On Memorial Day, the remembrance of those who died while serving in this nation’s armed forces includes honoring the sacrifices made by Hispanics as members of segregated units. One of these units, Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Borinqueneers, have been recognized nationally and in Connecticut for its heroics in Korea more than 60 years ago. Less widely known is the important role played by the Mexican-American Company E of the Texas National Guard, the “toughest Chicano soldiers” of World War II.
In an expression of Latino solidarity, the national Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance is helping promote the legacy of the predominantly Mexican Company E, which originated in El Paso and served on the front line in the liberation of Italy from the Nazis. Company E is definitely an American story that should be “woven in the fabric of our society and culture,” said Frank Medina, national chairman of the Borinqueneers alliance.
Company E participated in some of the bloodiest battles during World War II, suffering heavy casualties at the Rapido River crossing in rafts. The fog that covered their presence on the river lifted and hidden German and Italian machine emplacements immediately opened fire, virtually wiping out the entire company in Southern Italy, an attack that military historians said was suicidal. These Mexican-American troops were the first American soldiers to set foot on the European continent and liberate a major city, Rome, as well as Naples, according to Anulfo Hernandez Jr., co-author of “Toughest Chicano Soldiers of WWII: Company E of El Paso, Texas,” a book pending publication.
In El Paso, there is a monument dedicated to commemorating the sacrifice of so many young men. On June 4, the five surviving members, all in their late 90s, will be recognized at Company E Day ceremonies. The date marks the 71st anniversary of when Company E, as part of the 36th Texas Division, entered Rome during World War II. Two days later, June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed in Normandy and the liberation of Rome “became a footnote and soon forgotten,” wrote Anulfo, who is among those seeking greater recognition for Company E.
Similarly, Medina and other Hispanics devoted significant time and effort to bring attention to the role of the Borinqueneers, the last of the segregated units to serve in combat. Their persistence was rewarded last June when President Obama signed legislation approving a Congressional Medal of Honor for the 65th Infantry.
Connecticut is also working to honor the Borinqueneers. In New Britain, the city has designated a park area that will honor the 65th Infantry. There also is a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Rosario of Bridgeport to rename a street in hometown for this unit that is wending its way through the state Legislature.
The passage of time has taken its toll on the Borinqueneers and their ranks of the survivors have dwindled in recent years. Currently, the Hispanic-American Veterans of Connecticut has two Borinqueneers who are active and three who are in-active, said SFC Juan Cruz, founder and president of HAVOCT(Hispanic American Veterans of CT). These veterans are well up into their 80s, he added.
In Connecticut, recent immigrants have contributed to substantial growth in the Mexican population, with the largest concentration in in Willimantic and New Haven. So far, HAVOCT is entirely Puerto Rican, with Mexican-American veterans groups more prominent in the longer established communities in the Southwest.
The number of Hispanic service members who died in World War II, as well as in Korea and Vietnam, is uncertain because the military generally classed these service members as white. One estimate of the losses in World War II comes from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey who has stated that about 9,000 Latinos died for their country in this war.
As for the Korean War, the governor’s office of Puerto Rico has said that 3,000 Puerto Ricans lost their lives in military service. An attempt to compute the Hispanic death toll in Vietnam, primarily based on surname analysis, has resulted in a figure around 3,200, which is disproportionately higher than the losses for the general population.
More exact figures are available for this nation’s 21st century wars. This honor roll includes 230 Hispanics who lost their lives during the Iraq War and the 92 who have fallen in Afghanistan as of February.
Of note to veterans in Connecticut, on Friday. May 29, Hispanic-American Veterans of Connecticut will hold its annual health and fitness symposium at Goodwin College in East Hartford. This program runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include sessions on education benefits, health, housing and employment. At noon, Senator Richard Blumenthal will present copies of the bill signed by President Obama to the Borinqueneers in attendance.
The symposium is geared primarily to the younger generation of veterans and current service members and their families. Cruz said anyone wishing to attend may contact him at 860-803-9037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.