A ‘Borinqueneer’ Reflects on Serving in Korea

Thomas “Tommy” Lopez in his apartment. (Photo by Andrea May Sahouri)

Thomas “Tommy” Lopez calls his small apartment in the Bronx a museum – and considering practically every surface of the place is decked out in Korean War memorabilia, pictures of him and his family, and Puerto Rican flags, he isn’t necessarily wrong.

Among his most noteworthy pieces are framed photographs of Lopez shaking hands with President George H.W. Bush and with President Barack Obama. There’s a Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to Lopez more than 60 years after the long-overlooked service of Puerto Ricans in the Korean War. And this fall Lopez made a new addition to his collection: a replica of a street sign that reads “Borinqueneers 65th Infantry Way.”

The actual street sign stands at the corner of 102nd Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem where it was dedicated in September to honor the Puerto Rican veterans, or Borinqueneers, who fought during the Korean War.

On that day of the street renaming, “I felt like a millionaire. I really am proud that now they’re taking our name and give it to the streets of New York.” said Lopez, 90, and one of the few Borinqueneers still alive. “It was a big, big, big, big time for me.”

Although the history of the Puerto Rican soldiers in Korea was barely recognized for decades, it is actually just one piece of a long history of Puerto Rican military service that dates back to the American Revolution. Puerto Rican volunteers, part of a Spanish colonial army, joined American colonists in resisting British rule. Those troops are credited with helping capture several U.S. cities from the British.

The term “Borinqueneer” refers to the 65th Infantry Regiment in Puerto Rico, which is derived from the word “Borinquen,” the native name for the Island of Puerto Rico. The 65th Infantry originated in 1899 in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States.

At first, the infantry was a colonial troop known as the Battalion of Porto Rican Volunteers. In 1908, the battalion was officially incorporated into the United States Army and renamed the 65th Infantry Regiment. The majority of Borinqueneers came from Puerto Rico and were volunteers seeking socioeconomic advancement.

Although they went through rigorous training, prior to Korea the Borinqueneers performed military service that did not put them on the frontlines, because non-white troops were regarded as unfit for combat. But after World War II, the U.S. faced manpower shortages to fight in the Korean War. So in that conflict, the 65th Infantry was sent to the frontlines for the first time.

Tommy Lopez was just 19 when he served in Korea. He began as a radio operator for the 65th Infantry, then he became a combat squad leader.

Congressional Gold Medal

“When I was in combat, you’re always [seeing] those things that never go out of your mind because I went through hell,” Lopez reminisced. “We had a lot of frozen people, I had to amputate the couple legs to a man in Puerto Rico. I’m glad that I’m here. Still living here.”

Though it’s been 67 years since Lopez served, the memories remain emotionally difficult for him.

“You see a lot of different situations that you don’t want to even mention because memories make you feel…”

He paused, making a motion with his finger like teardrops running down his cheeks.

“Really… bad.”

Front side (left) and reserve side of the Congressional Gold Medal (Photos by Andrea May Sahouri)

Of the 61,000 Puerto Ricans who fought in the Korean War, 747 were killed in action and more than 3,500 others were injured. Their stories remained untold, beyond family circles, until 2014, when President Barack Obama signed a bill to honor the Borinqueneers with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can give.

The honor was meant to thank the Borinqueneers for their service, and to remind them that Puerto Rican contributions to the United States have not been forgotten and are valued.

Two years before the Congressional Gold Medal award, Anthony Mele and other members of the 65th Infantry Honor Task Force in New York mounted a successful effort to rename Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx “La 65 de Infanteria Boulevard.” In 2015, Mele paired up with Charlie Diaz, another member of the task force and a community board member, to spearhead the name change in East Harlem.

To achieve their goal, Mele and Diaz gathered 150 signatures, won approval from Manhattan Community Board 11, and got an okay from the City Council to change the name.

Both Mele and Diaz are Puerto Ricans with a long military history in their families. Two of Diaz’s uncles were Borinqueneers, and he said the street renamings are important for helping the Puerto Rican community understand its own history and the contributions it’s made: “Someone may look at that sign and say, you know, my dad, my uncle, my cousin was a part of the Borinqueneers, and I think that’s the legacy that we wanted to keep, and really promote for years to come.”

“I prayed that it would happen,” said Israel Montalvo, age 91, another Borinqueneer who recently moved from East Harlem to Montrose, Virginia. “I am very happy that it was accomplished because now the area has our name.”

Montalvo recalled fighting in a battle on the 38th parallel in Korea in 1951. “There was a surprise mortar attack. We were pinned down, our backs were to the wall, and we were almost wiped out,” he said. “I never forget the companions that were killed right in front of me.”

Some in the community complained that the congressional medal and the street renamings came too late, because many of the Borinqueneers who fought in Korea had died before their service was recognized.

But for survivor Tommy Lopez, recognition of the Borinqueneers was more than welcome, even if it was belated.

“Now I carry two flags: the Puerto Rican flag and the American flag,” he said. “And I am proud.”

Andrea May Sahouri is a member of the 2019 class of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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