The 65th Infantry Regiment has seen action in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Earlier this week, they finally got recognition when Boston unveiled the first public memorial in the continental United States honoring Puerto Rican veterans.
Simply put, the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers are the Latino-American equivalent of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo Code Talkers. The Borinqueneers must be recognized in like fashion with the Congressional Gold Medal, and take their rightful place in American history.
Hailing from Puerto Rico, the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers were the largest, longest-standing (1899-1959), and only active-duty segregated Latino military unit in U.S. history.
The Regiment faced unique challenges due to discrimination and prejudice, including the humiliation of being ordered to shave their moustaches “until such a time as they gave proof of their manhood.”
- Larry Bystran
Like the Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo Code Talkers, Women Airforce Service Pilots, Nisei Soldiers, and Montford Point Marines who’ve already been recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, the Borinqueneers overwhelmingly distinguished themselves in service and heroism, all the while enduring the additional hardships of segregation, discrimination, and adverse circumstances.
The youngest of these remaining Latino-American heroes are in their 80s and 90s, having served in World War II and the Korean War.
New co-sponsors of bill H.R.1756 in the U.S. House of Representatives have put the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance at 204 or 70 percent of the 290 co-sponsors needed to further the House version of the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Act, the alliance reported on December 30th.
The U.S. House of Representatives bill was introduced this past spring by Representatives Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) and Bill Posey (R-FL).
Lagging behind, the U.S. Senate companion bill, S. 1174, was introduced in June by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), on behalf of himself and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio, Charles Schumer, Saxby Chambliss, Bob Casey, Bill Nelson, and Bob Menendez,. It has only 22 of the necessary 67 co-sponsors. Supporters particularly are being urged to immediately contact their two senators to become bill co-sponsors.
This type of legislation requires two-thirds of the membership of each chamber of Congress to become co-sponsors of the bills. This, and other Congressional protocols, must be completed before the end of 2014, for final passage of the bills and the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal.
A nationwide, non-partisan, all-volunteer group, the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance has been advocating the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to these elderly WWII & Korea veterans since late 2012. Made up of veterans, Latino-Americans, and like-minded patriots, the organization has worked closely with members of the U.S. Congress to facilitate the successful introduction and subsequent support of this special bipartisan legislation.
The alliance’s national chair, Frank Medina, a 2002 West Point graduate and Iraqi war Veteran, is coordinating intense efforts this winter to encourage individuals and organizations to reach out to additional Members of Congress to request their co-sponsorship of the bills.
In its early years, the unit was termed the “Porto Rico” Regiment of the “American Colonial Army.”
The Borinqueneers fired the 1st shot in defense of freedom at the onset of WWI when an armed German supply ship attempted unsuccessfully to leave San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico to resupply German submarines.
The unit defended the strategic Panama Canal Zone during WWI. While in Panama, 335 Puerto Rican soldiers were wounded by the chemical gas experimentation which the United States conducted as part of its active chemical weapons program.
During WWII, the 65th again defended the canal, and also saw action in North Africa and Central Europe. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had requested that the Borinqueneers be assigned to him in the Pacific during World War II. The Pentagon denied his request because of prejudice toward the 65th. MacArthur was glad to later have them in Korea.
During the Korean War, 2,771 Borinqueneers earned Purple Hearts. 750 of them were killed in action, and more than 120 are still missing in action. These soldiers never came home, living or dead.
Heroic successes include the last Regimental bayonet assault in U.S. military history, providing valiant rear-guard fighting cover for the U.S. Marines’ withdrawal to Hungnam, and many others.
As cited in the bills, the Regiment faced unique challenges due to discrimination and prejudice, including the humiliation of being ordered to shave their moustaches “until such a time as they gave proof of their manhood”; being forced to use separate showering facilities from their non-Hispanic “Continental” officers; being ordered not to speak Spanish under penalty of court-martial; flawed personnel-rotation policies based on ethnic and organizational prejudices; and a catastrophic shortage of trained noncommissioned officers.
The Borinqueneers also were forced to wear “I am a coward” signs, ordered to paint over their unit designation “Borinqueneers” on their military vehicles, and ordered to discontinue their rations of rice and beans, termed “creole rations” at the time.
During Korea, the unit also had some Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Virgin Islanders, Filipinos and several other nationalities. The first and only Latino 4-star Army general, Richard Cavazos, a Mexican-American, got his start as a young Borinqueneer officer in Korea. There he earned his first of two Distinguished Service Crosses, our nation's second highest award for heroism.
Among the national organizations supporting the Congressional Gold Medal for the Borinqueneers are:
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), American GI Forum (AGIF), Association of the United States Army (AUSA), Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), National Puerto Rican Coalition (NPRC), National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce (NPRCC), National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), National Council of La Raza (NCLR), National Association for Uniformed Services (NAUS), Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), and Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA).
In an August 23rd letter from LULAC to Members of Congress, LULAC national president Margaret Moran stated, “It is with great pleasure that LULAC supports the 65th Infantry Regiment in their quest to achieve the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Therefore, we urge you to Co-Sponsor the pertinent 65th Infantry legislation requesting the auspicious CGM recognition, Congressional bills H.R. 1726 or S. 1174. The Congressional Gold Medal will be the highest award ever for the 65th Infantry Regiment and for ALL Latino Veterans. This distinction will catapult Hispanic veterans into the national spotlight and will honor all Hispanic veterans past, present and future.”
Another interesting fact is that of the 155 Congressional Gold Medal recipients since 1776, only one has been a Latino-American. That was 40 years ago.
Even though this will be a first for many of us, the alliance is asking everyone to immediately contact your one U.S. House of Representatives member and your two U.S. senators to request their co-sponsorship of the bills that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers. For more information visit Borinqueneers.org.
Larry Bystran serves on the national steering committee of Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance.