Modesto Cartagena, 2000

Modesto Cartagena, Hero of Korea, Is Dead at 87

The New York Times, March 5, 2010

By Richard Goldstein

Modesto Cartagena, who was cited for heroism in the Korean War while fighting in an Army regiment composed almost entirely of soldiers from Puerto Rico and acclaimed for its bravery, died Tuesday at his home in Guayama, P.R. He was 87.

The cause was a heart attack, said his son Modesto Jr.

In September 1950, the 65th Infantry Regiment arrived at the South Korean port of Pusan. Over the next three years the regiment fought in nine major battles, including a blocking maneuver that helped Marines complete a fighting retreat from the Chinese Communist onslaught at the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950.

The Puerto Rican soldiers surmounted not only the Communist enemy but also prejudicial attitudes.

Brig. Gen. William Harris, the regiment’s commander during the early stages of the Korean War, was quoted by The Denver Post as having written after the war that he was reluctant to take the post because the Puerto Rican troops were disparaged in the military as a “rum and Coca-Cola outfit.” But, he continued, he came to view them as “the best damn soldiers in that war.” More than 3,800 members of the regiment were killed or wounded in Korea.

Sergeant Cartagena, a member of the regiment’s First Battalion, received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor, for “extraordinary heroism” in a single-handed assault that enabled his company to seize a hill near Yonchon, South Korea, on April 19, 1951.

Sergeant Cartagena had charged ahead of his men, who were pinned down by a “well-entrenched and fanatically determined hostile force,” as his citation put it. His rifle was shot away from him and he was wounded by enemy grenades, but he dispatched five Communist emplacements by tossing grenades at them.

A native of Cayey, P.R., Mr. Cartagena was born on July 22, 1922. He fought in Europe during World War II, and besides the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded Silver and Bronze Stars in both World War II and Korea.

In addition to Modesto Cartagena Jr., he is survived by his sons Luis, Fernando and Vitin; his daughters, Sara and Wilma; his sisters, Maria and Virginia; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife, Sara, died in 1995.

The 65th Infantry Regiment became known as the Borinqueneers, the term derived from an Indian word for Puerto Rico denoting “land of the brave lord.” Its history was related in the 2007 television documentary “The Borinqueneers,” produced, directed and written by Noemi Figueroa Soulet.

On the 50th anniversary of the regiment’s arrival in Korea, Louis Caldera, the secretary of the Army, unveiled a plaque in its honor at Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Cartagena attended in his old dress uniform, with its stripes denoting a sergeant first class.

“I’m just sorry that I’m too old to go to Afghanistan to fight,” he told The El Paso Times in 2002. “I’d do it all over again if I could.”

Modesto Cartagena, circa 1950's

Go to: Photos from Korea and Japan: 1968 and 1969

Go to: My Return to Korea: October 2003

Go to: My Digital Photo Collection

Go to: Home Page

Go to: Obituaries

Go to: Medal of Honor Citation page