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The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ
The Forgotten From Forgotten War - Ceremonies To Honor Puerto Rican Veterans For Sacrifices Made But At No Time Recognized
by Steve Chambers
July 29, 2000
The small coastal town of Toa Baja in Puerto Rico is now home to a sprawling Bacardi Rum distillery, but it had yet to be built in 1950 when Guillermo Alamo was a teenager living there.
Faced with the choice of backbreaking labor in the sugar cane fields or the U.S. Army, Alamo signed up and was promptly shipped off to fight in Korea.
Alamo, who has lived in Newark since 1956, was followed into the service by three of his brothers, one a Korean War veteran like himself.
Fifty years later, as veterans everywhere celebrate bittersweet anniversaries from a conflict often termed the Forgotten War, Alamo, 68, and other veterans of Puerto Rican descent are having their service recognized for the first time.
Two weeks ago, he was one of six veterans honored on the floor of Congress by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8th Dist.), and in September the military will hold a commemorative ceremony for Puerto Rican veterans at Arlington National Cemetery. Some will be featured next month in a Puerto Rican Day parade in Paterson.
''It was real good to be recognized," Alamo said. "I have two friends who never came back. Nobody knows our story, but in three years we lost 743 Puerto Ricans in that war."
Many of the Puerto Ricans, some volunteers like Alamo and many draftees, were part of the segregated U.S. Army National Guard's 65th Regimental Combat Team. They called themselves the Borinqueneers, after one of the island's indigenous tribes, and were among the 60,000 Puerto Ricans who fought in Korea.
After the war, many went on to distinguished military careers, rising through the ranks as the last vestiges of segregation withered away. But others simply went back to their everyday lives in Puerto Rico or the United States.
Noemi Figueroa Soulet, who has interviewed more than 150 veterans of the 65th for a documentary she is filming, said Puerto Ricans died in greater proportions than the citizens of most states.
''Talk about the Forgotten War," she said. "These were the invisible heroes. So many people are not aware of their tremendous sacrifices."
Like all Korean War veterans, the Puerto Ricans endured brutal cold and fierce fighting, but as Spanish-speaking soldiers coming from a tropical climate their Korean experience was even more traumatic .
''They were treated somewhat like the black soldiers. They had no voice and no one to fight for them," said Vincent Krepps, a Korean War historian and the editor of The Graybeards, a magazine for veterans.
Puerto Rican Sen. Kenneth McClintock, a staunch advocate of statehood for the island, said he finds it disturbing that 50 years after they served the United States in battle, veterans living on the island still don't have the right to vote. (That may change in November if a recent federal court decision giving citizens of Puerto Rico a right to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election is upheld.)
''The younger generations forget that while Puerto Ricans are treated unequally in times of peace, we are treated equally in times of war," McClintock said.
Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Angel Cordero, a junior ROTC instructor at Eastside High School in Paterson, spent several months tracking down Puerto Rican veterans of the Korean War so they could be honored at a banquet in May.
Growing up in Puerto Rico , he had seen monuments to the fighters, but he never gave them much thought until he got involved in the organization of Paterson's Puerto Rican parade. When he was asked to locate the veterans, he became enthralled with their history.
''They weren't prepared for the climate," he said. "They weren't prepared for the discrimination or anything else, from the food to the harsh fighting conditions. They were sent right to the front lines."
Pascrell, whose district's key city of Paterson is home to at least three Puerto Rican veterans, said he does not believe those sacrifices were recognized.
''Most people don't realize how hard Puerto Ricans fought for this country in Korea and Vietnam," he said. "My effort was to help ensure that all veterans are recognized."
He read the names of Alamo and three other veterans into the Congressional Record on July 13. The others were Donato Santiago-Molina of Paterson; Asuncion Santiago-Cruz of Philadelphia, and Julio Mercado of West Haverstraw, N.Y. (More New Jersey veterans were discovered after Spanish-language newspapers reported on the ceremony two weeks ago.)
Alamo, a retired transportation supervisor for Prudential, said he saw his first snowfall in Korea, and he remembers vividly the night seven of his comrades died in an ambush.
''We fought for almost two years, back and forth over the same hills," he said. "They'd come in at night and push us back, and we'd push them back during the day with the help of the artillery."
When Ruben Pabon Jr. of Northvale was drafted, his younger brother volunteered for a second tour of duty. When they reported in New York, officials said they didn't want to send two brothers to the battlefield, so they flipped a coin.
Pabon won the toss and was sent to Germany. His brother, John, went to Korea, where he was reported missing in action. His body was never recovered.
For decades, Pabon was haunted by the loss. He carried around a letter his brother had sent home just days before his disappearance. He stopped strangers on the subway if they looked like John.
Two weeks ago, he piled into a van with a number of other veterans and headed to Washington. Pascrell included Pabon's brother's name in his proclamation, and afterward he tearfully hugged the congressman.
''It was nice to have someone remember him," Pabon said. "At least he's not forgotten forever."
Guillermo Alamo was a teenager in Puerto Rico when he enlisted in the Army.