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Remains Spark Interest In 65th Infantry

The discovery is near a Korean War battle site where Puerto Rican soldiers fought.

By Walter Pacheco | Sentinel Staff Writer

May 31, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

The discovery of human remains near a battle site where many Puerto Rican 65th Infantry soldiers died during the Korean War has sparked renewed interest in this controversial Army regiment.

In the past month alone, the U.S. Department of Defense has recovered 12 sets of remains near the Changjin Reservoir, an area formerly known as the Chosin Reservoir, in North Korea, where Puerto Rican soldiers died while fighting Chinese troops in 1953.

"Thank God they were finally found," said 65th Infantry veteran Carlos de León, 75, of Buenaventura Lakes in Kissimmee. "It's good to know that after being lost for so many years they can finally be returned to their families and buried in their homeland."

The Department of Defense has been excavating remains of U.S. soldiers in Korea and Vietnam. In April, five sets of remains thought to be those of American soldiers who went missing during the Vietnam War were returned to the United States.

"I think it's great that the government has taken an interest in repatriating these soldiers," de León said.

However, Defense officials warn families of missing 65th Infantry soldiers not to raise their hopes too high. Forensic anthropologists often take months -- even years -- to identify human remains through DNA testing.

"It may be wishful thinking on the part of family members who want to know what happened to their fallen loved ones," said Defense spokesman Larry Greer. "We have some remains that were found in 1997 that still have not been identified."

More than 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the Korean War in 1950-53, and the majority were 65th Infantry soldiers. About 753 of these soldiers were killed in battles and more than 2,300 were wounded, according to Army records. The infantry is legendary in Puerto Rico, where a major San Juan-area road is named for it.

The Department of Defense lists more than 88,000 U.S. soldiers missing in action from all conflicts, including more than 8,100 from the Korean War.

Since 1996, Defense investigators and anthropologists have unearthed more than 200 sets of human remains as part of a special repatriation effort in North Korea. The remains are flown to Hawaii, where they are examined and identified.

Puerto Rican Korean War veterans are surprised by the discovery made more than 50 years after the end of the war.

"Most people believed these soldiers would never be found and, worse, many of their families have since passed away," said 65th Infantry veteran Antonio Saurí, 72, of Buenaventura Lakes.

Saurí, originally from the Puerta de Tierra sector of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said all the missing soldiers from his neighborhood were found.

The recent discovery comes a few years after 65th Infantry veterans petitioned Congress to pardon certain soldiers for allegedly abandoning their posts during the war, resulting in the courts-martial of several men.

A 2001 Army investigation found racial bias in the courts-martial of 96 soldiers for disobeying orders in North Korea and abandoning their positions at Jackson Heights in 1952.

Puerto Rican Gov. Sila M. Calderón and the island's non-voting member of Congress Aníbal Acevedo Vilá support the veterans' petition, whose status wasn't confirmed by officials of either office.

Korean War veteran de León hopes his fellow soldiers -- many of whom are dead -- are exonerated and their names cleared.

"When you're out there in the battlefield you start to think about your life and your family. Maybe they were given orders that didn't seem right to them," de León said.

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