Home » Digital Humanities » Pr Military » The 65th Goes to War

The 65th Goes to War

The Puerto Rican Experience In The U.S. Military: A Century Of Unheralded Service

written by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera; Senior Digital Aide, Monique Aviles

 

Painting of the 65th Infantry Regiment during Korean War

Over 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War. Many served with the 65th Infantry. The vast majority were volunteers who several times completed the island’s monthly recruiting quota. The chance that they may be sent to the 65th motivated thousands of Puerto Ricans to volunteer for service both in the mainland and on the island. Puerto Ricans participated fully in the war and suffered accordingly. Throughout the conflict 3,540 Puerto Ricans became casualties of war, of whom 747 were killed in action.

The 65th Infantry originated as a Puerto Rican outfit in the form of the Battalion of Porto Rican Volunteers, (May 20th, 1899) in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. They were regarded as colonial troops, part of the first “American Colonial Army.” In 1908, and by then a regiment, the unit officially became part of the U.S. Army. It came to be known as the Porto Rican Regiment. During WWI, the regiment was sent to the Canal Zone in Panama-far from the European battlefields. In 1920, the unit’s name changed from the Porto Rican Regiment to the 65th Infantry Regiment, United States Army.

Ferrao as Corporal in the US Army 65th Infantry Regiment, Korea 1950-1952
Ferrao as Corporal in the US Army 65th Infantry Regiment, Korea 1950-1952

While African-American troops saw their role extended during World War II, greatly in part to black leaders’ involvement in demanding access to combat positions and officers commissions, Puerto Rican units were kept from any assignment that may involve combat. The 65th had served in North Africa and Europe during World War II, but not as first-line troops. Regardless of all the training received, the regiment engaged in combat only once during World War II. Although the 65th had performed well, the army high command still viewed the regiment as a “Rum and Coca-Cola outfit.”[1] Most of its time was devoted to occupation duty, anti-sabotage, and security missions-duties performed behind friendly lines. The men of the 65th had to content with being what General William W. Harris called “the palace guard.” [2]

Military authorities, reflecting the racial prejudice of the time, kept the regiment far from the front. The military followed a policy of racial segregation in which combat roles, with a few exceptions, were reserved for white troops. The military’s institutional racism had unintended consequences. As the 65th was kept from combat it underwent all kinds of training and its men and officers dutifully prepared for war. Non-combat assignments meant that the Borinqueneers suffered very few casualties throughout the war. By the end of the war, the 65th was a superbly trained and well-disciplined combat regiment.

Ironically, the intensive training received by the men of the 65th during World War II and the army’s reluctance to use the regiment in battle, accounts for the Borinqueneers’ high degree of combat readiness when the Korean War broke out. Because the men of the 65th had experienced a “soft” war between 1941 and 1945, most of them stayed in the regiment after it ended. Despite the lack of actual combat experience, the Borinqueneers were well-trained veterans when the Korean War broke out.

Puerto Rican National Guard, 60th Infantry Regiment. USACMH
National Guard on parade

The story of the 65th could have ended right after World War II as the U.S. military rapidly demobilized the 12 million Americans in uniform. There was no reason to keep the “Rum & Coke” outfit around (as the 65th was referred to in derision). The unit was being gradually demobilized. However, on June 24, 1950, war broke out in Korea. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard was activated, and the 65th was mobilized and soon ordered to Korea. The island’s participation in the Korean War was more significant than in previous wars since Puerto Ricans were entering this conflict very early, and they were going in as first-line combat troops as part of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

The decision to send the Borinqueneers as combat troops was influenced by several factors. Chief among them was Executive Order 9981, signed in 1948 by President Harry Truman, which paved the way for the desegregation of the armed forces. The degree of unpreparedness crippling the U.S. Army, which had rapidly demobilized after World War II, meant that well-trained units, like the 65th, were going to see action. The 65th had also impressed military observers during Operation Portrex—a combined arms military exercise that took place earlier that year in Vieques and its surrounding waters. Circles within the military continued to argue that “colored” troops could not make good combat soldiers. Hence, the performance of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in combat was to be scrutinized by both the champions and the detractors of racial integration.

Ordered to prepare the regiment for duty in Korea, the 65th's commanding officer, Colonel William W. Harris, asked permission to recruit about 2,000 volunteers to bring the regiment to 10% above war strength.The Pentagon agreed, and Harris proceeded to solicit recruits over the radio and through the local press. At first, Harris doubted he could collect all the men he needed and was surprised to find the streets and sidewalks leading to the recruiting center at Fort Buchanan jammed with men waiting to get in. In his memoirs, Harris stated, “We could have recruited fifty thousand if we needed that many. We literally turned them away in droves after we reached our quota.”[3] The fact that Governor Muñoz Marín publicly exhorted Puerto Rican youth to respond to the call of the 65th helped fill the ranks.[4]

In early August 1950, Fernós Isern, the resident commissioner, declared in Washington that Puerto Rico was ready to field an army of 75,000 men to join the forces of the United Nations.[5] He believed that if Washington asked for this volunteer force the quota would be easily filled.


Continue to What the Korean War Meant for Puerto Rico


Source:

[1] Muratti, History of the 65th, 12-13; Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 1.

[2] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 2.

[3] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 46-47. Harris commanded the 65th Infantry from 1949 to 1951.

[4] Periódico El Mundo (San Juan), 13 August, 1950.

[5] Periódico El Mundo (San Juan), 1 August, 1950.


Photo caption: Painting of the 65th Infantry Regiment during Korean War