Puerto Rico’s Borinqueneers finally will get their due April 13, when Congress will honor the soldiers with the Congressional Gold Medal for their “valor, determination and bravery” during the Korean War in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’ highest honor. The Borinqueneers, named for the soldiers of the 65th Army Infantry based in Puerto Rico whose native people called Boriken, fought in every major conflict of the 20th century. The regiment earned a total of nine Distinguished Service Crosses, 250 Silver Stars, 600 Bronze Stars, more than 2,700 Purple Hearts, and 15 Unit Citations for its extraordinary service – just during the Korean War.
The veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, number more than 1,000 and many live in Florida, where there have been various ceremonies for the Borinqueneers in Central Florida. About 230 are expected to attend the ceremony in Washington, D.C.
They are the first-ever living Hispanics to receive this award. The only other Hispanic to receive the Congressional Gold Medal is the late baseball great Roberto Clemente, who also was Puerto Rican.
The 65th Infantry formed in 1899, shortly after the United States took over Puerto Rico at the end of Spanish-Cuban-American War. It was a racially and ethnically segregated unit, as was the unfortunate custom at the time. Ironically, the award ceremony will take place in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall.
The Korean War nearly proved to be the regiment’s undoing – as soldiers endured freezing temperatures and near suicidal missions at the Korean-Chinese border.
In addition, Borinqueneers were ordered to shave their mustaches “until such a time as they gave proof of their manhood”; obligated to use separate shower facilities from non-Hispanic soldiers and were prohibited from speaking Spanish under penalty of court-martial, among other indignities, according to the official Borinqueneers site.
The regiment and its veterans are well known in Puerto Rico, but not so much outside the island. In the early 2000s efforts began to tell the Borinqueneers‘ stories. Over 10 years later, in 2013, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), Puerto Rico’s nonvoting delegate Pedro Pierluisi (D) and and later Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), among others, pushed the bill that officially awarded the surviving Borinqueneer veterans the Congressional Gold Medal.
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor