Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1940’s, Gilberto Luciano Padilla worked the sugar cane plantations Monday to Saturday for less than $8 a week.
“I had to take care of my six little brothers, so I decided to join the Army to see if I could change my life. I volunteered, 100 percent,” he said. “I learned so much. I learned how to shoot a gun, a .45 and then a .30-caliber machine gun. I first learned how to drive a car, as well.”
He became a heavy equipment operator in the storied 65th Infantry Regiment, now part of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard. The regiment, part of the active-duty Army from 1899 to 1959, was a segregated Latino unit made up largely of Puerto Ricans and took its nickname — the Borinqueneers — from the original Taíno name for the island.
Padilla said one of the challenges he and his team faced in Korea was that the Chinese combatants wore white uniforms in the snow, and his team wore green.
“The Chinese could identify us quickly, but we couldn’t see the Chinese as quickly,” he said.
Reconnaissance training and the jungle training he received in Panama helped him survive, Padilla said. “It’s why I’m still here,” he added. “We were all like family as well. We all knew each other in Puerto Rico before we left.”
While in Korea, he was firing a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a jeep during a firefight. The barrel was hot and the driver took off. So he wouldn’t fall off the vehicle, he grabbed the hot barrel and burnt both his hands. He was sent to a hospital ship for 93 days.
In October 1952, Padilla was part of one of the regiment’s most famous battles, the fight to hold Hill 391, whose lower part was called “Jackson Heights.”
“That was a big hill. We wanted to dig into defensive positions but it was rock. We couldn’t dig in. It was crazy. There was nowhere to hide,” he said. “The Chinese had the artillery dialed right into our spot.” After enduring days of artillery bombardment with limited artillery support, the Borinqueneers were forced to withdraw to avoid being overrun.
Padilla stayed behind when the 65th Infantry Regiment redeployed to Puerto Rico, serving with a Marine unit in Pyongyang from April 1953 to May 1954. He was in Korea for 19 months.
“I’m very proud to have survived Korea and to have served with the Marines,” he said.
Padilla said he did face some racism during his time in the service while in Korea.
“When we came back off the front lines, we were supposed to get some R & R (rest and recuperation), but us Puerto Ricans spent the majority of the time on the front lines. They would put us on the different details so we barely got any rest,” Padilla said. “When we got done with the work details, they sent us right back to the front. They pretty much worked us the whole time.”
In 1952, the 65th Infantry Regiment was the last U.S. military unit to desegregate.
Padilla is proud of his heritage and of his service. “I wish I could’ve served even more. I’m not in because I’m old. If I could still serve, I would. I would still be there,” he said. “Puerto Ricans, we were warriors. I’m proud of it. I’m proud to represent Puerto Rico and America.”
Congressional Gold Medal
On April 13, Congress awarded the regiment with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of its pioneering military service, devotion to duty and many acts of valor in the face of adversity.
Padilla was in a hospital in Puerto Rico with a virus during the ceremony in Washington. “I felt like I was about to die,” he said. “The feeling was so overwhelming, the virus almost overtook me. I was really emotional. I can’t wait to attend the ceremony where I receive my (copy of the) medal.”
He said he’s proud of all Puerto Ricans who continue to serve. “Puerto Ricans give 100 percent of themselves, and they don’t take a step back. They’re always moving forward,” he said.