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Viequenses Deserve Our Full Support

by Albor Ruiz

June 8, 2000
Copyright © 2000 NEW YORK DAILY NEWS. All Rights Reserved.

THIS YEAR'S PUERTO RICAN Day Parade, which will take place Sunday, is dedicated to the residents of Vieques .

Because they are involved in a bitter dispute with the U.S. Navy over the continued use of their home as a target range, there are people who have expressed misgivings.

Some have even questioned the loyalty of the protesters - and of the Puerto Rican people. But as the story of Norberto Cartagena makes clear, the Vieques controversy, which has lasted 60 years, is not a matter of loyalty but of fairness.

And certainly Puerto Ricans are not the problem.

Cartagena was a boy of 18 when he volunteered to join the exclusively Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment half a century ago. Four years later, Cartagena, born in Hoyo Fro, Puerto Rico , had become a man who, at 22, had stared death in the eyes many times. He had fought in Korea for more than three years, become a master sergeant and earned a dozen medals for bravery. He also had many stories to tell.

"I participated in the maneuvers in Vieques in which we did what no American officer thought could ever happen," Cartagena remembers. "We kicked the ass of the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army."

It was February 1950. As part of what was called the Portrex maneuvers, the 3rd Infantry Division, the most decorated U.S. Army division in the two world wars, staged a simulated invasion of the island of Vieques . The 65th held its ground and the invasion failed, much to the surprise of the top brass, who thought of Puerto Ricans as genetically inferior and unfit for combat.

The Korean War would start four months after the maneuvers, and the 65th was shipped to Korea on Aug. 23. They arrived in time to join the U.S. counteroffensive to recapture Pusan.

On Christmas Eve 1950, U.S. troops were in full retreat. Among them was the elite 1st Marine Infantry Division. It was the 65th that protected them.

The Puerto Ricans were the last ones to leave the scene of the battle.

"While the Marines retreated from the Yalu River, we stayed behind, guarding the rear," Cartagena says. "Even on the ship that was to take us out of there, we had to keep on firing. The Chinese and the North Koreans were already on the pier."

Yet despite their incredible bravery, the 65th never received a presidential citation - as the 3rd Division did - and none of its members was awarded the Medal of Honor. "After 1951, we were sent on several suicide missions," Cartagena says. "It got to the point where we had to refuse to follow orders a couple of times."

"The reasons for the suicidal orders were simple," he adds. "If a Puerto Rican died, an American did not. Also, the U.S. was worried of what could happen if the 18,000 men of the 65th went back to Puerto Rico as an organized unit."

THE 65TH, THE best fighting unit in the Korean War, was dissolved at the end of the war. It had fought bravely and effectively within a racist Army that treated the courageous Puerto Rican soldiers as inferior, and used them as cannon fodder. Yet, they remained loyal.

Clearly, Puerto Ricans are not the problem.

The history of the 65th is in many ways the history of Puerto Rico . It must not be forgotten.

Viequenses deserve much more than the parade dedication.

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