As Jose Rivera Sr. recounted stories from his decade-long career in the U.S. Army, including fighting in the Korean War, the vividness of his memories replayed like a movie.
“It wasn’t anything pretty to see,” the Puerto Rican native said of beginning his first tour of duty in April 1951 in combat with the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment. “It was a war, bodies all over the place ‚Ä¶ laid out in fields. We didn’t have time to bury them.”
Rivera, 81, recounted tales from his active-duty service during an Oct. 13 interview at his apartment in Brighton. He is one of the Puerto Rican veterans of the 65th Infantry Regiment, which is the subject of the documentary “The Borinqueneers,” which aired on WXXI television in August.
Writing in the film’s press kit, executive producer Noemi Figueroa Soulet said she was often troubled by the lack of Latino stories and heroes in the media. The impetus to make this film, however, came when she heard about the 65th Infantry Regiment from a family member following the release of the film “Saving Private Ryan.”
“I didn’t know we had heroes of our own,” she wrote. “The relationship of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. Army is unlike that of other Latinos in the country. We are U.S. citizens, and yet — because of Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status — we can’t vote in U.S. elections. As a result, Puerto Ricans can be drafted but they can’t vote for the commander-in-chief who sends them to war. ‚Ä¶ The so-called Borinqueneers were an elite unit that made its mark particularly in the Korean War and came to represent the pride and fighting spirit of Puerto Ricans — a spirit that to this day drives thousands of them to volunteer, despite their unequal rights.”
Rivera was among those Puerto Ricans drafted to serve with the 65th Infantry Regiment.
“They didn’t mind because there was no work in Puerto Rico,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Soulet said she found that also to be the case for many of the more than 275 veterans she interviewed for the documentary. In fact, many islanders didn’t wait to be drafted.
“Puerto Rico was going through an economic depression,” Soulet said. “For many, that was a motivating factor.”
Soldiers could earn $60 a month, which is what a teacher with a bachelor’s degree would earn on the island at that time, she said.
Whether drafted or volunteers, the soldiers had to take a test in English before undergoing basic training, Rivera said. According to the film’s Web site, this was an example of the discriminatory practices that the Borinqueneers suffered since the regiment was created in 1899.
The Army didn’t care about the results, Rivera said, and he ended up learning English from American soldiers he met in the Army.
Language skills varied among members of the regiment, depending on where members grew up, Soulet noted. One of her favorite anecdotes in the documentary, she said, came from Victor Flores, a draftee who tried to pay someone to take the test for him because he
didn’t speak any English, she said. Finding no takers, he was forced to take the test himself, Soulet added.
To choose his answers, “He did
eeny, meeny, miney, mo,” she said. “He passed the test.”
Like Rivera, many of the veterans were eager to speak about their experiences in the Korean War, especially those who served in its early years. Considered professional soldiers, they held the respect of such American leaders as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Soulet said, so the regiment’s service helped facilitate the desegregation of the units that began during that war.
According to a historical account by Col. Gilberto Villahermosa, the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment killed nearly 6,900 Communist soldiers and imprisoned 2,127 more between the fall of 1950 and July of 1951. During that early period, the regiment won five of the 12 Distinguished Service Crosses and most of the 156 Bronze Stars and 421 Silver Stars that it would win in its four years in Korea. The regiment, which left Korea in November 1954, suffered 985 battle casualties.
“Their performance convinced the U.S. Army to fully integrate Puerto Ricans into its ranks,” wrote Villahermosa.
Rivera said that he was treated well during his years in Korea, and that Puerto Rican soldiers received their fair share of food and clothing. Even after being integrated with other soldiers, however, the Puerto Ricans would segregate themselves because they felt more comfortable with each other, and comforted each other during those combat days on the front lines, Rivera said.
“There were guys there not even half an hour and they were dead,” he said, adding that morale was low on such days. “I never saw anybody want to be a hero. They were just running from one foxhole to another.”
Yet such experiences did not deter Rivera from re-enlisting because the Army gave him a better life.
“I’m glad I got in the Army,” Rivera said. “It gave me so many chances.”
Rivera and his son, Jose Jr., said they are grateful to Soulet for taking eight years of her life to make the documentary. Many Korean War veterans feel forgotten, Soulet noted.
“It’s good for people to know,” Rivera said. “(But) you let people know you did it and sometimes people (still) don’t care.”
“I think every soldier ‚Ä¶ has something interesting to share with the public,” Rivera Jr. said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on the documentary, visit the film’s Web site, www.borinqueneers.com.