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Puerto Rico Profile: The 65th Infantry Regiment in Korea

June 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

June 25, 2000, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War. On that day in 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea, sparking a conflict which has yet to be fully resolved. For many Americans, whose troops fought for three years in North and South Korea and still patrol the border between the two, it is the "Forgotten War" — lacking the drama of either the victory of World War II or the defeat of Vietnam.

In this anniversary year, however, our nation has been reminded of the contribution of the men and women who served in Korea. In countless ceremonies around the country, veterans and their fallen comrades have been recognized and honored. President Clinton, speaking at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., said, "There is no question: Korea was war at its worst. But it was also America at its best. The Americans, South Koreans, and our allies who fought in Korea set a standard of courage that may someday be equaled, but can never be surpassed."

Of all those who served with honor and distinction in Korea, few displayed the courage, loyalty, and determination of the 65th Infantry Regiment of Puerto Rico. From its inception in 1899 until 1950, the regiment had been relegated to minor roles. In Korea, the men of the 65th had their first chance to prove themselves to the skeptics of the U.S. military establishment, and they made the most of the opportunity. Over the course of the war, the 65th Infantry Regiment participated in nine major campaigns and played a decisive role in several crucial battles. As their commander, Col. William W. Harris, told them in 1951, "there were many who under-rated you when you first came to Korea. I can assure you now that there is no one who does not agree that you have proved yourselves as fine combat soldiers. You are damn good and I’m proud of you."

The U.S. Army organized the first battalion of Puerto Rican troops in 1899. They were reorganized as the Puerto Rico Provisional Regiment of Infantry in 1901, and attached to the Regular Army of the U.S. in 1908. At that time, the soldiers of the Puerto Rico Regiment were considered "colonial troops," responsible only for the defense of their own island. In World War I, that role was slightly extended as Puerto Rican troops were assigned to guard the Panama Canal.

The regiment was named the 65th Infantry Regiment in 1920. In the Second World War, the 65th was initially stationed in the Caribbean basin, but eventually served in North Africa and Europe, where it saw limited action.

All that changed with Korea.

On August 26, 1950, the 65th Infantry Regiment left Puerto Rico, sailed through the Panama Canal, and headed across the Pacific. While in transit, a contest was held to give the regiment a nickname. The winning name — "Borinqueneers," after the Borinquen Indian tribe of Puerto Rico — has since become synonymous with the exploits of the 65th in Korea.

The Borinqueneers arrived in Pusan, South Korea, on September 23, 1950. Over the next three years, the soldiers of Puerto Rico distinguished themselves in innumerable ways.

They are best known for two events. Late in 1950, after a huge Chinese army joined the war on the North Korean side, the U.S. 1st Marine Division was forced into a major retreat. The 65th Infantry Regiment was instrumental in protecting the supply lines necessary for this withdrawal. Thanks to the 65th, the marines successfully returned to South Korea, averting a potential disaster.

Early in 1951, the Borinqueneers were in the midst of a desperate battle for control of two hills near Seoul, South Korea. After three days of fighting, they fixed bayonets and charged directly at the opposing Chinese troops. The enemy fled, and the hills were captured.

These two hugely heroic events have been memorialized many times and resulted in the awarding of many battlefield honors to the brave men who fought in them. Besides these significant victories, however, the history of Puerto Ricans in the Korean War is filled with tales of everyday heroism.

The Puerto Rican troops from the tropics were famous for their methods of keeping warm through the harsh Korean winters. "Wherever the scrappy Latins are huddled against the unaccustomed wintry blasts," read one news report, "may be found ingenious heat generating units ranging from a blow torch to a full-sized squad tent stove."

The Borinqueneers also kept close ties to their home and culture. They formed bands to play Latin music, followed the Puerto Rican baseball season, and listened to recorded speeches by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. Moreover, they found strength in their religious faith, gathering for mass every Sunday and for nightly rosary devotions.

Pedro Rodriguez fought in the U.S. Army in World War II and Korea. A native of Jajas, Puerto Rico, he joined the 65th Infantry Regiment when he was 22 years old, in 1934. He had worked as an ox cart driver since he was 14. "When I came in the army, I was so happy," he said in 1999. "When you need a job, you’re grateful when you get one you like."

Rodriguez counted among his best memories the march through France into Germany at the end of World War II, mostly because he never saw a single German soldier. Conversely, his worst experience came in Korea, when he was wounded by the shrapnel of a grenade that killed several of his buddies.

Rodriguez won two Silver Stars in Korea for two separate displays of exemplary heroism. He went back to Puerto Rico after the war and enjoyed a long career as a postal worker. He died last October 19.

There were scores of Puerto Rican soldiers like Pedro Rodriguez in Korea: normal people who left home to defend the principles of their country, and who became heroes in the struggle to survive a horrible war. Another veteran of Korea, retired Brigadier General Antonio Rodriguez Balinas, was also awarded the Silver Star. He spoke at a recent event hosted by Heroes & Heritage, an organization which celebrates the participation of Hispanic Americans in the U.S armed forces.

"Puerto Rico’s contribution to the national defense has been noteworthy, and in some cases, … decisive, as in the Korean War," said General Rodriguez Balinas. "I believe that Puerto Rico has done for this nation more than its share."

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