The Forgotten Heroes
The 65th United States Infantry Regiment, known infamously as the “Borinqueneers,” displayed an amazing history of service to this country that deserves to be highlighted during this year’s Memorial Day holiday. The unit was commissioned by the United States Army in 1908 and was originally made-up entirely of Puerto Rican volunteers. Their service has spanned from World War I to modern times, and their achievements are just as expansive.
During WWI, the Borinqueneers were sent to Central America on an assignment to guard the Panama Canal. This was a modest start for the 65th Infantry Regiment that did not include action with the enemy, but it provided a good opportunity for the soldiers to train and gain valuable experience for what was to come in 25 years—a second world war.
WWII was a different story for the Borinqueneers, the mission was no longer confined to training and guard-duty in the Panama Canal Zone. This time around, the 65th Infantry Regiment was deployed to Africa (Algeria and French Morocco) and Europe (Italy and France), where the training was more intense, and the conflict was closer. Borinqueneers who were attached to certain battalions within the 65th Infantry Regiment received special training and performed security missions in Puerto Rico, Panama, French Morocco, and Algeria. For the first time, Puerto Ricans in the 65th were spread out across the world in an American effort to stop the axis powers, and as Borinqueneer involvement in WWII ramped up, the influences of war could be witnessed at home.
The war experience is what gave birth to the unofficial anthem of Puerto Rico: “En mi Viejo San Juan.” It tells the story of a Diasporican (Puerto Rican diaspora member), who longingly wishes and dreams of their home—San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cultural masterpieces like this give reason to believe that war was felt at home, far behind the front lines. Noel Estrada wrote the song in the early 1940’s while his brother was deployed to Panama during WWII. While the song had immediate impact because of the mitigating circumstances, the years following WWII would give even more meaning to the newly-created song.
In 1950, only 5 years after the conclusion of WWII, America found itself involved in the Korean War after North Korea invaded South Korea. At this period in history, the American Armed Forces were reeling from the effects of fighting in two world wars within a 25-year time span. A thinned-out military needed fresh, well-trained soldiers, and the Borinqueneers from the 65th Infantry Regiment fit the mold. After a few months of training in the beginning half of 1950, the Borinqueneers left their home in San Juan and deployed to Pusan, Korea in September.
During the period of September 1950 to November 1952, it was reported that the Borinqueneers were involved in 90% of the campaigns in the Korean War effort. In the span of 48 hours at one point, soldiers in the 65th Infantry Regiment were awarded 15 honors for their heroism and valor (12 Silver Stars and 3 Distinguished Service Crosses). In recognition of their accomplishments during the Korean War, Borinqueneers have been decorated with over 2,700 Purple Hearts, 600 Bronze Stars, 250 Silver Stars, 1 Medal of Honor, multiple Soldier’s Medals, and a Congressional Gold Medal.
Accolades aside however, the Borinqueneers are often referred to as “The Forgotten Heroes” and are said to have fought in “The Forgotten War.” The 65th Infantry Regiment is not the first military unit that comes to mind when movie plots are written, or when legends are made.
Early in 1951, during the bitter Korean winter, members of the 65th Infantry Regiment found themselves outside Seoul, on the southern border of the Korean capital. Only a few months removed from arriving in war-torn Korea, the Borinqueneers were now a crucial component of Operation Thunderbolt—a group of missions designed to take back the Korean capital from the invading armies of North Korea and China. On the morning of January 31, the 65th Infantry Regiment was ordered to take back two locations that were under enemy control: “Hills 149 and 172 held by the Chinese 149th Division.” Faced with the limited probability of success that comes with competing against a large army stationed atop a beneficial position, the 65th Infantry Regiment accepted the challenge with a sense of fearlessness. From January 31 to February 2, the Borinqueneers fought their way up fortified hills under intense enemy fire. After 3 days of fighting, maneuvering, and absorbing casualties and deaths, the 65th Infantry Regiment reached the eclipse of hilltops 149 and 172. With fixed bayonets drawn, the Borinqueneers charged the final enemy strongholds, and forced the Chinese army to retreat from their positions.
Maybe it is the thought of fixed bayonets that will make us remember; America’s heritage is hardwired with such images from its own Civil War. Perhaps it is the idea that men from a different country found a valiant cause in fighting for another man’s country, someone else’s democracy. My grandfather was enlisted during the Korean War, and unfortunately is no longer here to share stories with me, but I am curious if the young man from upstate New York may have crossed paths with one of these Borinqueneers from Puerto Rico. Could it be that beautiful song—“En mi Viejo San Juan”—which not only tantalizes the ear buds but also begs: How many Puerto Ricans were lyrically reminiscing of home during the brief lapses of war? Or finally, maybe it is the sobering amount of time it took to scroll through all the names of the 65th Infantry Regiment soldiers that were killed, wounded, imprisoned, or went missing, that will be the brand on my brain that forges on through time.
The Borinqueneers are more than worthy of our memory, they should be remembered today and forever. History shows us that there is nothing about these souls that is forgettable or unmemorable. The term “The Forgotten Heroes” should be an oxymoron on every day of the year, not just Memorial Day Monday.