WASHINGTON — For the first time, a soldier from Puerto Rico’s renowned U.S. Army troop, the Borinqueneers, will receive the Medal of Honor, and advocates hope the citation will lead Congress to salute the entire regiment.
A bill filed last year by U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., would award a Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Borinqueneers — a name that came from the native Taino word for Puerto Rico. The medal already has been granted to other minority forces such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo Code Talkers and Montford Point Marines.
It has taken Posey months to get the needed 290 co-sponsors to spur a vote in the U.S. House. Last week his office said he had reached that goal, partly because of the decision to grant the Medal of Honor posthumously this month to Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron, a Borinqueneer during the Korean War.
The legislative focus will now shift to the Senate, where the Gold Medal proposal has the support of almost 40 of the 67 lawmakers needed for approval. Both Florida senators — Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio — favor it.
“We’re near the finish line,” said Posey, who added that Negron’s service was emblematic of the regiment’s valor. “They fought some of the toughest battles of the Korean War and deserve to be honored.”
One former Borinqueneer said the decision to give Negron the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, was a sign that the country finally was beginning to understand the sacrifices made by the 65th Infantry Regiment.
“It’s more proof that we went the extra mile in Korea,” said Anibal Albertorio of Oviedo, Fla., who fought in Korea and retired in 1971 as a command sergeant major.
An estimated 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the Army during the Korean War — most in the 65th Infantry Regiment, according to Posey’s bill. It is co-sponsored by Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s non-voting delegate in Congress. It’s not known how many Borinqueneers are still alive.
Although the Borinqueneers were active for a half-century before the Korean War, it was there the regiment left its biggest mark.
Despite horrific conditions — including a lack of cold-weather gear — the regiment was instrumental in several key maneuvers, including its defense of the 1st Marine Division during a December 1950 withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir. During the months that followed, the Borinqueneers were engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, and in 1951 they mounted the last recorded battalion-sized bayonet assault in Army history.
The Borinqueneers’ efforts led Gen. Douglas MacArthur to remark in 1951 that they were “writing a brilliant record of achievement in battle.”
All of this occurred against a backdrop of discrimination.
The Borinqueneers were one of the last U.S. military units to desegregate and, in one humiliating episode of the Korean War, they were told by an officer new to the regiment’s command that the soldiers would have to shave their mustaches “until such a time as they gave proof of their manhood.”
Albertorio recalls a “certain belittlement” during his service as well as the feeling that the brass didn’t think the Borinqueneers were “capable of handling the job.”
“We experienced the elements of segregation and inequality,” said Albertorio, who fought in Korea in 1950 and 1951.
Most controversial was the decision to court-martial about 90 soldiers from the regiment for actions in the fall of 1952, including disobeying orders.
Although all the court-martialed soldiers eventually received clemency or were pardoned — with much of the blame pinned on language problems and poor leadership — the incident has hindered efforts to honor the unit despite the wide praise it earned for its fighting early in the war.
Negron, who was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico, was one of 24 soldiers selected recently by the Pentagon to receive the Medal of Honor after a 12-year review of service records.
The Defense Department had undertaken the review following concerns that some servicemembers — especially those of Jewish and Latino heritage — were passed over for the nation’s highest military decoration because of past discrimination.
Negron, who died in 1996, will have the commendation bestowed posthumously during a White House ceremony March 18.
During an attack on April 28, 1951, Negron “refused to leave his exposed position (and) delivered withering fire at hostile troops who had broken through a road block,” according to military records.
Using grenades, he held the position throughout the night, giving his fellow soldiers time to launch a counterattack. “After the enemy had been repulsed, 15 enemy dead were found only a few feet from Sergeant Negron’s position,” noted the citation.
Meanwhile, the surviving members of the Borinqueneers, now in their 80s and 90s, are pushing Congress to approve the Congressional Gold Medal by the end of the year.
“Time is of the essence,” said Albertorio, 84. “These soldiers are fading away by age and are being called upon by the Almighty.”