Opinion: Reflecting on Puerto Rico’s Borinqueneers and their Congressional Gold Medal

The 65th Infantry Regiment “Borinqueneers” were awarded their well-merited United States Congressional Gold Medal in June 2014 after an extremely intense all-out, two-year national effort by Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance and its supporters and partners, and key lawmakers in the U.S. Congress.

The history of the Borinqueneers is a captivating story of great heroism and sacrifice despite prejudice. The story of their Congressional Gold Medal is a lesson in Latino-American empowerment and leadership.

Similar in nature to the famed Tuskegee Airmen and other segregated U.S. military units, the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers were the largest, longest-standing, and only active-duty segregated Latino military unit in U.S. history.

The Regiment in fact was the last segregated unit in combat, and thus paved the way for the full integration of the U.S. Armed Forces. Like the Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo Code Talkers, Nisei Soldiers, and Montford Point Marines who were earlier recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, the Borinqueneers overwhelmingly distinguished themselves in battle, all the while enduring the additional hardships of segregation, discrimination, and adverse circumstances.

The Borinqueneers 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.    

— Larry Bystran

Hailing from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Army unit was active from 1899 to 1956. Emblematic of all U.S. military veterans, including the hundreds of thousands of Latino-American veterans, the Borinqueneers served and sacrificed in the cause of freedom with great courage and pride. The youngest of these remaining Latino-American heroes are in their 80s and 90s, having served in World War II, the Korean War, and later, the war in Vietnam.

In its early years, the unit was termed the “Porto Rico” Regiment of the “American Colonial Army.”

The Borinqueneers fired the 1st shots 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. General 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, Borinqueneers earned more than 2,700 Purple Hearts. Over 740 of them were killed in action (KIA), and 121 are still missing in action (MIA). These soldiers never came home, living or dead.

Heroic successes in Korea included 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.

There the Borinqueneers were awarded one Medal of Honor, 9 Distinguished Service Crosses, over 250 Silver Stars, and more than 600 Bronze Stars for valor.

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 Puerto Rican regiment 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.

Sixty years later after the Borinqueneers had become widely forgotten, a grass-roots, nationwide, non-partisan, all-volunteer group, the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance was formed in 2012, and tirelessly advocated for the awarding of the well-merited Congressional Gold Medal to the regiment.

Made up of veterans, Latino-Americans, and like-minded patriots, the alliance worked closely with members of the U.S. Congress to facilitate the successful introduction and subsequent support,   co-sponsorship, and passage of this special bipartisan legislation.

In April 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives bill was introduced by Representatives Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) and Bill Posey (R-FL).  The U.S. Senate companion bill was introduced shortly thereafter by Sen. Richard  Blumenthal (D-CT), on behalf of himself and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio, Chuck Schumer, Saxby Chambliss, Bob Casey, Bill Nelson, and Bob Menendez.

The alliance’s national chair, Frank Medina, a 2002 West Point graduate and Iraq War Veteran, coordinated intense grass-roots efforts by the alliance to raise public awareness and to recruit individuals and organizations to reach out to Members of Congress to request their co-sponsorship of the Congressional Gold Medal bills.

This type of legislation requires a daunting two-thirds of the membership of each chamber of Congress to become official Co-Sponsors of the bills. This meant that at least 290 House members and 67 Senators would need to be secured as Co-Sponsors.  This, and other Congressional protocols, needed to be completed before the end of 2014 for final passage of the bills and the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Borinqueneers.

Due to Congressional rules, the entire process would need to be started over from scratch in 2015 if the existing effort was unsuccessful.  Because of the advanced age of the remaining Borinqueneers veterans, the alliance determined that failure was not an option. In addition, only one other Congressional Gold Medal in 238 years had been previously awarded to a Latino-American (Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente), and it was high time to change that, as well.

After the introduction of the CGM bills, it took approximately 14 months of hard work to achieve the required two-thirds of House members and Senators to become Co-Sponsors in late May 2014. The Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance, its supporters and partners, along with Pierluisi, Posey, Blumenthal, and their staffs, had successfully championed the bills, and the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Act was passed by the House and Senate. The President signed the act into law on June 10, 2014. Success was achieved, and the Borinqueneers finally would take their rightful place in American history.

Among the national organizations that supported this historical initiative were: AARP, 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 Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), National Council of La Raza (NCLR), National Association for Uniformed Services (NAUS), and Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA).

Numerous regional and local groups also supported the CGM bills, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) expressed its strong support as a grateful nation.  In addition, Excel Dryer Co. and the Western New York Hispanic American Veterans Memorial Committee served as corporate sponsors of the alliance, and You Are Strong! Center on Veterans Health and Human Services served as executive sponsor.

Kudos also are due to the thousands of individual Americans, including many Latino-Americans, from all walks of life who contacted their Members of Congress to co-sponsor the legislation, most of them doing so for the very first time.

Currently, the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal National Ceremony Committee is working with Congress to plan the official unveiling of the Congressional Gold Medal. The U.S. Mint approved the final design of the gold medal and its bronze duplicates on August 10, 2015.

Please visit the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance website for more detailed information on our beloved Borinqueneers’ legacy and this successful, history-making cause.