On this Memorial Day, Albor Ruiz of New York’s Daily News honors the heroes of the 65 de Infantería Regiment.
When they joined the 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers, an all-volunteer Puerto Rican unit that fought bravely in WWII and Korea, Juan Hernández-Ramos and Norberto Cartagena were just boys.
Both would survive the horrors of war and go on to lead fruitful lives and raise loving families.
More than half a century later, their proud daughters are determined to let everyone know about their fathers’ poignant histories and that of the little known, but brave unit they served with.
“In 1945, at the age of 17, my father, Juan Hernández-Ramos voluntarily enlisted,” said Haydee Camacho, a Bronx-born researcher and writer. “He lied about his age to the recruiter. His two older brothers, Roque and Wilfredo, had already been drafted.”
“I wanted to follow in my brothers’ footsteps and be a soldier,” Hernández, born in Trujillo Alto, would tell his daughter years later.
He was one of 62,000 Puerto Ricans who joined the military during World War II.
As a member of the Army Reserves, Hernández-Ramos – by then married with two daughters – was called back to active duty when the Korean War erupted. It was during that conflict that the regiment was nicknamed “the fire brigade,” because of their superior skill in battling the worst blazes during the war.
More than 43,000 Puerto Ricans served in the Korean War, most with the 65th Infantry Regiment, and 3,540 were killed.
Cartagena, born in Hoyo Frío, was 18 when he joined up in 1950.
“He spent three years in Korea and had many stories to tell,” remembers his daughter Chiqui, an executive at the Spanish language TV network Univision in New York. This was one of them:
On Christmas Eve 1950, U. S. troops were in full retreat. Among them was the elite First Marine Infantry Division. It was the 65th, attached the Third Infantry Division, who protected them.
“While the Marines retreated from the Yaku River, we stayed behind guarding their rear,” Cartagena said during an interview in Miami some years ago. “Even on the ship that was to take us out of there, we had to keep on firing. The Chinese and the North Koreans were already on the pier.”
Yet, while the Third Division received a presidential citation, the 65th did not despite their incredible bravery, and none of its members was awarded the Medal of Honor.
As Col. William Harris, who commanded the 65th in Korea has said in his book “Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th U.S. Infantry,” this was “inexplicable.”
Actually the history of the 65th is punctuated by “inexplicable” things. It is a history that illustrates the complexities and ambiguities of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. better than any study or book.
“I felt [the 65th Infantry] was a typical colonial situation,” Camacho said. “Maybe the soldiers of the 65th were a vehicle to show that Puerto Ricans supported the commonwealth status of the island.”
Cartagena and Camacho have decided the history of the 65th Regiment must not be forgotten. Cartagena is soliciting funding for “The Forgotten War,” a movie about the exploits of these legendary warriors.
CAMACHO HAS done extensive research on the history of the 65th and has written a fascinating essay about her father – who passed away in 2001 and is buried in Puerto Rico – and the role of the regiment in the island and the U.S.
Both women stress that their fathers were proud of their service.
“We [Puerto Ricans] were proud to serve in the U. S. Armed Forces,” said Norberto Cartagena, who died in Miami two years ago. “They [the Americans] were the ones who weren’t proud we were U.S. soldiers.”
This Mamorial Day it is only appropriate to honor these uncommon heroes.