Puerto Ricans have been an essential part of the U.S. military for a long time. However, some of the most notable contributions were during both World Wars and the Korean War, where 43,000 Boricuas enlisted and solidified their legacy as one of the best fighting units in the Army’s history.
They were named 65th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army in 1920 but were later nicknamed “The Borinqueneers” after the Taíno name for Puerto Rico, “Borinquen,” meaning “land of the brave lord.” Created in 1899 as a segregated unit by the U.S. Congress, the team was composed primarily of Puerto Ricans who volunteered to fight alongside mostly continental officers.
The team joined the combat zone on September 23, 1950, when the Korean War was less than two months old. Upon landing in the Korean Peninsula’s southern tip’s port city, they were sent straight into duty. Throughout their three-year stay and combat, there were nine prominent instances in which their efforts solidified their reputation.
The most recognizable happened during the entry of the Chinese Army into the war. The United States Eighth Army was overrun, and the 1st Marine Division was surrounded, causing one of the biggest fighting retreats in history. Thanks to their skillful combat, they held the perimeter around the port of Hungnam, allowing a successful evacuation of the entrapped.
By the end of their service, they were known for their ingenuity to tolerate treacherous weather conditions, their religious music, and love for baseball. However, they received very little recognition aside from the nationwide support back in Puerto Rico, where a highway was named after them, and countless songs were written in their honor.
Although they were sent to every corner of the peninsula and showed outstanding resilience as combatants, they faced discrimination with the Army. Besides the fact they were the first unit in history to be segregated from the primary unit for the mere fact that they were Puerto Ricans, 162 members were arrested for insubordination for refusing to take on what they described as a suicide mission in 1954. Ninety-one of them were declared guilty but were later pardoned with dementia certificates, tarnishing the reputable name of the Borinqueneers.
After years of protesting and denouncing, the Borinqueneers were finally given their due recognition. Since then, they’ve been honored with countless distinctions, including four Distinguished Service Crosses, 125 Silver Stars, the Presidential and Meritorious Unit Commendations, two Korean Presidential Unit Citations, and the Greek Gold Medal for Bravery.
They were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Not only is the highest civilian award in the United States, but only one other Hispanic American had received this award: fellow Puerto Rican, Roberto Clemente.