Conn. veteran recalls fighting in Korea with 'Los Borinqueneers'
HARTFORD, Conn. — While fighting in Korea, Staff Sgt. Dolores Nieves and other members of the 65th Infantry Regiment were known as Los Diablos de la Montaña, or Devils of the Mountain, for their ability to fling their enemies' grenades back at them before they detonated.
"We were the kings of the grenades," said Nieves, 80, who lives in Hartford. "We were very fast."
The men were also fearsomely skilled with a bayonet, he said. According to the Department of Defense, the soldiers launched the last recorded, battalion-sized bayonet assault, overrunning the Chinese south of Seoul on Feb. 2, 1951.
The unit was eventually called "Los Borinqueneers," a nickname that reflected its mostly Puerto Rican members. The name was derived from Borinquen, a word given to Puerto Rico by its original inhabitants, the Taino Indians. Nieves remembered a ceremony shortly after the war at which Gen. Douglas MacArthur called the unit by its adopted name.
Nieves was born in 1933 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Life in the town was monotonous he said, and his parents didn't earn a lot of money. So he decided to join the U.S. Army in 1951 at age 17.
"I didn't think about war at that time. I thought I would be in the military. I was happy because I believed I would eat filet mignon," he said. "I thought I would earn a lot of money."
He earned $120 a month, a significant amount at the time. He gave his father half and kept the rest.
Not long after basic training, he was deployed to Korea, where he was assigned to the 65th Infantry Regiment. He spent more than a year with the unit. He recalls fighting Koreans and Chinese soldiers who sometimes camouflaged themselves as gravestones in cemeteries.
"They put crosses on themselves and they moved," he said. "When you looked, one would be right next to you."
Nieves and other members of the unit strung tin cans around their bunkers to alert them should enemy soldiers try to infiltrate.
After the war, Nieves returned to Carolina shaken by what he had seen during the war. He said he lived near a quarry, but received warnings before dynamite was used, allowing him to leave his house. Otherwise, he said, the explosions brought back memories of the battlefield.
In 1962, he joined the Puerto Rico National Guard. He also worked for an insurance company and as a taxi driver on the island.
He later moved to New York and then to Connecticut, where he joined the National Guard. He served with B Company, First Battalion, 169th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Germany during the Gulf War. He has also been to Somalia and Japan.
Nieves also served with the 712th Maintenance Company until he retired in 1994.
He has been active with the Hispanic-American Veterans of Connecticut and served as the organization's vice president last year. He's recently been involved in an national effort to get the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Borinqueneers.
Nieves, along with other Borinqueneers, went to Washington D.C. in April 25, 2013, to help introduce Senate Bill 1174, the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Bill.
"The medal is an honor that we deserve because the 65th made history," he said.
Retired Sgt. First Class Carmelo Figueroa, president of the Hispanic veterans group, said the bill, which is backed by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, was approved Monday by the House of Representatives. It now goes to the Senate for a vote.
"This was the last active duty unit that led the last hand-to-hand combat bayonet fight in the history of the Army," Figueroa said. "That alone stands out."
Los Borinqueneers was also the last segregated unit to be deactivated.
Murphy said the Borinqueneers' contributions should be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, allowing the unit's legacy to be preserved for years.
"Mr. Nieves — a true Connecticut hero — and the Borinqueneers fought hard for the country they love, despite facing discrimination because of their ethnicity," Murphy said. "I know future generations will look back on the Borinqueneers' story as a model of courage and sacrifice, as we all do today."