As citizens of the United States, Puerto Ricans have participated in every major United States military engagement from World War I onward, with the soldiers of Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment distinguishing themselves in combat during the Korean War.
While under Spanish rule, Puerto Rico fought alongside the American colonists in the Revolutionary War. Bernardo de Galvez, the governor of Louisiana in 1779, was named general of the Spanish colonial army and led his troop -- consisting primarily of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics -- to capture the cities of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida; and St. Louis, Missouri, from the British.
Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. under the 1898 Treaty of Paris, and Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory. The Army National Guard formed the Porto Rico Regiment on the island, and on March 2, 1917, thanks to the Jones-Shafroth Act, Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship by birth, though they aren’t allowed to vote for the U.S. president and they receive only 70 percent of Social Security pensions.
World War I
In July 1917, about 236,000 Puerto Ricans registered for the draft for World War I, and close to 20,000 served, said retired Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Ildelfonso “Pancho” Colon Jr. “Those that had to serve in combat had to leave Puerto Rico and enlist in New York,” he added.
The first U.S. shot of World War I was fired in Puerto Rico by Army Lt. Teofilo Marxuach. He was the officer of the day at El Morro Castle, at the entrance to San Juan Bay, when war was declared. An armed supply ship for German submarines in the Atlantic, the Odenwald, tried to force its way out of the bay. Marxuach opened fire from the walls of the fortress and forced the ship to return to port and be interned.
On May 17, 1917, the Porto Rico Regiment was sent to Panama in defense of the Panama Canal Zone.
One notable Puerto Rican veteran of World War I was Montserrat Padilla, one of the first members of the city of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, to enlist in the Army. Padilla was a member of Kilo Company, 307h Infantry Regiment, with whom he went to the battlefront in Europe in April 1918. After fighting in the battles of Lorraine and Chateau Thierry in France, he was poisoned with mustard gas Aug. 26, 1918, and returned to Puerto Rico.
World War II
During World War II, Navy Lt. Maria Rodriguez Denton, born in Guanica, Puerto Rico, became the first known woman of Puerto Rican decent to become a female Navy officer.
The Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, a segregated Hispanic unit made up primarily of Puerto Ricans, was sent to Panama to protect the Pacific in 1943, and by 1944, was sent to France. They participated in the battles of Naples-Fogis, Rome-Arno, central Europe and Rhineland. The regiment had 23 soldiers killed in action.
Puerto Ricans played key roles during the war. Navy Adm. Horacio Rivero became the first person of Hispanic descent to achieve the rank of admiral. Ships under his command provided artillery cover for the Marines landing on Guadalcanal, the Marshall Islands and Okinawa. Lt. Gen. Pedro del Valle, the first Hispanic U.S. Marine Corps general, played a key role in the Guadalcanal campaign and the Battle of Guam and became the commanding general of the First Marine Division.
Colon said about 60,000 Puerto Ricans were providing security among the Caribbean Islands or serving in Europe during World War II.
About 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in the Korean War, including about 18,000 who enlisted in the continental United States, Colon said. Puerto Ricans distinguished themselves as part of the 65th Infantry Division, the “Borinqueneers,” receiving many awards and recognition, though they were involved in the largest court-martial of the Korean War.
The term “Borinqueneers” is a combination from “Borinquen,” the Taino name for Puerto Rico, and “Buccaneers.” According to history reports, the 65th’s soldiers fought off many attacks by the Chinese in Korea, even though they lacked warm clothing during harsh winters. In December 1950, the Marines found themselves at the Chosin Reservoir area, and in June 1951, the 65th was able to help the Marines withdraw from the Hauack-on Reservoir. When the Marines were encircled by the Chinese troops close to the Manchurian border, the 65th rushed to their defense, Colon said.
The 65th soldiers fought in many battles, such as Operation “Killer,” and became the first regiment to cross the Han River. They also were instrumental in breaking the “Iron Triangle.” They look part in the last recorded battalion-sized bayonet attack by the U.S. Army on Jan. 31, 1951. The assault took three days.
Colon, who has been the post and department commander of the American Legion in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, off and on for 40 years, has spoken with many Puerto Rican veterans from various wars, some of them being 65th soldiers.
“All of the officers were in a bunker in a meeting when they took a direct hit from Chinese artillery. That ended that,” he said. “There was no artillery, no air support. They couldn’t dig in, because the ground was all rock. The Chinese had the higher ground. These guys all grew up with each other and trusted each other, and the Army brought in replacements they didn’t know, who ordered them to take the hill that another unit had already lost.”
The 65th’s soldiers refused the order, and were told they had to shave their mustaches off and told they could no longer eat their normal diet of rice and beans. They also had to wear signs that said, “I am a coward.”
In December 1954, 162 Puerto Ricans of the 65th Infantry Regiment were arrested, 95 were court-martialed, and 91 were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to 18 years of hard labor. It was the largest mass court-martial of the Korean War. Army Secretary Robert Stevens quickly remitted the sentences and granted clemency and pardons to all involved.
The 65th is credited with participation in nine campaigns, and its members have at least 10 Distinguished Service Cross awards, 256 Silver Stars and 596 Bronze Stars. More than 750 Puerto Ricans lost their lives in Korea.
Army Pfc. Pedro Morales said that after seven days of fighting at Jackson Heights, when his officers, team leaders and half of his team were dead, he didn’t want to go back and continue to fight.
“They arrested me, sent me to California and put me in jail for six months,” he said. “They divided us into groups and sentenced us. We had been waiting on backup, and the support just never came. That’s why we didn’t want to fight. It was like signing a death sentence.”
The soldiers were given an honorable discharge, and in April 2016, President Barack Obama awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal.
“We waited all these years for this moment, Morales said. “It was so hard to really believe it was true. I couldn’t sleep. It was such an honor to receive it. I’m so proud to have served my country. I would go back in the service and serve again and do it proudly.”
During the Korean War, Pfc. Fernando Luis Garcia also became the first Puerto Rican recipient of the Medal of Honor when he covered a grenade with his body, saving the lives of his fellow Marines.
During Vietnam, an estimated 48,000 Puerto Ricans served in the four service branches of the armed forces. Of the More than 340 Puerto Ricans died in combat, and 17 were listed as missing in action.
Army Sgt. Jorge Zambrana has post-traumatic stress disorder from his two tours in Vietnam. He remembers picking up service members killed or wounded in action and taking them and their belongings to the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. He also had to work at a cemetery.
He said he did face some racism during his time in Vietnam, but he would just work harder to prove himself. “I would tell my friends to follow the rules,” he said. “We couldn’t shine our boots because we were in the mud. We didn’t have time for inspections.”
He said he didn’t care what race someone was, and that in Vietnam, soldiers learned whatever job was needed. “If the guy got killed, who else was going to do it? Wherever they needed you, forget about your [specialty]. Your job was whatever,” he said.
Zambrana said he’s proud of his service and would do it all over again. “Even though I’m 65, I’m pretty healthy,” he said. “I could still man an M50 or M60. I’m still willing to fight for my freedom. Those of us who served in Vietnam served with honor.”
Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan
In 1990, about 1,700 Puerto Rican National Guardsmen were among the 20,000 Hispanics deployed to the Persian Gulf in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as part of the Gulf War.
In the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, three Puerto Rican women -- Army Spc. Frances M. Vega, Army Spc. Lizbeth Robles and Army Spc. Ramirez Gonzalez -- were among U.S. service members killed. On Nov. 2, 2003, Vega became the first female Puerto Rican soldier born in the United States to die in a war zone when a ground-to-air missile fired by insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq, hit the Chinook transport helicopter Vega was in. She was one of 16 soldiers who lost their lives in the crash that followed.
Marine Corps Sgt. Alexander Munoz, who was in the second push in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, was part of the team that assisted wounded Marine 1st Bradley Kasal out of Fallujah’s famous “House of Hell.”
“It was pretty rough,” he said. “The Marines were trapped inside the house. We were trying to figure out how we were going to get them out.” He said his squad was tight-knit, which made it harder when he saw his fellow Marines get hit. His PTSD stems from that and from having the enemy combatants constantly trying to kill him, he said.
“At Hell House, the house crumbled and the guy still threw a grenade to kill us,” he said. “They just wanted to destroy us.”
Munoz said he’s proud to have served, and to be Puerto Rican.
“A lot of my friends stay in the states and come to visit me,” he said. “They don’t even know where Puerto Rico is. Come on man; we’ve been with you guys since 1898. We’re proud, but we know how to serve. We know how to say thanks. We’re part of the nation. You’re my brothers. We’re here to fight with each other.”
Colon, who also served in Iraq and as a Marine drill instructor, said he is also proud to have served.
“Even though I was born and raised in New York, I came to Puerto Rico every summer and spoke Spanish at home,” Colon said. “I’m super-proud of my heritage. Like any soldier from Texas who loves his Texas flag and loves his state, Puerto Ricans, we love our flag, we love our state -- we call it a state. I’ve wanted to be a soldier all my life. It’s so motivational being around all of these veterans. We’re proud Americans. We love our country, but we love Puerto Rico, too.”
As of 2010, the Veterans Affairs Department listed Puerto Rico’s veterans at 116,029. More than 1,225 Puerto Ricans have died while serving for the United States. The names of those who perished in combat are inscribed in "El Monumento de la Recordacion" -- the Monument of Remembrance -- which was unveiled May 19, 1996, and is in front of the capital Building in San Juan, Puerto Rico.