Don't trash historic Puerto Rican regiment

Despite the sultry temperature, Jacqueline Centeno refused to yield. She knew her grandpa never would. Or her father.

So, Centeno — joined by about 100 others who turned out Thursday afternoon at the 65th Infantry Veterans Park in Osceola County — stood her ground.

She was ready to defend the park's namesake, a unit whose soldiers met the high bar of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"The Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th Infantry on the battlefields of Korea," he once raved, "... are writing a brilliant record of achievement in battle, and I am proud indeed to have them in this command. I wish that we might have many more like them."

Good enough for MacArthur. Not good enough for members of a group organized to recall Osceola County Commissioner John Quiñones.

Regrettably, the 65th has become the unwitting face of a political beef. Quinones led efforts to name the 34-acre park — a former golf course in Buenaventura Lakes — after the fabled Puerto Rican regiment, some of whom now live in Central Florida.

Yet, Kathy Sperling, the recall leader, insists that naming the park after the regiment was "inappropriate." Why? Nearly 100 members of the unit were hastily court-martialed for disobeying orders to fight during the Korean War. Charges for which they were later pardoned.

Puerto Ricans revere the 65th as heroes.

Sperling brands them "traitors."

Her galling words galvanized Central Florida Hispanics.

Wearing a Vietnam veteran cap, Rico Piccard, 64, called the label an "insult.

"She got that wrong," he said.

Racism is at the heart of the broadside, Hispanics say. If that is the case (and Sperling denies it), confronting prejudice would be old hat for men who served under Army apartheid.

Congress created the only all-Hispanic unit in Army history in 1899. With Puerto Ricans primarily filling the ranks, the unit was nicknamed "The Borinqueneers." That's a nod to the Taino Indians' original name for the island, "Borinquen," meaning "land of the brave lord."

Army leaders at first derided the 65th as the "rum and Coca Cola" unit, Silvia Alvarez Curbelo, a cultural historian at the University of Puerto Rico noted in a 2008 article in ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America. Race-based skepticism about the unit's combat prowess lingered until the 65th was called to Korea in 1950.

That August, the 65th held the perimeter during the evacuation of the vital port of Hungnam. In late January 1951, ordered to take two hills controlled by a Chinese division, the 65th charged with fixed bayonets. That victory's immortalized in a painting called "The Borinqueneers," commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation.

All told, the "rum and Coca-Cola" regiment earned four Distinguished Service Crosses, 125 Silver Stars, the Presidential and Meritorious Unit Commendations, two Korean Presidential Unit Citations, and the Greek Gold Medal for Bravery.

But efforts to prove their mettle and loyalty was nearly torpedoed in the largest mass court martial of the Korean War — 94 men in all.

Curbelo noted the men had been ordered to fight against "insurmountable" odds with poorly commanded troops and without proper artillery and medical support.

After word leaked about rushed proceedings and inadequate counsel for the men, the Army did an about-face, granting them clemency. A 2001 Army report cited prosecutorial bias against the Puerto Rican soldiers.

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