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Raising the Puerto Rican Flag in Korea

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

 

Soldiers of the 65th, North of the Han River, Korea, June 1951. Photo credit: U.S. Army

On August 13, 1952, exploding Chinese artillery rounds and the strains of the Puerto Rican national anthem set the mood as a group of Puerto Rican soldiers raised their homeland's flag beside the Stars and Stripes on a mountainous battlefield in South Korea.[1] After half a century under direct U.S. rule, Puerto Rico had just gained a greater degree of autonomy under the new Commonwealth status. . Colonel Juan César Cordero, the commander of the 65th U.S. Infantry Regiment, felt that all Puerto Ricans in the American military, especially those in his regiment, had contributed more than their fair share to the creation of the commonwealth.

This was the height of Puerto Rican participation in the Korean War.

The Debacle

Things would change during the second half of the war and the record of the Borinqueneers would be temporarily stained. The replacement of combat-hardened troops with poorly trained—yet enthusiastic—recruits who spoke little English, an acute dearth of bilingual NCOs, and new continental officers that did not speak Spanish (some of whom openly showed their disdained for Puerto Rican soldiers), led to tragic events during the battles of Outpost Kelly and Jackson Heights in the autumn of 1952.

The back-to-back debacles were followed by a series of mass court martials in which 87 enlisted men and one Puerto Rican officer received sentences ranging from 6 months to 10 years, and total forfeiture of wages and dishonorable discharges for charges varying from willful disobedience of a superior officer to cowardice before the enemy.

Such news were hard to swallow for the Puerto Rican public and an assembly of the soldiers’ parents drafted and sent a rather Spartan message to President Dwight Eisenhower: “PREFERIMOS VERLOS MUERTOS.” The parents’ resolution, published in the January 26th, 1953 edition of the daily El Imparcial, stated; “We prefer to receive the corpses of our sons, killed heroically on the battlefields of Korea, than to have them return stained with the stigma of cowardice.” The parents asked for their sons to have the chance to prove their accusers wrong by returning to the battlefield. Many of the sentenced soldiers wrote similar letters which were then published in the local press.

Governor Muñoz Marín formally demanded that the army allowed a delegation of Puerto Rican lawyers to travel to Korea and meet with the condemned soldiers. In a rare display of national unity, Puerto Ricans from different walks of life, and different political affiliations and ideologies, found common ground and rallied in defense of the Borinqueneers. They were joined by Continental officers who had served with the regiment. General J. Lawton Collins, who had visited the training camps in Puerto Rico and was very familiar with the 65th, told the House Armed Services Committee:

“The Puerto Ricans have proved that they are brave and can fight as well as any other soldier when properly trained and equipped.”

The U.S. military conducted a review of the sentences—which ended up largely confirming the findings of the original trials. Few of the soldiers from the 65th had their sentences reduced. The review board found the verdicts and sentences to be correct in law and fact. In June and July of 1953, however, the Secretary of the Army reviewed the cases and remitted the unexecuted portions of the sentences of all but four of the accused. The soldiers who had their sentences remitted were returned to duty.

The Puerto Rican public was still roiling from the effects of the mass trials when more bad news reached the island. On March 4th, 1953, an Army spokesman announced that the Army had decided to integrate the 65thInfantry with Continental troops, and to redistribute to other units the excess Puerto Rican troops. The 65th would cease to exist as a Puerto Rican unit.

 

Puerto Rican soldiers serving with the 65th Infantry promptly condemned the army’s decision. Pedro Mártir, a member of the 65th for seventeen years, declared that he would rather lose his pension than continue to serve in an integrated 65th. Other soldiers objected to integration on the basis of unit pride and the fear of being laughed at by continental troops because of cultural differences and their difficulties with the English language. Corporal Félix Rodríguez insisted, “I think is better to fight with my own people, we understand each other.” Private First Class Antonio Martínez, a Borinqueneer from New York, commented that racial prejudice might make life hard for Puerto Ricans serving in other regiments. The regiment, however, was quickly integrated as planned.

 

Restoring the Borinqueneers’ Record

In 1954, the 65th Infantry returned to Puerto Rico. The island had its regiment back, but not for long. The 65th was de-activated in 1956. But the unit’s story did not end in there. Colonel César Cordero, who had led the 65th during the battle for Outpost Kelly, and who had advanced to brigadier general and adjutant general of Puerto Rico’s National Guard, led a campaign that culminated with the reactivation and transfer of the 65th from the U.S. Army to the Puerto Rico National Guard in 1959. Unlike its participation during the war, this event received scant publicity and soon el sesenta y cinco and its epic ordeal during the Korean War faded into a distant and distorted memory. The regiment had been rescued but its history had not been restored.

 

Llegan Primeros Puertorriquenos Repatriados, Jan 25, 1953
Jan 25th, 1953


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Source:

[1] José Norat-Martínez, ed., Historia del Regimiento 65 de Infantería (San Juan, Puerto Rico: La Milagrosa, 1960), 84 – 85.


Photo caption: Soldiers of the 65th, North of the Han River, Korea, June 1951. Photo credit: U.S. Army