By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 13, 2016) -- Puerto Rican Soldiers who fought with the 65th Infantry Regiment through America's conflicts going back to World War II were presented the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony on Capitol Hill, April 13.
Hosted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and other leaders from Congress, the Borinqueneers -- named after the original pre-Spanish word for Puerto Rico by the indigenous Arawak -- were honored for their pioneering military service, devotion to duty and their acts of valor since the unit's creation in 1920.
Even though the Borinqueneers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014 by President Barack Obama, the design of the medal was not finalized until the summer of 2015.
Today's ceremony unveiled the single-cast medal in Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Replica coins will now be presented to all living Borinqueneers.
"Today we are setting the record straight by giving them the highest award in our possession -- the Congressional Gold Medal," Ryan said. "They were discriminated against... in a segregated unit -- we are forever in your debt and this medal is long, long overdue.
"The story of the 65th Infantry Regiment is full of heroics and now we are weaving that into the fabric of American history," he added.
The 65th is the first Hispanic unit and the sole unit from the Korean War to receive the Congressional Gold Medal and the regiment is also credited with the last battalion-sized bayonet assault in Army history.
Other recipients of the CGM include the Native American Navajo Code Talkers, the African-American Tuskegee Airmen, Japanese-American Nisei, African-American Montford Point Marines and the Women Airforce Service Pilots known as the WASPs.
"It is a well-deserved tribute for the brave men who fought many hard battles in Korea," said retired colonel Manuel F. Siverio, a Korean War vet who received two bronze stars for valor and later wrote the autobiography 'Against the Headwind.'
"Their devotion to duty and many acts of valor demonstrated their dedication to the United States," he said. "I accept this medal in the name of all living Borinqueneers and the Families of those missing in action."
Many veterans from the 65th Infantry traveled to the nation's capitol for the ceremony
RAUL MALDONADO PEŅA
Among the Borinqueneers recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal was Raul Maldonado Peņa, who served in the Army from 1952 through 1975 -- he actually retired as an Army master sergeant. He served all over the Army during his career, seeing combat action in Korea as well as twice in Vietnam -- though in Vietnam, he was no longer with the 65th Infantry Regiment.
Peņa said he volunteered to join the Army, rather than being drafted. "I loved the Army. I wanted to be military and serve our country." He had been 17 at the time. And he was in a rural area and lived near Henry Barracks in Puerto Rico. He said he saw Soldiers there marching, and that had made him want to be a Soldier himself, rather than a farmer.
He took basic training in Puerto Rico and was then sent to Panama to do training there as a military policeman. After, he did a 16-month tour in Korea, where he served in the infantry. "Patrolling at night -- you have to be alert all the time," he said.
Of Korea, he said, "It was poor. It was terrible. People were hungry. People were dying, they had no medicine. It was hard for me to see that," he said. But he said he's proud of the efforts he and his men engaged in that allowed Korea to flourish after they left that country.
Recently, he said, Koreans who now live in Puerto Rico recognized members of the 65th with a ceremony there, "they gave us recognition for helping to build a new country for them. They gave us a medal," he said.
He's proud now to have Congress and the American people bestow recognition upon the Borinqueneers for their service.
"It's an honor," he said.
An older man now, who has spent the remainder of his life after the Army in Puerto Rico, he said he's still ready to serve, if need be. "If I got the opportunity to serve our country, I would go again."
Victor Vargas didn't want to raise animals and be a farmer -- the very thing that he'd have to do had he stayed in Puerto Rico. "I was peeling potatoes," he said. Cutting the grass and feeding the cows wasn't for him.
Recruiters came to his town to get volunteers for the Army, and he wanted to join. But he was 17 -- too young for the Army to take him.
"You don't have the age, they told me," he said. He went to the local church, and there some years were added to his age with a little paperwork magic, and that helped him get to wear a uniform.
He ended up serving in the Army for 23 years, from 1940-1963. He served in both World War II and Korea.
The medal that Congress gave to him will share space on his chest with another such recognition medal -- one presented to him in 2013, in Washington, by the Koreans themselves, during a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the armistice. The new medal, he said, will make him "feel like a young boy," he said. "Like it was yesterday."
After the Army, Vargas returned to Puerto Rico, and went back to farming -- the very thing he joined the Army to avoid. He grows plantains and raises pigs.
Emilio Zapato was drafted into the Army at 23 years old, and served from 1950 to 1953, including time in Korea. Before going to Korea, he said, he received just 12 weeks of training.
He stayed on the front line for just about one month in Korea, before an injury left him deaf in one ear. He'd been fighting, and was wet. It was cold outside, he said. April in Korea, it was very cold.
An NCO had told him to go stand behind a tank, where the air blowing off the engine would warm and dry him.
"I went to the back of the tank," Zapato said. "But I liked to see what was happening, so I climbed to the top of the tank to see how the tank was fighting against the Chinese."
Atop the tank, he said, he saw that a Chinese round was headed his way. So he dove to the ground to avoid being killed. The round left him deaf in one ear, and for just a bit after the attack, temporarily blinded.
"And I could feel on my ear, like oil, but it was blood," he said. Still, he was alive after the incident. "He was taking care of me," he said, gesturing upwards toward the sky.
Following the incident, he said, the Army sent him to recover at a hospital in Japan. There, he said, "the doctor told me, 'the war for you is over. You don't have to fight anymore.'"
"But I went to see the captain, and I told him I want to go over there again," Zapato said. "He laughed at me. He told me 'you cannot go over there anymore.'"
Zapato hatched a plan to get back to Korea with the 65th. He talked to an American Soldier who was Mexican. In Spanish, they discussed their plan. They'd approach a different captain with the request. This time, Zapato would play a Soldier that didn't speak any English at all.
"I told him, I want you to go over there to that captain and tell him I don't know English, and I want to go back to the 65th where I can speak Spanish," he said. "The Soldier told me I am crazy!"
But they pushed on and met with the captain, with Zapato pretending not to speak English, while the other Soldier translated for the two. "We talked for maybe 15 minutes."
Eventually, the captain relented. Zapato was able to sign a waiver that allowed him to go back to Korea and serve again with the 65th. "That captain was very friendly to me," he said.
Later, back in Korea, he was on the front lines again. But his lack of hearing in one ear proved to cause problems for his safety, and for those around him. The Army eventually removed him from combat and put him into a support role, he said.
"After that, they sent me to a service company -- to serve everything to the regiment," he said.
Zapato will be 90 in June. After his time in uniform, he studied business in Louisiana, and then returned to Puerto Rico. "I never spoke anymore English."
BENJAMIN PAGAN AYALA
Benjaman Pagan Ayala served in the Army from 1948 through 1953, including a tour in Korea.
He said that during the medal ceremony, he'd be thinking how he, the other Borinqueneers, and all American Soldiers, had helped make a difference in Korea.
"I'll be thinking of the country we found and the country we left behind," he said, noting how advanced Korea has become now, after the United States along with Puerto Rican Soldiers, had helped secure that nation's freedom. "I'll be thinking that I'm very proud of my men and what we did in Korea."
Ayala was drafted into the Army in 1948, during a time when he was studying pre-med in New York. He later became an OB/GYN and surgeon in Puerto Rico. He did his Army training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was commissioned there as a second lieutenant.
He said he remembers how, prior to his 1950 departure for Korea, the 65th Infantry Regiment became involved in training with the 1st Marine Division at Vieques Island, near Puerto Rico.
During that training, he said, the 65th "defeated the 82nd Airborne, the 1st Marine Division, and the 3rd Infantry Division."
In the training exercise, the 65th was playing "the enemy" for those forces. But they played the role too well, Ayala said.
"They expected to throw us out to the sea in a few days," he said. "But it didn't happen. They couldn't break our lines. They had to stop the maneuver. We had such a defense on the shore, they couldn't go through it -- wire entanglements and palm trees. They couldn't make it. They had to stop the maneuver and we had to open some gates so they could get in and the maneuver could go on. That gave us some prestige in the Army."
Ayala shipped out to Korea in September 1950, aboard a ship called the "Marine Lynx."
"That ship was too small," Ayala recalled. "The personnel had to share bunks. There weren't enough places to sleep. We had to train also some of the replacements that we got in order to attain full strength, while aboard the ship, during the trip."
He remembers the Marine Lynx being so crowded that "the chow line never stopped, you had so many Soldiers. There were Solders having breakfast at two or three in the afternoon. It was a real mess," he said.
Ayala said when they landed in Korea, they were supposed to do two weeks of training there with men from the 3rd Infantry Division, to which the 65th was attached. But those men never showed, Ayala said. So instead, "we were given 200 rounds and C-Rations -- 30 or 40 minutes later, we were under fire, ambushed by guerillas."
They were put right into the fight, without those initial two weeks of training. "That was our first action," Ayala said.
He was also part of the effort to break into Seoul, and then pressed on into North Korea afterward. "The winters were 30 or 40 below zero. And the topography was very, very rough, very high hills, 6,000 feet high, and steep slopes," he said. "It was a mess there. You had one hill here, another, a river and a road. You could be ambushed anywhere."
Ayala left Korea in June 1951, and had four battle stars to represent the combat he engaged in, as well as a Silver Star he earned rescuing two of the most decorated Soldiers from the 65th -- men in his own platoon: Sgt. Modesto Cartagena, and Cpl. Fabian Nieves Laguer.
"We were in a combat patrol and we were going over a hill ... and when we were about half way, we received orders to withdraw," Ayala said. "My platoon was ordered to cover the withdrawal of the company. So we withdrew successfully. When we reached the rally point, two men were missing."
Those men were Modesto and Laguer.
"I talked it over with the captain," Ayala said. "I said I'm going to bring them back. I'm not going to leave them there. When I took over my platoon, I told my men I will not ask you to do something that I can't do myself, and I will send you to no place that I can't go. I had to keep my word. The captain said to go. I went alone, under fire from the Chinese."
He knew where the two men were. He found Modesto wounded, though the two men could walk. He brought them back to safety, he said.
Getting the Gold Medal from Congress, he said, means a lot to him.
"When we went to Korea, Korea was a very poor country," Ayala said. "You see Korea now, it is a very civilized country with a strong economy and good infrastructure. When we were there, it was no infrastructure at all. So our efforts there were not in vain. We feel proud to have restored that country to decent living. Besides that, we feel that every human being has some duties to perform: to honor his country and his family. That's what really moved us in Korea to do what we did. We were very proud of being there and doing what we were doing. And we did a good job."
('J.D. Leipold' contributed to this story)