Better late than never.
Last week, Sen. Barbara Mikulski honored Maryland’s last member of the Borinqueneers—a regiment of Puerto Rican soldiers who overcame discrimination and segregation to distinguish themselves in battle, during World War II, but especially during the Korean War.
Once legislation which has cleared the House and Senate is signed by President Obama, Staff Sgt. Retired Leonardo Martinez, 96, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal with the rest of the Borinqueneers, an American regiment comprised of segregated Puerto Rican soldiers.
The Borinqueneers—the name derived from the Taino word for Puerto Rico, which means “land of the brave lord,” according to the text of the Senate bill—were initially relegated to non-combatant roles during World War I, as were most segregated units at the time.
During World War II, the unit deployed overseas for the first time.
“Despite the Regiment’s relatively limited combat service in World War II,” reads the text of the Senate bill, “the unit suffered casualties in the course of defending against enemy attacks, with individual soldiers earning one Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and 90 Purple Hearts, and the unit receiving campaign participation credit for Rome-Arno, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe.”
During the Korean War, the Borinqueneers solidified a reputation of, in the words of Brig. Gen. William W. Harris, “the best damn soldiers I had ever seen.”
Harris, according to the Senate bill text, had admitted that he was initially reluctant to have the Borinqueneers under his command, due to the prejudice that “the Puerto Rican was a rum and Coca-Cola soldier.”
“This unit’s extraordinarily high casualty rate underscored the fact that it had been serving on the front line, face to face with the enemy, at the tip of the spear,” said Sen. Mikulski at a special ceremony for Martinez, held at Fort McHenry on Monday, June 2.
Mikulski joined with over 70 co-sponsors of the bill in April. The bill was passed unanimously by Congress.
“I look forward to welcoming [Martinez] to the Capitol when his regiment gets the Gold Medal,” said Mikulski. “The medal itself is never cast until the legislation is signed by the president himself.”
Sam Rodriguez, Maryland Borinqueneer Congressional Gold Medal Alliance Delegate, thanked Mikulski for her efforts in getting the Congressional Gold Medal legislation passed.
“We combined all our forces; we have all come together,” he said. “It was Sen. Mikulski’s office where I first went for guidance to get this thing approved.”
Martinez was accompanied, according to Mikulski, by four generations of his family, including his sons Angel and Miguel, both of whom served in the Vietnam War as commissioned officers.
Angel Martinez said that his father greatly appreciated the honor.
“I see the difference in him, and how he’s come to life,” the younger Martinez said, summing up his father’s philosophy: “If there is something to do, you do it right…you do it for your country and your organization.”
During one of his missions in Korea, Leonardo Martinez was wounded in his back and leg during a mortar assault, and was discovered a week later and sent to Japan for medical care. He credits his survival to the six or seven layers of clothing he was wearing.
After the Korean War, Martinez served in Alaska, Kentucky, Germany and Maryland, and eventually went to work for the United States Postal Service. He served 25 years in the military, and 22 years at the Post Office.
“I’m very happy to see you here,” Martinez told his family and other attendees as Mikulski and Rodriguez presented him with an American flag.
by Erik Zygmont