Gilberto N. Villahermosa. Honor and Fidelity: The 65th Infantry in Korea, 1950-1953. Washington DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2009. xv + 329 pp. $33.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-16-083324-3.
Reviewed by Thomas E. Hanson
Published on H-War (December, 2010)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine
The Borinqueneers in Korea
Honor and Fidelity joins an ever-growing list of regimental histories covering twentieth-century American military history. What sets it apart from many recent offerings is its role in expanding our understanding of organizational evolution during long-term commitment to combat operations. Author Gilbert N. Villahermosa, a serving army officer, has done a masterful job detailing the experiences of a unique outfit in the post-World War II U.S. Army. Through archival research, exhaustive interviews with surviving participants, and an engaging narrative, Villahermosa forcefully argues that the devolution of the 65th Infantry Regiment's combat effectiveness and cohesion resulted from both internal and external factors, the cumulative effects of which led directly to the mass combat refusals seen in late fall 1952.
The 65th Infantry was a typical Regular Army unit in 1950, in that it lacked a significant percentage of authorized personnel, equipment of all types, and adequate training areas. It was atypical, however, in that it was one of only two segregated regiments remaining in the Regular Army, the other being the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment on occupation duty in Japan. Although the army had no policy restricting assignment of Hispanics in general or Puerto Ricans in particular, the 65th had always been explicitly Puerto Rican. During the first year of the regiment's service in Korea, this was, in the author's view, a source of strength. Villahermosa argues that the ethnic ties among soldiers and a deep sense of trust and respect between leaders and the led allowed the unit to fight effectively even under the hellish conditions prevailing in northern Korea in December 1950. As time passed, however, and attrition and rotation brought new infusions of manpower into the regiment, this trust and respect eroded as more non-English-speaking soldiers from Puerto Rico filled the ranks of the regiment while fewer and fewer Spanish-speaking noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and officers were assigned.
Villahermosa ably depicts this devolution of effectiveness in the chapters covering the regiment's defeat at Outpost Kelly in late summer of 1952, and the mass combat refusals that followed at Jackson Heights in October. Following a long period in corps reserve, the lackluster regimental commander Colonel Juan C. Cordero-Davila failed to make adequate plans or provide adequate supervision during the attack to seize Outpost Kelly, resulting in piecemeal defeats by the Chinese that reduced the number of combat-experienced leaders at the company level and lowered the morale of the soldiers. The fact that all parties continued to believe that Puerto Rican soldiers should be segregated into their own regiment exacerbated the disconnect between the soldiers and their leaders. By late 1952, there were few NCOs or officers in the Puerto Rican National Guard who had not already served in Korea; Major General Robert L. Dulaney's calls for more Puerto Rican leaders remained unanswered. Although Puerto Rican soldiers continued to fill the 65th's ranks, fewer and fewer spoke any English. Because several of the officers both spoke no Spanish and appeared disdainful of Puerto Rican cultural sensitivities, by late 1952 a gap of catastrophic proportions had opened between platoon leaders and company commanders on the one hand and the soldiers and even NCOs whom they led on the other hand. Following the regiment's humiliation at Outpost Kelly, a Continental officer replaced Cordero-Davila as regimental commander. Although Colonel Chester B. DeGavre had served with the 65th prior to World War II and spoke Spanish, one of his first orders prohibited his men from wearing mustaches "until they proved their manhood" (p. 239). Predictably, DeGavre's order had the opposite effect from what was intended. And because few of the leaders could adequately explain the purpose of orders issued to their non-English-speaking soldiers, almost no one outside of DeGavre's command group understood that his emphasis on discipline and appearance resulted directly from his fears that the regiment would be inactivated or otherwise discorporated as a Puerto Rican unit if their combat effectiveness did not improve. Unfortunately for DeGavre and the regiment, events at Jackson Heights seemed to validate prejudices of some members of the 3d Division and IX Corps staffs. Not only was the regiment unable to retain possession of the outpost, but repeated counterattacks also failed when substantial numbers of Puerto Rican soldiers disobeyed the orders of their officers and refused to fight.
Villahermosa concludes that the regiment's decline over the course of its years in Korea is directly attributable to three primary factors. First, the army's insistence on maintaining the 65th as a "segregated" regiment meant that there would never be a pool of experienced officers and NCOs of sufficient size to sustain a high level of combat effectiveness over the long term. And because the army had never restricted assignment of Hispanic soldiers the way it had for black soldiers, there was no guarantee that individual Puerto Rican replacements would be assigned to the 65th Infantry Regiment. Second, senior leaders at the division and corps level ignored the widespread inability of most replacement Puerto Rican soldiers to speak English, as demonstrated by the complete lack of any guidance issued to the 65th or 3d Infantry Division to remedy the problem. Major General Dulaney could not have been ignorant of the near-universal use of Spanish by members of the 65th Infantry Regiment during his almost daily visits to the regimental command post. But rather than scour the ranks of his division for combat-experienced bilingual officers and NCOs, the only program that received any emphasis was the accelerated promotion to sergeant of junior enlisted soldiers already in the regiment--a program that did nothing to address the continuing inability of most platoon leaders and company commanders to communicate orders effectively in battle. Third and most important, the decision to place Colonel Cordero-Davila in command of the regiment and Major General Dulaney's failure to mentor that officer once his leadership deficiencies became apparent directly led to the lax discipline that allowed the Chinese to overrun Outpost Kelly. Not only did Cordero-Davila demonstrate an ignorance bordering on stupidity in the face of numerous indicators of a major Chinese attack, but he also displayed a crippling indecisiveness long after it was apparent that a robust counterattack was necessary to restore the outpost line. Instead, Dulaney failed to issue any directives to his less-experienced subordinate and he continued to underwrite Cordero-Davila's poor performance until he was himself replaced.
Villahermosa's work provides an outstanding examination of the effects of sustained combat at both the macro and micro level. The work is firmly based on archival research from both the National Archives and the U.S. Army Military History Institute, augmented by numerous interviews with veterans from all three phases of the 65th's participation in the Korean War. The themes Villahermosa highlights in this work--organizational policy, leadership, arguments over the wisdom of ethnic identity as a basis for combat effectiveness, and the impact of politics on army policy--will resonate with scholars, professional soldiers, and the general public. This work has a place in a number of academic programs and should be required reading for all military pre-commissioning programs.
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Thomas E. Hanson. Review of Villahermosa, Gilberto N., Honor and Fidelity: The 65th Infantry in Korea, 1950-1953.
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