The army uniform, the one that still fits him, the one he retired in 43 years ago, hangs in a closet in his home in Puerto Rico.
“I have to send it off to be cleaned,” my namesake 92-year-old father tells me over the phone. He planned to wear it at an April 13 ceremony in Washington, DC, where his former unit, the 65th Infantry Regiment, the last separate unit in US military history, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
But things didn’t work out and he decided not to make the trip. Instead, he plans to attend another later this month in San Juan.
I asked him what the medal, which became a reality only after two years of intense lobbying efforts by Frank Medina, an Iraq War veteran whose grandfather served in the unit, means to him. after all these years.
“Recognition,” he replied.
The regiment, better known as the Borinqueneers (from “Borinquen”, the name given to Puerto Rico by the indigenous Taino Indians), was established in 1899 after the Spanish-American War. He is credited with firing the first shots in the defense of the United States at the start of World War I. His target? An armed German supply ship attempting to leave San Juan Bay en route to assist German U-boats.
My father enlisted in 1943 and was part of the regiment sent to help patrol and secure the Panama Canal. The Pentagon refused a request from General Douglas MacArthur to assign the unit to his command and send it into combat in the Pacific theater. He and my father got their wish shortly after the Korean War broke out.
“I was back from Panama, but being young I had this desire to test myself as a soldier, to be in combat,” he told me. “So I wrote a letter to a commander pretty much begging him to send me.”
As a team leader of radio and telephone communication equipment, he regularly emerged from barbed wire and into combat zones. He saw the reality of combat he once longed to see – horribly wounded comrades, bodies of American and Puerto Rican soldiers piled into the backs of trucks returning from battles.
“It was bad, sad,” he said.
“It was bad, sad,” he said.
The predominantly Puerto Rican regiment, which also included a handful of blacks from the Caribbean region, Mexican Americans, Filipinos and other non-white ethnicities, distinguished itself in Korea. It was the last American military unit to engage the enemy in bayonet battle. He is credited with helping break through a ring of 120,000 Chinese troops that had surrounded 30,000 United Nations troops comprising several divisions of Marines. It took heavy casualties to provide rearguard support while helping the formerly encircled troops to withdraw. My uncle, Filomeno Burgos, survived that battle at Chosin Reservoir. His brother-in-law, Lino Feliciano, was shot dead by enemy fire in battle on June 3, 1951, moments after carrying a wounded colleague to safety.
According to the regiment’s recorded history, they were the first unit to cross the Han River and arrive in Seoul to successfully fight in Operation Killer. In 1951, the unit participated in the Uijonbu Corridor training and seized key ground in the Chorwon Valley.
“They write a brilliant record of heroism in combat and I am truly proud to have them under my command,” MacArthur said. “I wish we could count on many more like them.”
By the time the regiment was deactivated in 1956, it had amassed nine Distinguished Service Crosses, 258 Silver Stars, 628 Bronze Stars and 2,771 Purple Hearts.
But he also faced discrimination. The soldiers were reportedly ordered to shave their mustaches “until they give proof of their manhood”.
They were ordered to use separate showers from non-Latino soldiers and officers, banned from speaking Spanish on pain of court-martial, and faced other damaging slights. The treatment then led Congress to authorize a review of the records of Latin Americans and Jewish American soldiers who may have been denied the Medal of Honor.
A few years ago, Juan E. Negrón became the first member of the 65th Infantry Regiment to posthumously receive the nation’s highest military honor. “The troops of the 65th experienced a segregation that set them apart from their comrades, but their courage made them legendary,” President Barack Obama said when announcing the 2014 Gold Medal.
The regiment is the latest separate unit to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor from Congress. Other recipients are the Tuskegee Airmen, Japanese Nisei Soldiers, Navajo Code Talkers and Montford Point Marines. The medal will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
The wartime experience took its toll on my father, who retired from the service in 1963. He still suffers from anxiety, depression and flashbacks, conditions that likely played a role in my parents’ divorce. parents when I was about 3 years old. post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001, 49 years after leaving Korea.
I didn’t grow up with him, but we’ve reached out to each other for the past few years. And I remember he visited me many times when I was a kid living in the Bronx. He was wearing the same uniform he plans to wear later this month, the one he has to take to the cleaners.
“I am grateful that the infantry is finally being honored for what we have done,” he said.
Or, as my uncle, who is 89 and lives in a veterans home in Puerto Rico, told me, “It was about time.
Go here to learn more about the 65th Infantry Regiment.