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65th Infantry to receive long-delayed medals

Artillery shells rained down on them during the daylight hours, and human waves of Chinese soldiers battered their lines at night.

But Army Cpl. Emerito Bermudez and others in the 65th Infantry Regiment -- the "Borinqueneers" from Puerto Rico -- stood their ground during the Korean War, garnering a reputation as fierce fighters.

"I remember the surprise attacks, shelling, and winters with lots of snow and temperatures at 10 below zero," said Bermudez, 83, of Vineland, whose comments in Spanish were interpreted by his son Orlando.

"You had to keep your head down, or it would get blown off," he said. "I lost a lot of friends."

For all the sacrifices and discrimination faced by the segregated unit, though, it never won the recognition received by fellow soldiers of color, the Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo Code Talkers, Nisei Japanese soldiers, and Montford Point Marines.

Until this year.

A measure granting them the Congressional Gold Medal -- one of the nation's highest honors -- was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives and Senate, and signed by President Obama on June 10. A formal presentation ceremony honoring the unit's 60-year history is expected to be held later.

"I'm very happy that the Borinqueneers have been recognized," Bermudez said. "But I'm sorry that most of the 65th Infantry is gone -- and aren't here to see this."

The medal "is long overdue," said fellow Borinqueneer Hector Maisonave, 84, of West New York, N.J. "Korea was called a conflict, but from our point of view, it was a nightmare."

"I have so many horrible memories," he said. The honor "comes very late."

The unit of Borinqueneers -- a nickname coming from the original Taíno name of the island (Borinquen) and buccaneers -- was established in 1899 and disbanded in 1959.

Its members were limited to security and support roles during World War I and World War II but placed in combat during the Korean War, fighting in the Battle of Pusan Perimeter and providing crucial support for the Marines' withdrawal during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Only about 200 veterans in their 80s and 90s remain, most of them in Puerto Rico.

"At last, justice is being done," said Pedro Pierluisi, resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, who represents the island in Congress and who, along with Rep. Bill Posey (R., Fla.), authored the Gold Medal measure. They were joined on the Senate side by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.)

The 65th Regiment joins "baseball star and humanitarian Roberto Clemente as the only Hispanic in the history of the country ever to receive the Congressional Gold Medal," Pierluisi said shortly after the honor was announced.

Efforts by veterans advocates to acknowledge the Borinqueneers began in the 1990s and resulted in a commemoration ceremony, plaque, and tree planting honoring them at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Puerto Rican veterans also were recognized with a tree planting at El Morro, a 16th-century Spanish fort in San Juan.

But a greater honor -- the Congressional Gold Medal -- was sought about two years ago by U.S. Army Capt. Frank Medina, a veteran of the Iraq War whose Korean War grandfather was a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment.

The medal will help "enshrine a rich legacy in American history," said Medina, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., and formed the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance in 2012 to raise the public's awareness of the 65th's contributions.

Medina's efforts were supported locally by Pennsylvania State Sen. Mike Stack (D., Phila.), his legislative assistant Juvencio Gonzalez, and veterans organizations who urged the House of Representatives and Senate to take action. "I proudly join . . . in celebration of [the Borinqueneers'] international military recognition," Stack said.

For the unit's veterans, the Korean War -- fought from 1950 to 1953 -- was a life-changing event that's always remained with them.

"We slept in sacks in holes at night while another soldier stood guard," said Bermudez, a retired factory worker who later married and had three sons and two daughters. "In the winter, we'd wear white covers over our rifles, helmets, and uniforms" to blend in with the snowy landscape.

"Helicopters or tanks brought us food," said the Vineland man, who served in Korea in 1951 and 1952. "The summer was nice, but we got attacked more frequently by the Chinese."

The enemy wasn't the only opposition encountered by the Borinqueneers. They also faced discrimination.

Other soldiers "called us 'spic' and 'chico,' but we continued to do the job," said Maisonave, who became a noted music promoter after the war, managing about 80 artists including salsa great Hector Lavoe. "We were treated like dirt, like the punching bag of the world."

The rations had worms, the M-1 rifles were aged, and their uniforms inadequate for the severe cold, he said.

"I had a friend who lost his right leg; he was right next to me" when a shell blew up, said Maisonave, who served in Korea from 1951 to 1953. "He was bleeding really bad, and I tied a knot on his knee.

"But he said, 'Give me a rifle. I don't want the gringos to think I'm using this as an excuse' " not to fight, he said.

Despite of the obstacles, the Borinqueneers overcame -- and are thankful for the recognition they've received.

"This is the best country in the world," Maisonave said.

Many of the veterans' families and friends are only now learning what the Borinqueneers achieved.

"The pride and camaraderie got them through," said Bermudez's son, Orlando, 57, of Vineland. "We're very proud of my dad and look up to him."

By the numbers

60 - Number of years that the 65th Infantry Regiment -- "Borinqueneers" from Puerto Rico -- was active (established in 1899, disbanded in 1959)
2,771 - Number of Purple Hearts earned by 65th members
628 - Number of Bronze Stars
258 - Number of Silver Stars
9 - Number of Distinguished Service Crosses
1 - Number of Medals of Honor

ecolimore@phillynews.com

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