On June 10, 2014, history was made for the 65th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Borinqueneers,” hailing from Puerto Rico. President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) legislation ushering the Borinqueneers into the annals of American history. The legislation was originally introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The CGM recognition parallels the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is awarded less frequently and is arguably more rigorous due to its stringent legislative requirements.
The 65th Infantry Regiment was the only Hispanic-segregated, active-duty military unit in the armed forces. The regiment originated in 1899 and deactivated in 1956. During the Korean War, it was predominately composed of soldiers from Puerto Rico, also consisting of minor elements of other ethnicities such as Anglo (from the continental United States), African-American, Virgin-Islander and Mexican-American.
The leading movement behind this cause primarily originated with a grass-roots volunteer group called the “Borinqueneers CGM Alliance” (BCGMA) founded by former Army captain, West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran Frank Medina, and sponsored by the You Are Strong! (YAS!) Center for Veterans Health and Human Services.
Awarding the CGM to the Borinqueneers will sit alongside other segregated military units that have rightfully received the Congressional Gold Medal, including the Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo Code Talkers and many other Native American tribes, Nisei Soldiers, Women Air Force Service Pilots, and most recently the Montford Point Marines.
Furthermore, the following notable military groups were also recently, and well-deservingly, approved the CGM during the previous congressional term: 1) First Special Service Forces 2) Civil Air Patrol 3) American Fighter Aces 4) Doolittle Tokyo Raiders 5) Monuments Men.
Out of all the veterans' groups meriting the CGM, the Borinqueneers set a precedent as being the first military unit that fought in the Korean War to receive the recognition. Moreover, only the Nisei (Japanese-American) Soldiers were strictly an Army outfit.
The lineage of the 65th Infantry Regiment traces back to 1899, after Spain ceded the island of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War. Altogether, the unit participated in World War I, World War II and most notably the Korean War. A remnant battalion, from the 65th Infantry, 1st Battalion-65th Infantry, still resides in the Puerto Rican National Guard where it still serves in the nation’s ongoing military campaigns. On their ship journey to the Korean War, soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment drew their nickname “Borinqueneers” from a lottery of other proposed nicknames. The anglicized moniker “Borinqueneers” originates after the island of Puerto Rico’s indigenous name “Borinquen,” meaning “Land of the Brave Lord”.
It was during the Korean War that the Borinqueneers performed their pinnacle military achievements and demonstrated much valor and heroism amidst the additional adversities of segregation, institutional prejudice, language barriers and other unusual obstacles. Just before the Korean War, the exceptional performance of the 65th Infantry at the Puerto Rican military exercises (PORTREX) in the neighboring island of Vieques drew admiration and respect from military leadership. Consequently, the military assigned the 65th Infantry Regiment a primary combat role in Korea, which for the first time departed from the unit’s traditional history in wartime. Previously, the 65th Infantry served only in security and support missions in World War I and World War II, with limited combat engagement at the end of World War II. The Borinqueneers entered the Korean War over strength, thus making it one of the best-equipped units in personnel and equipment. Such highlight accomplishments, to name a few, include 1) Executed the last recorded battalion bayonet assault against the enemy, when two battalions attacked Chinese positions in February 1951; and 2) Played a critical role in defending the evacuation corridor from the Chosin Reservoir for one of the greatest military withdrawals in U.S. history after UN forces faced a formidable Chinese enemy. For the latter feat, the Borinqueneers were one of the last units, if not the last, to board the ships on Christmas Eve 1950 as they provided the rear-guard for elements of the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division, which were encircled by Chinese forces. A few weeks later in the following year, ironically enough, they were the first unit to cross the Han River and arrive at Seoul to successfully fight in Operation Killer. Later on, the 65th Infantry encountered some of the fiercest fighting in the early and dynamic stages of the Korean War. In 1951, the unit participated in the Uijonbu Corridor drives and seized key terrain in the Chorwon valley, which in turn was instrumental in breaking the Iron Triangle.
Interesting to note is that the only Hispanic ever to rise to the rank of four-star general in the Army, Gen. (retired) Richard Cavazos, a Mexican-American still living, has his origins with the 65th Infantry Regiment. Then-1st Lt. Cavazos fought with the 65th Infantry as a racially integrated unit in 1953, although an executive order desegregating military units was issued by President Harry Truman in 1948. Cavazos earned the Army’s highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, for his heroic actions with the 65th Infantry Regiment in the battle for Outpost Harry in 1953.
On Feb. 12, 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, while in Tokyo, lauded the 65th Infantry: “They are writing a brilliant record of heroism in battle and I am indeed proud to have them under my command. I wish that we could count on many more like them.”
Overall, individual members of the 65th Infantry Regiment have received one Medal of Honor, nine Distinguished Service Crosses, over 250 Silver Stars, over 600 Bronze Stars and over 2.700 Purple Hearts.
In March 2014, Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron posthumously merited the Medal of Honor along with 23 other recipients, making him the first Medal of Honor recipient from the 65th Infantry.
The 65th Infantry was awarded battle participation credits for the following nine campaigns: UN Defense-1950, UN Offense-1950, CCF Intervention-1950, First UN Counterattack Offensive-1951, UN and CCF Spring Offensive-1951, UN Summer-Fall Offensive-1951, 2nd Korean Winter 1951–52, Korean Summer-Fall-1952 and 3rd Korean Winter-1952-53.
Suffice to mention, the 65th Infantry Regiment exceeded the military leadership’s expectations, which previously harbored ill-conceived notions about the soldiers of the unit and their capabilities.
Out of 160+ CGM recipients since 1776, only one other Latino-American has earned the prestigious distinction. Roberto Clemente, baseball Hall of Famer and humanitarian also hailing from Puerto Rico, received the honor in 1973, regrettably after passing away in an airplane crash while delivering food and other supplies to then-earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua victims.
Along with honoring the Borinqueneer veterans, the Congressional Gold Medal will be the highest civilian award ever for ALL Latino veterans. The CGM for the Borinqueneers is one step closer to weave the contributions of the Borinqueneers, Puerto Rico and all Latinos in the fabric of American culture.