LORAIN — Miguel Berlingeri on Thursday recalled the bloody Chosin Reservoir where his unit helped rescue trapped Marines during the Korean War.
“I saw a lot of friends killed in Korea,” said the 86-year-old Lorain resident. Berlingeri, who served in World War II and the Vietnam War in addition to Korea, was a member of the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment known as the Borinqueneers.
Formed in 1899, the unit, disbanded after the Korean War, was recently honored by Lorain City Council. A national effort to award the unit the Congressional Gold Medal is under way.
Berlingeri was born in Coamo, Puerto Rico. He said that in 1943 at age 16, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army to be with his brothers, both of whom were serving. “If they got killed, I wanted to get killed too — with my brothers,” he said.
Berlingeri served in Italy in WWII as an infantryman when the unit was attached to 3rd Infantry Division. Berlingeri recalled Gen. George Patton wishing troops “good luck and good aim” before the D-Day invasion.
Berlingeri said he was mostly involved with keeping cities that had been liberated by other troops secure and didn’t see combat. “I’ve got to admit it, I drank a lot of good wine,” Berlingeri said of his time in Italy.
Berlingeri, who had a stroke in February, said some of his memories of Korea are fuzzy. However, some remain vivid.
Berlingeri recalls Chinese soldiers lying down on barbed wire to allow their comrades to run over them during human wave attacks. He remembers 14 inches of snow and an M-30 machine gun melting, despite the intense cold of the Korean winter, due to heavy firing.
Berlingeri took part in one of the most memorable retreats in American military history. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s risky advance to the Yalu River and the Chinese border triggered a Chinese entrance into the war. Thousands of Chinese soldiers surrounded the 7th Marines Division.
The 65th, again attached to the 3rd Division, helped with the evacuation of some 105,000 troops between Nov. 30 and Dec. 24, 1950, according to a military histories of the 3rd and 65th. The regiment held off Chinese and North Korean troops in part of the Hungnam beachhead, allowing the Marines to evacuate.
Some wounded Marines had to be strapped onto jeeps during the chaotic evacuation done under heavy fire, according to “In Mortal Combat” author John Toland’s comprehensive account of the war. On Dec. 2, 1950, MacArthur — later relieved of his command by President Harry Truman — wrote the Joint Chiefs of Staff that unless “immediate action” were taken, “hope for success cannot be justified and speedy attrition leading to final destruction can reasonably be contemplated.”
Berlingeri, a sergeant and forward observer for a mortar unit in Korea, recalls recovering frozen bodies of dead Marines. Berlingeri said five members of his platoon were killed.
By the end of the war, 743 members of the 65th were killed and 2,318 wounded, according to 2001 a report on the regiment by the Army’s Center of Military History. Puerto Rico suffered one casualty for every 660 of its inhabitants, compared with one for every 1,125 in the continental U.S., according to the report. The war killed nearly 37,000 Americans, 215,000 North Koreans, at least 58,000 South Koreans and at least 148,000 Chinese.
While MacArthur wrote of the regiment’s, “courage” and “determination,” 91 members were found guilty in a 1953 court-martial for refusing to fight after a bloody battle at a hill known as Outpost Kelly. By 1954, all received clemency or pardons, according to the report.
The report blamed the courts martial judgements on a combination of factors. Heavy rotations led to communication breakdowns between English-speaking officers and non-commissioned officers and Spanish-speaking enlisted men. The report said the regiment also lacked ammunition, many combat-experienced soldiers had been rotated out and morale was low due to high casualties and cultural differences between officers and enlisted men.
“It is a tribute to the dedication and perseverance of the men of the 65th that, in light of all this, they attacked as many times as they did and were able to advance as far as they did,” the report said.
Berlingeri, stationed in Puerto Rico when the incidents that led to the courts martial actions occurred, said he doesn’t believe the men were guilty of cowardice. He hopes the unit gets the congressional medal and the record of the regiment is set straight.
Berlingeri became a military police officer after the Korean War. Among the soldiers who served under him was Jim Smith, now a board of education member. Smith, who served with Berlingeri for about five months in South Korea in 1962, remembers Berlingeri as an approachable NCO who knew when to be boss.
Berlingeri finished his military career by serving 10 months in the Vietnam War in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. While he loved the military, Berlingeri said he was frustrated about being passed over for promotion, which he believed on at least one occasion was due to racism. When told he was being sent back to Vietnam if he re-enlisted, Berlingeri chose to be honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in 1966.
Berlingeri said he always wondered why the U.S. got involved in Vietnam after the Vietnamese defeated the French. “It was a waste of time,” Berlingeri said of the war, which saw the deaths of some 58,000 Americans and 3.8 million Vietnamese.
Shortly after his discharge, Berlingeri moved to Lorain and eventually took a job with the Ford Motor Co. He worked at plants in Lorain and Avon Lake before retiring in 1991.
Berlingeri, a father of 10 children and four stepchildren from three marriages, has been married to Carmen Berlingeri since 1970. The two hosted a Sunday musical radio show on WRKG-AM for 22 years.
While ambivalent about the Korean and Vietnam wars, Berlingeri said he has no regrets about his military service. “I was a proud soldier,” he said.