The U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, the only all-Hispanic unit that hailed mostly from Puerto Rico, inspires pride for their dogged combat in the Korean War in the early 1950s.
These soldiers also spent decades trying to clear their name.
The segregated regiment—which took the nickname the Borinqueneers, honoring the Indigenous Taíno name for their homeland—went from being heralded by General Douglas MacArthur for battlefield bravery to having 91 soldiers court martialed and jailed in 1952.
After intense public pressure, the Army quickly pardoned them, later blaming incompetent Army leadership, poor military tactics, racism and organizational prejudice for the events that landed the soldiers in the brig.
The findings of an internal Army investigation provided some vindication for the soldiers, their families and for Puerto Rico’s pride. But many died waiting for the broader exoneration that would truly clear their names in the history books.
“It’s a proud day for all those whose lives they saved and whose freedom they defended,” said President Barack Obama at the 2014 White House ceremony awarding the once-vilified regiment the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s top honor. “You’ve earned a hallowed place in our history.”
Those words from the president, and that redemption from the top, took more than 60 years.
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The Borinqueneers’ Beginnings
The Borinqueneers are best known for their fighting in the Korean War (1950-53). But the regiment of Puerto Ricans existed half a century before that.
After losing the Spanish American War in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines to America. A year later, Congress authorized the U.S. military to form the Puerto Rico Battalion of Volunteer Infantry, comprised mainly of men from its newly acquired territory.
It was incorporated into the regular U.S. Army in 1908. And in 1920, two years after serving in World War I, it became the 65th Infantry Regiment.
During WWII, its soldiers won a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and 900 Purple Hearts for combat in Europe. But it was their impressive maneuvers in an Atlantic Fleet joint training exercise for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, back home in Puerto Rico after the war, that propelled the 65th to Korea’s front lines.
On the way, the soldiers took the nickname Borinqueneers.
Korean War: Distinguished Service Earns MacArthur’s Praise
Soon after arriving in Pusan, South Korea in September 1950, the 65th Infantry became known as a “well led, well trained and highly motivated” unit in various battles in the muddy hills and brush during Korea’s harsh winter.
Most notably, the 65th fought off the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the Chosin Reservoir to safely evacuate the trapped U.S. Army’s First Battalion. Officials who initially scoffed at having to command the “rum and coke” platoon quickly changed their tune.
By the end of the 65th’s first year in Korea, it had suffered 1,510 casualties while killing 15,787 enemy troops and taking 2,169 prisoners, according to the Historic Review on the 65th Court-martial: Report by the Department of Army’s Center of Military History.
General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the U.S.-led United Nations forces early in the war, wrote in 1951 that the 65th‘s soldiers showed “magnificent ability and courage in field operations. They are a credit to Puerto Rico, and I am proud to have them in my command.”
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Public Shaming and Mass Court Martials
But in the fall of 1952, the unit’s fortunes changed. Chinese troops launched major offensives against two U.S.-held outposts defended, in part, by the 65th: Outpost Kelly in September and Jackson Heights a month later. The Borinqueneers suffered heavy casualties. Dismal troop morale sank further.
After the carnage at Outpost Kelly, unit commanders cut the Puerto Ricans’ rice and beans rations, stripped the Borinqueneers nickname off the unit’s vehicles and had a soldier hang a “I Am A Coward” sign around his neck. They ordered the men to shave their mustaches until they could prove they were “real men” in battle.
Deeply insulted and facing what most thought was a suicide mission, dozens of soldiers refused orders to retake the Jackson Heights outpost. The Army quickly court martialed and convicted 91 of them for desertion and disobeying orders in December. All were dishonorably discharged. Sentences ranged from one to 16 years of confinement at hard labor.
“They treated us…like we were worth nothing,” Raúl Reyes Castañeira, the youngest of four brothers who followed their father’s footsteps into the 65th Infantry, told Univision’s Aquí y Ahora newsmagazine show. “And we were giving our lives. So many young men there just dying. It was terrible.”
Public Blowback Prompts an Internal Investigation
The Army tried to keep the court martials quiet, but soldiers’ homebound letters and the local press blew the story open in January 1953. Puerto Rico’s government, Congress and the public demanded answers.
Army officials told Congress that the rotation of new, inexperienced soldiers and officers into the regiment—and their inability to speak English—led to the failures and court martials. Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens used the point about the language barrier to justify pardoning all those convicted, overturning their sentences and reinstating them in the Army.
A subsequent internal investigation listed many other problems, including inept leadership, a severe ammunition shortage and military tactics that needlessly increased casualties. The 65th suffered 806 casualties in just those two months defending and attempting to retake the strategically questionable Kelly and Jackson Heights outposts.
The investigation also blamed “a command environment guilty of ethnic and organizational prejudice,” both on and off the battlefield.
An Affront to Puerto Ricans
Investigators pointed out that the commanders who had court martialed the Puerto Rican soldiers had on other occasions opted not to prosecute white soldiers for abandoning the battlefield. Rather than use the moment to reform the 65th or fix certain practices, commanders chose to punish the battalion.
The probe also highlighted a double standard in how commanders treated and evaluated Puerto Rican officers and white officers and other instances of ethnic or racial prejudice in the Army’s command structure.
For cultural historian Silvia Alvarez Curbelo, the court martials that tarnished the 65th’s reputation were not seen on the island as isolated cases of discrimination. Rather, they posed an affront to Puerto Rican identity as U.S. citizens at a time when the island was ascendant, having elected its first governor four years earlier, had just ratified its constitution that year, and was close to ending a five-year wave of mass migration to the U.S. mainland.
“The Puerto Rican soldier performance was also an affair of dignity…a mixture of pride, courage, bravery, self-respect and patriotism,” says Alvarez Curbelo, a professor of communications at the University of Puerto Rico.
That’s why soldiers still alive today say that true redemption is important—not just to clear their own names, but for Puerto Ricans to collectively remember the sacrifices made. During the Korean War, also known as the “Forgotten War,” some 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the U.S. Army, 48,000 of them recruited on the island. With 743 dead and 2,318 wounded, Puerto Rico suffered one casualty for every 660 inhabitants, more than double the rate for the continental U.S.
Norberto Rivera, a Borinqueneer who survived the Kelly Outpost bloodbath, told Aquí y Ahora he welcomes the Congressional Medal of Honor as a salve to those days he remembers with much nostalgia and pain.
“I think the credit, the recognition, should go to those men who never made it back home,” Rivera said.