65th Infantry Regiment

By David A. Kaufman

The 65th Infantry Regiment has a long history of military service to the United States that began shortly after the acquisition of Puerto Rico from Spain following the Spanish-American War. It was initially constituted in the Volunteer Army on 2 March 1899 as the Puerto Rico Regiment of Volunteer Infantry. Three weeks later, on 24 March, 1st Battalion was organized at San Juan; a second battalion (a mounted outfit) was organized on 12 February 1900 at Henry Barracks. On 30 June 1908, the regiment was allotted to the Regular Army and designated as the Puerto Rico Regiment of Infantry. Initially, all officers and first sergeants were white (called “Continentals” by the Puerto Ricans), but in 1905, several Puerto Ricans were appointed as second lieutenants.

Officers of the Puerto Rico Regiment Provisional Regiment of Infantry, a forerunner of the 65th Infantry Regiment, assemble for a photograph in 1906. (Puerto Rico National Guard)

With the U.S. entry into World War I looming, a third battalion, a machine gun company, and a supply company were added to the Puerto Rico Regiment of Infantry. This regiment, along with two Puerto Rican National Guard regiments, were detailed to the defense of the Panama Canal during World War I.

On 14 September 1920, the Puerto Rico Regiment of Infantry was redesignated the 65th Infantry Regiment. Between World War I and World War II, many Puerto Ricans served in the 65th, 295th, and 296th Infantry Regiments in Puerto Rico, as well as the 33d and 42d Infantry Regiments in Panama. 

During World War II, the 65th served in the Panama Canal Zone from January 1943 to January 1944 before deploying to Europe from the Port of Hampton Roads on 26 March 1944. After arriving in North Africa on 5 April 1944, the regiment’s 3d Battalion was sent to Corsica and attached to Twelfth Air Force. 3d Battalion later fought in the Maritime Alps and earned a campaign credit for Rome-Arno. Other elements provided security for Seventh Army and 6th Army Group headquarters The rest of the 65th took part in the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe Campaigns, and later served as part of occupation forces in Germany. The 65th Infantry returned to Puerto Rico on 9 November 1945.

Soldiers of the 65th Infantry take a break from training in Salinas, Puerto Rico, in 1941. (National Archives)

In 1947, the regiment was redesignated a regimental combat team (RCT). In what could be called less than fortuitous circumstances, the regiment (less its RCT elements) participated in PORTREX (Puerto Rican Exercise) in 1950. The objective was to see how the combined forces of the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force would do as liberators of an enemy captured territory (Vieques Island) against the aggressors (the 65th Infantry). Although heavily outnumbered, the 65th halted the landings of the 3d Infantry Division on the beaches and inflicted “heavy casualties” on a battalion of the 82d Airborne Division jumping onto Vieques. The regiment turned the tables with a series of counterattacks, which almost reached the beaches. Colonel William W. Harris, the commanding officer of the 65th, said “Stopping the assault forces at the water’s edge proved that the Puerto Ricans could hold their own against the best-trained soldiers that the United States Army could put into the field.” This successful operation, on the eve of the Korean War, marked the 65th RCT for deployment to Korea once the war broke out on 25 June 1950. 

Departing San Juan Port of Embarkation on 27 August 1950, the 65th RCT headed for the Panama Canal Zone, where it added 3d Battalion, 33d Infantry, and its heavy mortars to the RCT’s Table of Organization and Equipment. The 65th RCT now numbered 6,000 strong, with the 58th Field Artillery Battalion and a tank company for support. The over-strength 65th RCT headed to Japan, where it arrived 22 September. It was during this long sea voyage the men nicknamed the regiment the Borinqueneers, a combination of “Boriquen” (what the native Indians called Puerto Rico prior to the Spanish arrival) and “Buccaneers.” While most of the regiment’s enlisted soldiers spoke only Spanish, and the senior officers spoke only English, most of the 65th’s noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were bilingual, easing language barriers within the regiment.

At that time, Colonel Harris learned that the ship carrying the 3d Battalion and the regiment’s heavy equipment would be delayed due to engine problems and would not arrive in Korea for another two weeks. As the regiment deployed to Korea, that most of the officers and senior NCOs spoke enough Spanish and most of the enlisted men spoke enough English would subsequently be a bar that was too high. 

Soldiers of the 65th Infantry, who nicknamed themselves Borinqueneers during the voyage to Korea, spend Christmas 1950 onboard a transport ship following X Corps’ evacuation from Hungnam. (National Guard Bureau)

The 65th arrived in Pusan on Sunday, 23 September 1950, a week after the successful Inchon landings and the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter. While awaiting the remainder of its attachments, its 3d Battalion, and much of the regiment’s heavy equipment (the transport ship carrying 3d Battalion and the heavy equipment experienced engine problems), the 65th moved to a staging area near Samnangjin, fifty miles north of Pusan, where it participated in two weeks of intensive training and was restricted to operations east of the Naktong River. However, it became necessary to utilize elements of the 65th in combat missions; on 28 September, elements of the 65th relieved a battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment in a successful attack on a hill defended by entrenched North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) forces. Between 23 September and 31 October, the 65th RCT, which now included Company C, 10th Engineer Combat Battalion, and Battery C, 3d Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, was attached to the 2d Infantry Division and engaged in blocking the escape routes of isolated NKPA units and in anti-guerrilla operations. The 65th would later be attached to the 25th Infantry Division before being assigned to X Corps at the end of October and the 3d Infantry Division on 11 November.

As United Nations forces approached the Yalu River in November 1950, Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) intervened in massive numbers. Lacking cold weather uniforms, the Puerto Rican soldiers of the 65th, hailing from a warm weather climate, suffered in the bitter cold of Korea. 2d Battalion, 65th Infantry, augmented with the 999th Field Artillery Battalion and other elements from the 3d Infantry Division and designated Task Force (TF) Dog, enabled the 1st Marine Division to withdraw from the Chosin Reservoir in December. Later, the 65th RCT was utilized as a blocking force and served as a rearguard that enabled the Marines to withdraw to the port city of Hungnam for evacuation to the south; the 65th RCT was among the last units from Hungnam. Soldiers of 2d Battalion were later authorized the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal as a result of their actions.

65th Infantry Regiment soldiers gather for a photograph in bitterly cold weather along the Han River in January 1951. (National Guard Bureau)

The 65th RCT participated in Operations THUNDERBOLT and EXPLOITATON in January 1951. By the end of month, 65th had advanced to a region south of Seoul and was ordered to seize a series of hilltop positions held by CCF. The assault began on 31 January and took three days, culminating in the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 65th Infantry using fixed bayonets to drive the CCF from the hills. This bayonet assault on 2 February 1951 attracted the favorable attention of General Douoglas MacArthur.

February and March 1951 brought Operations KILLER and RIPPER, and the formation of TF Meyers, comprised of the regimental Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, the regimental tank company, Company G, 65th Infantry, and attached artillery and tactical air command units. TF Meyers attacked north against heavy enemy resistance. There were later drives into the Uijonbu Corridor, Operation DAUNTLESS, and the regiment was the spearhead in taking Hill 717 in the Iron Triangle region in July. A month earlier, on 20 June, Colonel Harris relinquished command of the 65th to Colonel Erwin O. Gibson, who had been serving as the 3d Infantry Division’s chief of logistics. In September, in what was a portent of the future, the regiment experienced its first major tactical failure when it was unable to seize a series of hills in the Chorwon Valley during Operation CLEANUP despite substantial support from all elements of the 3d Infantry Division. It was the worst day in combat for the regiment and the division since their arrival in Korea. In November 1951, the regiment regained earlier success by fighting off an attack by two regimental-sized enemy units.

As 1952 arrived, operations along the Korean War had settled into static warfare. Consolidation of territory, probing attacks, artillery barrages, attempts to capture prisoners, and efforts to expand territory for future consolidation marked most of the year. A substantial event for the 65th came on 8 February 1952, when Puerto Rican-born Colonel Juan Cesar Cordero-Davila was named commander of 65th Infantry, thus becoming one of the highest ranking non-white officers in the Army. Another officer, First Lieutenant Richard E. Cavazos, arrived in the fall of 1952 to serve as platoon leader in Company E. Cavazos was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in Korea for his actions during the battle at Outpost Harry in June 1953. He remained in the Army after the Korean War and became the Army’a first Hispanic four-star general in 1982.  

As 1952 continued, the regiment saw some successful actions. At the same time, however, trouble loomed for the 65th Infantry. Much of the regiment’s experienced, bilingual noncommissioned officers rotated out. In September 1952, the 65th RCT was holding onto a hill position known as Outpost Kelly. CCF and North Korean forces overran the hill; twice the 65th Regiment was overwhelmed by Chinese artillery and driven off. On 17 September, Company C was able to defend against initial attacks, but on 18 September, an overwhelming CCF attack concentrating on Company B led to capture of the outpost. The CCF assault caught the company commander, most of his platoon leaders, the artillery liaison officer, and the forward observer in the command bunker congregating for a meeting, taking the position quickly.

Sergeant Carmelo C. Mathews (left), Captain Francisco Orobitg, and Private First Class Angel Perales hold a Puerto Rican flag riddled by enemy shell fragments. (National Archives)

Although it was known almost immediately that the outpost had fallen, Colonel Cordero-Davila was reluctant to call in artillery or commit the regimental reserve battalion lest they kill those of his own soldiers still remaining on the hill.  He was also concerned that the relief force might come under friendly fire in the confusion. That the Chinese would use American POWs to shield themselves while they repaired the outpost’s defenses was also clearly on his mind.

Multiple infantry assaults, supported by artillery and air support, failed to retake the outpost. Regimental companies suffered the brunt of casualties. At the end of September, Outpost Kelly remained in CCF hands. The 65th was not the only regiment to lose positions during September. Eighth Army lost five other positions in September, but all were recaptured in counterattacks.  The 3d Infantry Division was seen to be the weakest of the U.S. divisions in Korea, and the divisional commander and Cordero-Davila were relieved of command.  Col. Chester B. De Gavre, a West Point graduate and a “continental,” an officer from the mainland United States, and the officer staff of the 65th were replaced with non-Hispanic officers.

De Gavre was not popular with his subordinates. Due to some of his personal policies, which in retrospect, were likely concepts of the times, morale in the regiment plummeted, none farther than in Company G, which he singled out for intensive leadership. In October, the 65th also saw action in the Cherwon Sector and on Hill 391, also known as “Jackson Heights” in honor of Captain George Jackson, Company G’s commander. Company G fought a desperate battle to hold on to Hill 391, however the Chinese had penetrated their position and had them completely surrounded. Company F managed to come to their aid, but positions became intermingled, and commmunications was knockled out. CCF artillery took out the mortar ammunition and killed company commanders and the air liaison officers. Even thought the company held their positions for four days, there was a breaking point. Other regimental companies refused to come to their aid. Company G had to fight their way back to the Main Line of Resistance in the dark after they received the order to withdrawal, otherwise they would have risked the possibility of being completely wiped out. Jackson Heights was subsequently retaken by the 15th Infantry Regiment, but they too, lost it to the CCF in November 1952. 

Following the collapse of the regiment at Jackson Heights, one officer and 122 enlisted men were ordered to the division stockade for refusing to attack the enemy as ordered and for misbehaving before the enemy. During a patrol by a platoon from Company I on the night of 3 November, several soldiers refused orders to advance, resulting in another twenty-two soldiers brought up on charges. The first court-martial trials for these soldiers began on 23 November, with First Lieutenant Juan E. Guzman eventually being convicted of willfully failing to obey the order of a superior officer and willfully failing to engage the enemy. The trials lasted through 26 January 1953, with a total of one officer and ninety enlisted men convicted and received sentences of varying severity.

As 1953 rolled around, the 65th RCT was withdrawn form combat and on 30 March, the newly constituted 65th began eight weeks of intensive training. Despite the request of Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet, based on a study by the 3d Infantry Division’s commander, Major General George W. Smythe, and written by Major John S.D. Eisenhower, the 15th Infantry’s operations officer, to Army Chief of Staff General L. Lawton Collins that the 65th be relieved of its combat mission in Korea, the regiment remained in Korea with the 3d Infantry Division. Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens, quickly granted clemency and pardons to all soldiers of the 65th convicted.

In 2001, the Army released a report which blamed the breakdown of some of the companies in the 65th on some of the following factors: the chronic shortage of officers and NCOs; a rotation policy that removed officers, NCOs and enlisted men with combat experience; tactics which led to high casualties; an ammunition shortage; and the language barrier. The report also disclosed bias in the prosecution of the Puerto Rican soldiers, citing numerous incidents of white soldiers who were not prosecuted for refusing to fight in similar circumstances.

Two soldiers from 1st Battalion, 65th Infantry (1-65 IN) prepare to fire a 120mm mortar during training at Camp Roberts, California, 20 August 2020. 1-65 IN has been assigned to the California Army National Guard’s 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team since 2018. (U.S. Army photograph by Staff Sergeant Katie Grandori)

There were some small and larger successes for different companies in the regiment. Hand-to-hand combat, bayonet assaults, raids and successful defenses of outposts, especially that of Outpost Harry in June 1953, brought the regiment to redemption by the time the fighting in Korea came to an end on 27 July 1953. The 65th received credit for nine campaigns during the Korean War. Company F earned an Army Presidential Unit Citation for actions in the Iron Triangle, while the entire regiment was awarded a Navy Presidential Unit Citation for the Hwachon Reservoir and a Navy Unit Commendation for Panmunjom. The 65th’s Medical Company received a Meritorious Unit Commendation. The entire regiment also received two Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citations and the Gold Bravery Medal of Greece. Individual awards included one Medal of Honor (to Master Sergeant Juan E. Négron, upgraded from a Distinguished Service Cross in 2014), ten Distinguished Service Crosses, 256 Silver Stars, 606 Bronze Stars, and 2,771 Purple Hearts.

The 65th Infantry was relieved from assignment to the 3d Infantry Division on 3 November 1954 and, returning to Puerto Rico, it was assigned on 2 December 1954 to the 23d Infantry Division, which encompassed geographically-separated units in the Caribbean region. On 10 April 1956 it was inactivated at Camp Losey, Puerto Rico, and relieved from assignment to the 23d Division, which itself was inactivated. Beginning in 1959, the 65th was relieved from the Regular Army and allotted to the Puerto Rican Army National Guard and reorganized as element of the 92d Infantry Brigade. On 13 April 2016, in recognition of its valorous service, especially during the Korean War, the 65th Infantry was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol. 

In addition to disaster relief, especially in the wake of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, the 1st Battalion, 65th Infantry (1-65 IN), has participated in the War on Terror, with deployments to Guantanamo Bay and Djibouti. Since 2018, 1-65 IN has been assigned to the California Army National Guard’s 79th Infantry Combat Brigade.