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Maryland man honored posthumously for service in Army's 'Borinqueneers'

By WENDI WINTERS | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 30, 2016

The two Izquierdo sisters proudly display awards their late father earned while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War.

Last month, he earned another award, one he did not live to see.

Their father, Jorge Luis Izquierdo — along with all the members of his 65th Infantry Regiment, living and dead — were honored on April 13 by an act of Congress, drafted by Reps. Pedro Pierluisi and Bill Posey.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., lobbied her fellow senators to pass the bill.

In a special ceremony, the unit received a Congressional Gold Medal for its pioneering military service, its devotion to duty and its acts of valor in the face of adversity.

What made this group different was that it was a segregated unit composed of Puerto Rican soldiers, often led by white officers who knew little of the Hispanic culture and rarely spoke or understood Spanish.

The unit's members fought in World Wars I and II, as well as the Korean War. With the youngest members now in their 80s, the unit's alumni are rapidly fading.

They were called the Borinqueneers, a nickname derived from the word "Borinquen," the original Native American name for Puerto Rico.

Since the Revolutionary War, natives of Puerto Rico have fought in many of the wars or conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved.

Jorge Luis Izquierdo, the sixth of 12 children, was born in November of 1916 in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico. In 1939, at age 23, he joined the 296th National Guard Regiment. A year later, his regiment was activated as a regular Army unit. Although President Harry Truman ordered all the armed services integrated in 1948, the Borinqueneers were the final segregated unit to be disbanded in 1954.

Izquierdo served in the Army until 1966, specializing in military intelligence during his final tours. He retired with the rank of master sergeant. He began his second career as a civilian with the National Security Agency as a translator, where he retired from in 1980.

During World War II, Izquierdo was deployed in Panama, North Africa, France and, eventually, Germany. Three of his brothers also served during World War II.

In his personal journal, Izquierdo jotted down the names of towns he passed through during that war.

Military service was an Izquierdo family tradition extending back to 1898 when the U.S. first invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.

Before Izquierdo's regiment was shipped overseas to fight in World War II, he married Yolanda Lopez-Cepero. They were married 65 years and had five daughters.

The family albums show photos of Izquierdo on his wedding day, in his service dress uniform, in combat gear in Korea, and in Germany, squatting in front of a giant metal eagle and clutching a wreath decorated with a swastika.

His fourth daughter, Chary Izquierdo, joked that every time her father returned from war duty, another daughter would be born.

The oldest, Severn resident Maria Izquierdo-Whitaker, 73, recalls the many moves the family made throughout her father's career.

"I went to 18 different schools before I got to college," she said.

The Iziquierdos finally settled in Gambrills in 1963.

She also vividly remembers Aug. 27, 1950 — the day her father boarded a ship in Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, with the regiment headed for Korea. The day before, he lingered with his wife and growing family in Luis Muñoz Rivera Park in San Juan.

Three months later, he was critically injured when he was hit in the leg by friendly missile fire. Izquierdo was evacuated to the first of several hospitals. His injury plagued him until his passing in 2008; he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the shrapnel still embedded in his leg.

"His letters home were filled with horrendous stories from those few months," said Chary Izquierdo, an Annapolis resident.

The regiment's valor in battle didn't matter when it came time to use the Army showers, though. "Everyone was out in the sun all day and got tanned," Chary Izquierdo said. "They had to remove their shirts to determine their real skin color before being assigned to showers for Puerto Ricans. They couldn't used the 'white showers.'"

"He felt the discrimination wasn't as obvious during World War II as it was in Korea."

His military service did not go unnoticed, though. Izquierdo received a World War II Victory Medal; a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three Bronze Stars representing the Rome-Arno, Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns; the Army of Occupation Medal — Germany; the American Defense Service Medal; the Korean Service Medal with two Bronze Stars; a National Defense Service Medal; a Good Conduct Medal with five loops; an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; the American Campaign Medal; and the United Nations Korea Medal.

The family now can add another medal to its collection.

The U.S. Mint is providing copies of the Congressional Gold Medal to the surviving members of the Borinqueneers or to their families. The Goya Foods company paid the production costs of the 200 3-inch and 500 1.5-inch replicas for the unveiling ceremony in Washington, and wreath-laying ceremonies at the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

To raise $50,000 for similar ceremonies in Florida, where many of the surviving Borinqueneers live, the nonprofit Borinqueneer National Gold Medal Ceremony National Committee is hoping to raise $50,000 through a GoFundMe account at www.gofundme.com/65thbcgmcnc. Donors can also send a check to the organization at P.O. Box 631, Washington, D.C. 20044.

Before she died on March 4 of this year at age 89, Izquierdo's wife Yolanda insisted she did not want any flowers at her funeral. Instead, she directed that money be donated instead to the fundraising effort for the medals.

She did not live to see the broadcast of the April 13 ceremony on Capitol Hill. On April 21, the organization's CEO, Sam Rodriguez, visited the Severn home of Maria Izquierdo-Whitaker and her husband David Whitaker to present the medal in a quiet ceremony witnessed by three of the four surviving sisters and three grandchildren.

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©2016 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

Visit The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) at www.hometownannapolis.com

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Soldiers of the 65th, North of the Han River, Korea, June 1951.
U. S. ARMY PHOTO

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