This past week Celestino Cordova and Jose Picard from Connecticut, along with a few other remaining veterans known as the Borinqueneers, watched in the White House as President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding their once little known military unit the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the country’s highest civilian award.
Did they ever imagine this moment in American history would actually arrive?
The Borinqueneers are a unique Hispanic-American story. Over a span of nearly 60 years and three wars, these mostly young Puerto Ricans proudly answered the call of duty, only to find themselves in a segregated unit — ridiculed, ostracized and insulted by the very military in which they served — just because of how they spoke, what they ate and the color of their skin.
Officially known as the 65th regiment, the unit remained segregated until it was disbanded in the 1950s; but not before more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans served in it. Despite their bravery and fierce loyalty to the U.S., soldiers in the 65th were subjected to the racial segregation policies and discriminatory attitudes of the day.
In World War I, the regiment was the first U.S. Army unit to engage. Members of the 65th regiment fired from El Morro Castle, which it manned, stopping a German supply ship trying to force its way out of San Juan Harbor to deliver supplies to German U-boats in the Atlantic. In World War II, the unit fought to protect the strategic Panama Canal and in Europe and North Africa. In the Korean War, the Borinqueneers mounted the last bayonet assault in U.S. Army history. Two battalions of the 65th fixed bayonets, charged straight uphill toward the enemy, overran them and took the strategic position.
The Borinqueneers’ heroic efforts in the Korean battle were praised by General Douglas MacArthur: “The Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th Infantry give daily proof on the battlefields of Korea of their courage, determination and resolute will to victory, their invincible loyalty to the United States and their fervent devotion to those immutable principles of human relations which the Americans of the continent and of Puerto Rico have in common. They are writing a brilliant record of heroism in battle and I am indeed proud to have them under my command. I wish that we could count on many more like them.”
Yet, historians of the Borinqueneers cite countless instances of humiliation these soldiers faced off the battlefield. In Korea, they fought a battle officially known as Operation Red Rooster. Some thought it humorous to nickname it Mambo on Hill 167. Military critics of the unit mocked them, calling it the “seeeexty feeeeth.” One general called it a regiment of “colored” troops, unreliable and inferior to continental “white” soldiers. Some soldiers in the 65th were forced to wear “I am a coward” signs, ordered to discontinue their rations of rice and beans, ordered to shave their moustaches, forced to use separate showers and ordered not to speak Spanish under penalty of court-martial
Most people would recoil under these demeaning conditions, but the soldiers of the 65th did something many of us might never have the strength to do. They stood up to the bullying by demonstrating their pride in who they were and in their homeland.
They nicknamed themselves the Borinqueneers, which is derived from the original Taíno name of the island, Borinquen, choosing to honor their ethnic roots and let everyone know they were proud to be from Puerto Rico, despite the threat of being court-martialed.
All our veterans, deserve much recognition. In this case, the Borinqueneers played a distinctive role in our history; not only did they fight to protect our freedom, but as a determined military unit they maintained their unwavering pride in their Latino heritage — a priceless lesson for all of us that forever will be a very special part of their legacy.
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