By John P. Schmal
In times of crisis, many ethnic groups will stand up to defend their land and their people from aggression and occupation. This sense of duty and patriotism is a quality that has been exhibited most impressively by the inhabitants of a small Caribbean island, Puerto Rico (also know by its Native American name, Borínquen). Drawing from three primary cultural and genetic backgrounds – Spanish, Native American and African – the Puerto Rican people have shown great fortitude and courage in battlefield combat.
The destiny of the Puerto Rican people became inexorably linked to that of the American people in April 1898 when the United States declared war on Spain. On July 25th of that year, 3,400 American troops commanded by General Nelson A. Miles landed at Guanica in Puerto Rico, not far from where Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) had landed in 1493. With the raising of the American flag in San Juan on October 18, 1898, Puerto Rico, in effect, became a territory of the United States.
From the beginning, the Puerto Rican people felt a need to participate in their own defense and, almost immediately, they were given that opportunity. On March 2, 1899, the Puerto Rico Regiment of Volunteer Infantry was organized. One battalion was stationed in San Juan while a second one stood guard at Henry Barracks. The United States Congress approved an act on May 27, 1908, providing for the creation of the Puerto Rico Regiment of Infantry. This action effectively attached the Puerto Rico Regiment to the Regular United States Army.
On March 2, 1917, as the United States prepared to go to war against Germany, the Jones Act granted citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. Soon after America’s declaration of war on April 6, 1917, Antonio R. Barcelo, the first President of the Puerto Rican Senate, asked President Woodrow Wilson to apply the military draft to the new American citizens in Puerto Rico. As a result, 18,000 Puerto Ricans enlisted or were drafted into the army during World War I.
Segregated from the rest of the American armed forces, the Puerto Rican Regiment was prepared for war service in the spring of 1917. Most of the Puerto Rican serviceman spent the war guarding key installations in Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone. The 295th and 296th Infantry Regiments of Puerto Rico were created during this period. However, a number of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland enlisted in the military, several of them serving with the racially segregated 396th Infantry Regiment – also known as the Harlem Hell Fighters – who earned the grudging respect of their German adversaries while fighting along the Western Front in France.
On June 4, 1920, almost two years after the end of World War I (November 1918), the Puerto Rican Volunteer Infantry was officially redesignated as the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment. However, years later, many of the soldiers of the 65th Regiment would proudly refer to themselves as “the Borinqueneers” to honor the indigenous Taínos who had called the island Borínquen.
However, the 65th Regiment would not see action for more than two decades. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and the looming threat of Fascism in Europe, many young Puerto Ricans came to believe that they would have to defend their land and their people against a powerful and determined enemy. Soon after war had been declared, elements of the 65th Regiment began to occupy defensive positions in Puerto Rico. By this time, the regiment’s personnel amounted to 131 officers and 2,991 enlisted men.
During America’s involvement in World War II (1941-1945), at least 350,000 Puerto Ricans were registered for military service. From 1940 to 1946, 65,000 of these Puerto Ricans were called to arms and served in the American military. An estimated 23,000 of these men had volunteered for service. During 1942, the 65th Infantry Regiment was deployed along the Puerto Rican coast, guarding vital installations from a possible German invasion. In 1943, the 65th was shipped to Panama where the unit provided security for the Canal Zone until December 1943.
Then, in 1944, as the Allies prepared for the invasion of German-occupied France, the 65th Regiment was given extensive combat and amphibious training so that they could be used in the campaign against Germany and Italy in the European Theater of Operations. During the winter of 1944, the 65th Infantry saw combat along the Italian-French border region. By March 1945, the 65th was crossing the Rhine River into Germany with other Allied forces. Even after Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, the 65th Regiment remained in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. Finally in October 1945, the Regiment embarked from Calais, France, on its return home, arriving as heroes in Puerto Rico on 9 November 1945.
Although its service in World War II had been limited, the soldiers of the 65th Regiment won a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and 90 Purple Hearts while on the front lines. The 65th was awarded battle participation credits for the Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Central Europe, and Rhineland campaigns.
While the 65th Infantry served in Europe, the 295th and 296th Infantry Regiments of the Puerto Rican National Guard participated in the Pacific Theater. Puerto Rican women were also given an opportunity to take part in the war effort against the Nazis and Japanese. An estimated 200 Puerto Rican women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WACS), where some were used as linguists in the field of cryptology, communication, and interpretation.
The Korean War (1950-1953) provided the Puerto Rican people with a new opportunity to show their patriotism and combat skill. On August 26, 1950, the 65th Regiment embarked for the Korean Peninsula to take its position as part of the 3rd Division. The experience of the 65th Regiment during the Korean War has been discussed at length at the following URL: http://www.frontiernet.net/~john/Honorpg1.htm
During the Korean War, 43,343 Puerto Ricans served in the 65th Infantry Regiment and played a role in nine major campaigns, losing 582 men in battlefield action. Pfc. Fernando Luis Garcia, a native of Utuado, became the first Puerto Rican recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor when, on September 5, 1952, he sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers, jumping on a hand grenade and absorbing the blast.
Because of their courageous efforts in Korea, the 65th Infantry received a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, two Republic of Korea Unit Citations and the Greek Gold Medal for Bravery. Individual members of the unit received four Distinguished Service crosses and 124 Silver Stars. Of his experience as commander of the 65th Infantry Regiment, General William W. Harris wrote: “No ethnic group has greater pride in itself and its heritage than the Puerto Rican people. Nor have I encountered any that can be more dedicated and zealous in support of the democratic principles for which the United States stands. Many Puerto Ricans have fought to the death to uphold them.”
Altogether, an estimated 61,000 Puerto Ricans served during the Korean War. This included 18,000 Puerto Ricans who had enlisted in the Continental U.S. According to statistics compiled by the Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico shortly after the war, one of every 42 casualties suffered by U.S. forces was Puerto Rican. The island suffered one casualty for every 660 of its inhabitants as compared to one casualty for every 1,125 inhabitants of the continental United States. By the end of the Korean War, Puerto Ricans had been integrated throughout the Army.
During the extended Vietnam Conflict 1963-1973, an estimated 48,000 Puerto Ricans served in the military. During this conflict, three Puerto Ricans were awarded the Medal of Honor in recognition of their heroism. On November 20, 1967, Pfc. Carlos James Lozada, a native of Caguas, serving as a machine gunner with the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, distinguished himself in combat near Dak To. Private Lozada was mortally wounded while providing machine gun cover for his battalion.
On November 8, 1966, Captain Euripides Rubio, a native of Ponce, was serving with the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, when he assumed command of a rifle company that was under attack from a numerically superior enemy force. Disregarding his own multiple wounds, Captain Rubio distributed ammunition and aided in the evacuation of his men. Under fire from the enemy, Rubio succeeded in strategically placing a smoke grenade (used by bomber pilots to locate enemy positions) behind enemy lines. As a result, American pilots were able to locate and bomb the enemy positions.
On June 28, 1968, Specialist Fourth Class, Hector Santiago-Colon, a native of Salinas, was serving with the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Specialists Santiago-Colon distinguished himself at the cost of his own life while serving as a gunner in a mortar platoon.
In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, thousands of Puerto Ricans took part in the campaign to liberate Kuwait. Two Puerto Ricans, Capt. Manuel Rivera and Marine Cpl. Ismael Cotto, were killed in action. The service of Puerto Ricans has continued up to the present day. In the Afghanistan and Iraqi campaigns of recent years, at least twelve Puerto Ricans have died while serving their country. Since 1898, Puerto Rico has contributed more than 200,000 of its sons and daughters as combatants in the armed forces of the United States. In that time, 6,200 have been wounded, and 1,225 have died while serving their country.
John Schmal was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. He attended Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles and St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where he studied Geography, History and Earth Sciences and received two BA degrees. Mr. Schmal has been a life-long history buff and is also a skilled genealogist. His genealogical specialties including tracing lineages in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Southwestern U.S.A. He is the coauthor of “Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico” (Heritage Books, 2002). He has also coauthored three other books on Mexican-American themes, all of them published by Heritage Books in Maryland. He is an Associate Editor of www.somosprimos.com and a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research (SHHAR). Presently, in addition to writing weekly columns for hispanicvista.com, he is writing a book on the indigenous peoples of Mexico and on the ports of entry along the Mexican-US border. Mr. Schmal has a passionate love of Mexican history and has been writing short histories of each state, which are being compiled at the following link: http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/states.html
Department of Defense. Hispanics in America’s Defense (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Printing Office, 1990).
Harris, William Warner. Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th Infantry: From San Juan to Chorwau. San Rafael, California, 1980.
Puerto Rican Hispanic Genealogical Society, “Military Information.”
Puerto Rico: 65th Infantry Regiment.
El Boricua, “The Borinqueneers: Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army”
“Puerto Rico’s 65 Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army”