The Korean War in Puerto Rican History and Memory


June 25, 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. No conflict has been as impactful and transformative for Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans as the Korean War. In slightly over three years of fighting (June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953) some 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the U.S. Army. They suffered 3,540 casualties of which 747 were killed in action (KIA) or died of their wounds.

By comparison, during World War II, some 65,000 Puerto Ricans served, of which 368 lost their lives in combat, training, and accidents. Although WWII officially ended on September 2, 1945, this number includes those who served between November 20, 1940 to March 21, 1947. Thus, the number of Puerto Ricans serving in the biggest conflict in history and the longest war in American history to that point (WWII), is about the same of that of the Korean War where the fighting was limited to the Korean peninsula.

The numbers also tell us about the nature of Puerto Rican involvement in both wars. In a regional conflict (although of global repercussion) like the Korean War, the number of Puerto Rican fatal casualties was twice as much as in World War II. This is the case because the Korean War was the first instance in which large numbers of Puerto Ricans serving in the U.S. military were sent into combat. This is a most relevant issue and part of what makes the Korean War so impactful in Puerto Rican history and society, both state and island-side.

The nature of Puerto Rican military service in Korea is also different than that of the Vietnam War. During that conflict, in which the United States had some kind of involvement from November 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975, official records show some 48,000to 60,000 Puerto Ricans serving, and 345 to 450 killed in action (KIA) or dying of their wounds or in captivity. The numbers’ discrepancy is rooted in the difficulty to estimate those Puerto Ricans who were drafted or volunteered while state-side. During the Vietnam War, Puerto Ricans fought as combat troops since the beginning of it. Yet, their participation numbers (when state-side estimates are included) hover around that of the Korean War, and the fatal casualty ratio is about half the rate of the Korean War. The casualty rate was lower in Vietnam (compared to Korea) because the Puerto Ricans were spread throughout all the branches of the armed forces and performing all kinds of tasks or military occupational skill (MOS). That was not the case in Korea in which most of the Puerto Ricans who served did so as infantrymen and as part of the 65th United States Infantry Regiment. The history of this regiment is another element making the Korean War so different from other conflicts in Puerto Rican history.

The 65th U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as the “el sesenta y cinco” and its men as the “Borinqueneers,” fought in Korea from 1950 to 1953 as part of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. The 65th was a distinctively Puerto Rican outfit. Its enlisted men, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and some of its junior officers hailed from the Island, although the regiment also had many officers who were continental white Americans, particularly in senior positions. The 65th was part of the active United States Army. It was not an Army Reserve component or a National Guard unit. The fact that it was a segregated regiment for Puerto Rican enlisted men and led mostly by non-Puerto Rican whites, made its rank and file colonial troops, and the only “Hispanic” segregate unit in the United States Armed Forces. For most of its history (which dates back to 1899), the 65th Infantry had been a garrison unit. It was not until the Korean War that the U.S. Army decided to use the Borinqueneers as first-line combat troops.

The majority of the men of the 65th Infantry could not have been prouder to belong to a regiment with such strong ties to Puerto Rico, and the island’s civilian population shared that pride.  What were the reasons for such sentiments?  Most of the 65th’s enlisted men had entered the military to escape the island’s economic problems.  Once they joined the regiment, however, they remained in uniform for something besides steady pay.  Many Borinqueneers who served during World War II reenlisted during the Korean War. Furthermore, even after the Korean War had become a bloody stalemate and the Puerto Rican press began to publish long casualty lists, the recruiting stations in Puerto Rico never lacked for enthusiastic volunteers. The daily news in the local press- detailing the heroics of the Borinqueneers, led to many men enlisting hoping to be assigned to the 65th, the Puerto Rican regiment. Many Puerto Ricans did not serve with the 65th, even after volunteering. Of the 43,434 men who served with the 65th , 39,591 or roughly 91% were volunteers. The numbers of Puerto Ricans volunteering to fight in this war led to recruitment centers in Puerto Rico rarely having to use the draft.

The press and Puerto Rican politicians shared much of the responsibility for their people’s willingness to go to war.  These opinion-makers heralded the Borinqueneers as heroes, even before they reached Korea. The press, the politicians, elected officials, and the private sector praised “our boys fighting alongside the United Nations to defend world freedom and democracy.”[1] In addition, the press talked about the experience of the 65th as a possible catalyst for getting rid of the “old man, and for forging a modern Puerto Rican nationality.”  These same articles also praised the role of the Borinqueneers in abolishing Puerto Ricans’ inferiority complex, “the byproduct of hundreds of years of colonial type regimes.”[2]

The Puerto Rican press, elected officials, and politicians saw in the Korean War an opportunity to prove that Puerto Ricans were politically mature, and hence ready for self-determination. By doing so, political leaders and the news media placed a heavy burden on the Puerto Rican people, who came to see it as their duty either to volunteer for military service or support the war effort. The local leadership, especially the Popular Democratic Party under Luis Muñoz Marín, and the press, sold the ideals of heroism, democracy, freedom and a modern Puerto Rican to the masses in order to secure a more autonomous government for the island and in many ways tied their political projects to participation in the war.  In a very real sense, the battle Puerto Ricans fought in Korea was a battle for equality and for many, one of decolonization. At least, that is how many of the men perceived it and how the political elites imagined it.

Donning the uniform during the Korean War, in particular that of the U.S. Army, also had political and social value for emerging Puerto Rican communities in the Eastern seaboard of the United States. The actions of the 65th were included in the acts and annals of Congress and published in the national press. The Puerto Rican state-side local communities and press also followed the war and the Borinqueneers. They kept an eye on the returning soldiers, and in particular  on the wounded and repatriated former prisoner of war (POWs) as they completed a circuit that took them from Korea to Japan, to the west coast, often to Walter Reed Military Hospital in Maryland, New York, and for most, finally to Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican community and press followed in detail the return of their heroes and New York City officials gave several of them the keys of the city while parades were organized to honor them. This happened at a time in which some elected city officials sought answers to “the Puerto Rican problem.”[3] This “problem” was nothing but the constant influx of Puerto Ricans to the Eastern Seaboard as Puerto Rico transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial-based economy and relied on the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the mainland to alleviate unemployment. As Puerto Rican communities grew, they faced all kinds of discrimination. Highlighting the service and sacrifice of Puerto Ricans in the war became a form to engage in politics of respectability and staking a claim of belonging for sprawling Puerto Rican state-side communities. The 65th’s status as a national icon and source of pride went beyond the archipelago.

The call to arms, nevertheless, was ambiguous.  The press and the governor of the island told Puerto Ricans that it was their duty- as Puerto Ricans- to defend the American nation, to which they belonged. The enthusiastic response to this call further complicated the essence of Puertoricaness. It was common for soldiers deployed in Korea to express they felt they were both Puerto Ricans and Americans. This phenomenon could be understood as a dual nationality paradigm, or as the fusing of political and cultural identities. This is one of the central issues I explore in my forthcoming book, Fighting on Two Fronts: The Experience of the Puerto Rican Soldiers in the Korean War. This narrative regarding the Puerto Ricans’ identities became one of the ideological pillars for the creation of the Free Commonwealth of Puerto Rico- the Estado Libre Asociado, which was established on July 25, 1952, and still defines the relations between the United States and the island.

The generation of Puerto Ricans who participated in this conflict, dubbed the Forgotten War, is quickly shrinking. Let us make sure that their sacrifices and their ordeal, and what they accomplished for Puerto Rico as they fought both the enemy and racism, is never forgotten.

Below you will find links to a series of academic and popular articles, a short documentary and historical fiction I have produced on the Korean War.

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1. The first story the Center for Puerto Rican Studies ran on the Borinqueneers when Congress passed the bill to give them the Congressional Gold Medal. It tells the story of the 65th and how their memory is being recovered. : With Honor and Dignity: Restoring the Borinqueneers’ Historical Record, https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/chronicles/honor-and-dignity-restoring-borinqueneers-historical-record

2.  The second piece on the Borinquneers, when the medal was unveiled in Congress. It explains the significance of the medal; The Borinqueneers: The Forgotten Heroes of a Forgotten War https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/chronicles/borinqueneers-forgotten-heroes-forgotten-war

3. Pride and Courage, A Borinqueneers Story (a fictionalized serialized story) https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/letras/pride-and-courage-borinqueneers-story-prologue-chapter-1

4. The story of the  Chosin battle and Christmas in Puerto Rico. One of the major events of the war and to this day the Puerto Rican’s participation in it is not known.  Puerto Rican Soldiers in the Korean War: The Battle of Chosin Reservoir https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/chronicles/puerto-rican-soldiers-korean-war-battle-chosin-reservoir

5. The story of the the returning wounded hero, Corporal Gomez to give a sense of what the wounded went through and what was expected from them from the both the state-side and island-side Puerto Ricans. El Cabo Gómez and The Unexpected Homecoming of a Puerto Rican Soldier https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/chronicles/el-cabo-g%C3%B3mez-and-unexpected-homecoming-puerto-rican-soldier

6. The documentary vimeo_ “The Borinqueneers”    https://vimeo.com/192520866  

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[1] El Imparcial de Puerto Rico: Periódico Ilustrado, 12 October 1950.

[2] Periódico El Mundo (San Juan), 12 October 1950.

[3] THE PROBLEM OF PUERTO RICAN MIGRATIONS TO THE UNITED STATES, HENRY L. HUNKER. Department of Geography, The Ohio State University, Columbus 10, THE OHIO JOURNAL OF SCIENCE 51(6): 342, November, 1951. 342-346

 

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