José Rivera Sr. did not live to see his 65th Infantry Regiment receive a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for its service in the Korean War.
Surviving members of the "Borinqueneers," as the unit was known, were on hand last June in Washington, D.C., when President Barack Obama signed the bill bestowing the honor on the soldiers from Puerto Rico, stated information at www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/06/10.
Rivera’s son, José Jr., said that he is not sure how his father, who died in 2012 at the age of 86, would have felt about the Gold Medal.
"He was very matter-of-fact about the war," Rivera said. "He enjoyed the military life (and) never was concerned with being recognized. … He always said the army provided him with food, shelter, a good pension. ‘I almost died a few times,’ he said, ‘but I didn’t.’ Then he would laugh."
In an Oct. 21 interview, his son looked over photos from his father’s Korean War experience and said his father was very proud of having been a soldier. He would say the U.S. Army had provided him with a job, a high school diploma and meals even if they were World War II rations at times, Rivera Jr. said.
"He always walked with a swagger," Rivera said. "He lived a good life."
Not that his father’s life started out easy, he noted. His mother died young and his father abandoned him so Rivera Sr. was raised by his grandmother. He grew up working on tobacco and sugar cane plantations in his native Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. During those years, he learned to cut hair, he added.
One of the photos from his service shows Rivera cutting a fellow soldier’s hair in the field. For the rest of his life, he would carry scissors and clippers with him.
"He made money for cigarettes and other things," said his son. "It was a soldier’s life."
Rivera Sr. spoke of his Korean War experience in a November 2007 article in El Mensajero Católico. Considered professional soldiers, the Borinqueneers held the respect of such American leaders as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, according to a documentary of the same name, so the regiment’s service helped facilitate the desegregation of the units that began during the Korean War.
A historical account by Col. Gilberto Villahermosa tells how the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment killed nearly 6,900 Communist soldiers and imprisoned 2,127 more between the fall of 1950 and July of 1951. During that early period, the regiment won five of the 12 Distinguished Service Crosses and most of the 156 Bronze Stars and 421 Silver Stars that it would win in its four years in Korea. The regiment, which left Korea in November 1954, suffered 985 battle casualties.
Toward the end of his life, he father suffered hallucinations based on his war experiences, Rivera Jr. recounted. He would talk about bombs going off and other memories that may have been part of the post traumatic stress he suffered all those years ago, he added.
"I think it (hallucinating) was brought on by the Parkinson’s," Rivera said. "But he’d say, ‘There were machines guns and bodies coming out of the ground.’"