65th Regiment Receives Congressional Gold Medal

65th Regiment

The white officer picked to lead the segregated 65th Infantry Regiment in Korea initially resisted the assignment to take an all-Latino unit from Puerto Rico to war with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

Then-Lt. Col. William Harris said he shared the stereotypes of other officers in the 1950s who believed that "the Puerto Rican wouldn't make a good combat soldier."

"I must admit that at the time I had the same feeling -- that the Puerto Rican was a rum and Coca-Cola soldier," Harris said.

After the 65th participated in the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, after the 65th provided vital support for the Marines' withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, and after more than 2,700 regiment troops received Purple Hearts, Harris later wrote that he was wrong.

The 65th had "the best damn soldiers that I had ever seen," Harris said.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. and United Nations forces in Korea, agreed.

"They are writing a brilliant record of achievement in battle and I am proud indeed to have them in this command," MacArthur said of the 65th. "I wish that we might have many more like them."

On Tuesday at the White House, President Obama signed bills passed by the House and Senate to honor the legacy of the 65th with the award of the Congressional Gold Medal.

Eight former members of the regiment, all in their 80s and 90s, flanked Obama at the signing ceremony and received a standing ovation.

The troops of the 65th experienced "segregation that set them apart from their fellow soldiers, but their courage made them legendary," Obama said.

They are "the pride of Puerto Rico and of Puerto Ricans everywhere," said Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner in Washington and delegate in the House of Representatives.

The Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the highest civilian honors awarded by the U.S. and recognize achievments that have "an impact on American history and culture."

The 65th was known as the "Borinqueneers," from the Taino Indian word for Puerto Rico. In Korea, 743 troops from the 65th were killed and 2,318 were wounded while participating in nine campaigns. The regiment earned a total of ten Distinguished Service Crosses, 256 Silver Stars, 606 Bronze Stars, and 2,771 Purple Hearts.

However, the House resolution recommending the Gold Medal noted that the story of the 65th in Korea was "one of pride, courage, heartbreak, and redemption."

The "heartbreak" referred to the battle in late 1952 when the troops of the 65th were charged with fleeing a position called Jackson Heights in the face of relentless attack by Chinese forces.

Ninety-six troops from the 65th, including one officer, were court-martialed in fifteen trials.  Four were acquitted and charges against eight others were dismissed, according to an Army history.

In 1953, Gen. J. Lawton Collins, the Army Chief of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that the 65th had been "a very well trained" and "very ably led unit" when it first arrived in Korea, "where it distinguished itself in action."

Collins blamed the failure at Jackson Heights on rotations that deprived the 65th of non-commissioned officers, the inability of the men to speak English, and the lack of battlefield experience on the part of its officers.

"The Puerto Ricans have proven in action in earlier fighting in Korea that they are gallant people and that they will fight just as well as anyone else if they are properly trained and properly led," Collins said.

In 1954, Army Secretary Robert Stephens, who had earlier approved sentences ranging from 1-18 years against the troops, pardoned or remitted all of the convictions. In 1999, Army Secretary Louis Caldera ordered another review of the Jackson Heights incidents which concluded that the troops of the 65th had been unjustly charged.

The treatment of the soldiers from the 65th was a factor of in the decision by Congress last year to include an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act calling for a review of the records of Jewish-American and Hispanic-American veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to determine whether Medals of Honor were denied by prejudice.

The result of the review was the White House ceremony on March 18 at which President Obama awarded 24 Medals of Honor to Army veterans. Among them were four veterans from Puerto Rico, including Master Sgt. Juan Negron.

Negron, who died in 1996, had earned the Distinguished Service Cross in Korea and his DSC was posthumously upgraded to the nation's highest award for valor.

His citation said that Negron had refused to abandon his position on an exposed flank and had fought through the night, hurling grenades to fend off attacking Chinese troops. In the morning, the bodies of 15 Chinese troops were found near Negron's position, the citation said.

Negron was the first soldier from the 65th to receive the Medal of Honor.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com

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