The 65th Infantry Regiment
“Honor and Fidelity”
By Lt. Col. Len Kondratuik, Chief, NGB History
The history of Hispanic-Americans serving in the U.S. Armed Forces is replete with stories of courage, heroism and valor. Because the National Guard is a community-based organization, there have been a number of units with large numbers of Hispanic-Americans.
The New Mexico Militia kept its territory in the Union during the Civil War. New Mexico’s 200th Coast Artillery Regiment (anti-aircraft) was the first unit to fire against the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II and was the last unit to surrender at the end of the Bataan Campaign in April 1942. Large numbers of Hispanics served in Arizona’s 158th Infantry “Bushmaster” Regiment in the Pacific and in the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division that served in Europe. In Puerto Rico, their most famous unit is the 65th Infantry Regiment.
The 65th was organized in 1899, one year after U.S. forces, mostly Guardmembers, seized Puerto Rico from Spain. The 65th was intended to be a defense force for the protection of Puerto Rico. Although an active component Army regiment, Puerto Ricans could enlist or be appointed as officers and expect to spend their entire career in Puerto Rico. The 65th, like the Philippine Scouts, were considered to be “colonial” troops by the Army.
To the people of Puerto Rico, the 65th was special.
“Soldiering in Puerto Rico and the 65th Infantry were linked together. The 65th was like a Guard unit; soldiers, family members and townspeople were one large community,” recalled Maj. Gen. William A. Navas, Army Guard director, whose grandfather was one of the first Puerto Ricans appointed as an officer in the 65th.
During World War II, the 65th remained in Puerto Rico until January 1943, when it moved to Panama and then to France in September 1944. However, the Army did not have any confidence in the fighting ability of the 65th. This prejudice was based on preconceived notions. In reality, the 65th was a well-trained and proud outfit. Although the 3rd Battalion saw some fighting in Italy, most of the 65th was assigned to headquarters as security troops. After the war, the 65th returned to garrison duty in Puerto Rico.
An exercise involving the 65th in February 1950 changed the minds of many Army leaders about the 65th’s usefulness. The 65th held off the entire 3rd Infantry Division in a successful defense. Pentagon planners took note.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the 65th was ordered to Korea and assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division.
While the 65th was on its way, its sister Puerto Rico Guard unit, the 296th Infantry, was mobilized. Like many Guard units, the 296th was tasked to provide replacements. Fortunately, most Puerto Rico Guardmembers were assigned to the 65th.
Shortly after the 65th arrived in South Korea, its commander, Col. William Harris, was approached by Eigth Army commander Lt. Gen. Walton Walker. The general asked, “Will the Puerto Ricans fight?”
“I and my Puerto Ricans will fight anybody,” replied Harris proudly.
Walker then pointed to a waiting northbound train and ordered, “Get on, and then go that way.”
For the next three years the men of the 65th fought their way up and down the Korean peninsula. Any doubts about their fighting ability were quickly dispelled. The regiment earned a distinguished combat record.
Fighting in some of the toughest battles of the Korean War, the 65th earned two U.S. Presidential Unit Citations, two Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citations, two U.S. Meritorious Unit Commendations and the Greek Gold Medal of Bravery. Four of its soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor.
Col. Harry Micheli, now the senior Army instructor at the Antilles Military Academy in Puerto Rico, reported to the 65th as a new second lieutenant in the fall of 1951.
“I remember that the 65th was reorganzing after a year of heavy combat,” he said. “Many of the old-time regulars had left as casualties. They were replaced by Puerto Rico Guardsmen, non-Hispanic Guardsmen from various states and South Korean replacements.
“We trained until we were a cohesive unit,” he added, “and then we reentered combat.”
In 1992, the 65th was honored in a National Guard heritage painting. The scene depicts the regiment conducting a bayonet charge against a Chinese division in February 1951.
Despite its gallantry in Korea, the 65th was inactivated in 1956. The Army no longer needed an infantry garrison in Puerto Rico, nor did it want any units composed of a single ethnic group. It seemed like the 65th was gone forever.
However, Brig. Gen. Juan Codero, Puerto Rico’s Adjutant General, persuaded the Department of the Army to transfer the 65th Infantry from the Regular Army to the Puerto Rico Army National Guard. This was the only infantry unit ever transferred from the active component Army to the Army Guard.
Gen. Codero had personal and historic reasons for this request. He had commanded the 296th Infantry when it was mobilized in 1950 and was one of the commanders of the 65th in Korea, making him, perhaps, the only Guardmember to command a regular regiment in Korea.
On Feb. 15, 1959, the 65th Infantry uncased its colors and took its place as a regiment of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard.
Since then, the 65th Infantry, part of the 92nd Infantry Brigade, has trained extensively in the Caribbean, Central and South America. The 65th has also played a key role in state missions.
Throughout its nearly 100 years of service, the 65th Infantry has always lived up to its motto of “Honor and Fidelity.”
La Genealogía de Puerto Rico would like to thank Lt. Col. Len Kondratuik for allowing the above article to be displayed here.