assisted with Task Force Dog, the withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division from the beachhead, so they could be evacuated from northeastern Korea. Harris was presented the Silver Star for gallantry in action and soldiers in his unit earned a total of 11 Silver Star medals, and suffered 130 casualties.
Korea -- 1951
In January 1951, the 65h Infantry Regiment participated in Operation Thunderbolt, a reconnaissance-in-force; and Operation Exploitation, an exploitation to the Han River. By the end of the month, the regiment had advanced to a region just south of Seoul and was ordered to seize three Chinese-held hills. The assault began on Jan. 31 and took three days. On Feb. 2, 1951, with the objective within reach, two battalions of the regiment fixed bayonets and charged the enemy position, forcing the communist soldiers to flee. It was the last U.S. Army battalion-sized bayonet charge in history.
MacArthur wrote: “The Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th Infantry give daily proof on the battlefields of Korea of their courage, determination and resolute will to victory, their invincible loyalty to the United States and their fervent devotion to those immutable principles of human relations which the Americans of the continent and Puerto Rico have in common. They are writing a brilliant record of heroism in battle, and I am indeed proud to have to have them under my command. I wish that we could count on many more like them.”
The 65th was the first U.S. unit to reach the southern banks of the Han River below Seoul, and the first troops to reenter the South Korean capital. In March, the 65th destroyed a North Korean regiment that had slipped through the front lines and attacked the 3rd Infantry Division’s rear. Between May and July, the 65th participated in operations to seize and hold the Chorwon Valley and was instrumental in stopping communist counterattacks in the Chorwon-Pyonggang-Kumhwa area, known as the Iron Triangle.
By the end of its first year in Korea, the 65th had suffered a total of 1,510 battle casualties, and was credited with 15,787 enemy killed-in-action and 2,169 enemy prisoners of war. The officers and men of the regiment had earned four Distinguished Service Crosses and 125 Silver Stars.
Outpost Kelly, Jackson Heights
In the fall of 1952, the Chinese forces had built up, and on Sept. 18, while the Outpost Kelly company commander, most of his platoon leaders, the artillery liaison officer and the forward observer were in the command bunker congregating for a meeting, they were wiped out by Chinese artillery. The 65th incurred 408 battle casualties during the month of September, the bulk at Outpost Kelly, and the highest casualties it suffered since it had arrived in Korea. The unit suffered another 134 non-battle casualties, making a total of 542 casualties for the month.
A new commander, Army Col. Chester B. DeGavre ordered all personnel to shave their mustaches, “Until they gave prove of their manhood,” states the Army’s history records. Interpreted as a demeaning gesture by the troops, the measure generated open insubordination in two of the regiment’s three battalions, further undermining morale and unit cohesion, according to Army records.
“They also took away their diet of rice and beans which is our custom,” said Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Ildelfonso “Pancho” Colon Jr., a former American Legion department commander and friend of many 65th Infantry Regiment veterans. “They were told they had to re-earn everything. The jeeps used to say ‘Borinqueneers,’ from the original Taino name of the island (Borinquen) and buccaneers. They had to face some racism back then.”
Casualties continued to mount, and the Chinese unleashed an immense artillery and mortar barrage on Jackson Heights from the high ground. After receiving more losses, losing more commanders, not being able to dig in because the ground was rock, not having artillery or air support, many soldiers in the 65th refused to go back to Jackson Heights because they felt they were being sent on a suicide mission.
A total of 123 Puerto Rican personnel, including one officer and 122 enlisted men, were in the division stockade pending court-martial for refusing to attack the enemy as ordered, and misbehavior before the enemy. The regiment’s only Puerto Rican commander, Army Col. Betances-Ramirez, had been relieved of his command.
“They arrested the company and divided us in groups. The first group went to court, and they sentenced them for five years. The second group was sentenced for two years in prison, and I was in the third group and received six months in jail,” said Army Pfc. Pedro Jackson Morales, 65th Infantry Regiment who’d served in the unit from 1950 to 1953. “I spent some time in jail, and when I came out they spread us out to other companies and the name was taken off the regiment. We were devalued. I was proud of my service to Puerto Rico and the United States.”
The U.S. Army’s Center of Military History surmises the military trials occurred because there was a shortage of officers and noncommissioned officers, a rotation policy that removed combat-experienced leaders and soldiers and made sustained training impossible, tactical doctrine that resulted in high casualties, an artillery ammunition shortage and declining morale. It also states that the command environment was guilty of ethnic and organizational prejudice.
Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens, who’d served as secretary from February 4, 1953 until July 21, 1955, moved quickly to remit the sentences, and granted clemency and pardons to all those involved, and all of the 65h Infantry Regiment veterans were given honorable discharges.
In April 2016, the 65th Infantry Regiment, the last desegregated unit, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve waited all these years for that moment and when it finally came, it was so hard to believe it was true, I couldn’t sleep the night before the presentation,” Morales said. “It felt so nice to hear people applauding us in Washington after so many years. I’m so proud to serve, and I’d gladly do it again.”
Morales said he saw one of his friends from basic training at the ceremony. “I haven’t seen him in 60 years, since we came out of Korea,” he said. “We started crying and hugging each other. We shared some great memories.”
Army Reservist Pfc. Gilberto Luciano Padilla, who served 1952 to 1968, 65th Infantry Regiment, didn’t get arrested but had the chance to serve with Marines when the 65th was disbanded, which he enjoyed. He said he was excited to receive his medal, even though he was sick in the hospital.
“I felt so good I thought I was going to die. I was so overwhelmed I thought my virus was overtaking me,” said Padilla, who was in the hospital with a virus at the time. “I was really emotional when they gave out the medal to my friends. I can’t wait until I receive mine.”
All three 65th veterans said they are proud of their Puerto Rican heritage, and to be American citizens. In all, some 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, the bulk of them with the 65th Infantry Regiment.
Some 743 were killed and 2,318 wounded. The Army reconstituted the 65h as a fully integrated regiment in the spring of 1953. By June, the soldiers had earned 14 Silver Stars, 23 Bronze Stars for valor and 67 Purple Hearts in the battle for Outpost Harry. The unit’s colors remained in Korea until November 1954, when they returned to Puerto Rico.