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Sergeant First Class Modesto Cartagena (July 21, 1921 ‚?? March 2, 2010) was a member of the United States Army who served in the 65th Infantry Regiment, an all-Puerto Rican regiment also known as "The Borinqueneers," during World War II and the Korean War. He was the most decorated Puerto Rican soldier in history.
Cartagena (birth name: Modesto Cartagena de Jes√ļs) was born in a poor family, and raised in the mountains of Cayey, Puerto Rico during the Great Depression. Cartagena enlisted in the U. S. Army in San Juan and was assigned to the 65th Infantry, also known as The Borinqueneers, because it was made up entirely of Puerto Rican enlisted men. During World War II he served in units guarding military installations in the Caribbean and later in the Allied occupation of Germany. Cartagena was discharged after the 65th Infantry Regiment returned to Puerto Rico.
Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, Cartagena reenlisted and entered the Army with the rank of Sergeant. He was assigned to Company C, 65th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division and sent to Korea.
The men of the 65th, now attached to the Army's 3d Infantry Division, were among the first infantrymen to meet the enemy on the battlefields of Korea. After November, 1950, they fought daily against units of the Chinese People's Liberation Army after the Chinese entered the war on the North Korean side. One of the hardships suffered by the Puerto Ricans was the lack of warm clothing during the cold and harsh winters. Among the battles and operations in which the 65th participated was Operation Killer in January 1951, becoming the first Regiment to cross the Han River in South Korea during the operation. On April 1951, the Regiment participated in the Uijonbu Corridor drives.
On April 19, 1951, Cartagena, "with no regard for his own safety," as the official record states, left his position and charged directly into devastating enemy fire, single-handedly destroying two enemy emplacements on Hill 206 near "Yonch'on," North Korea. After taking out the emplacements, he was knocked to the ground twice by exploding enemy grenades. Nevertheless, he got up and attacked three more times, each time destroying an enemy emplacement until he was wounded.
On October 19, 2002, during a ceremony honoring the 65th Infantry, when he was asked about the battle, Cartagena responded that he just hurled back at the Chinese the grenades thrown at him. He thought that the rest of the squad was behind him, and didn't realize most of them had been wounded and forced to take cover. Later they found 33 dead Chinese in the machine gun and automatic emplacements and they found 15 more dead in the positions he had destroyed on his way up the hill. Cartagena, who had lost a lot of blood, was sent to Taibu in a helicopter and then to Japan to the 128th Marines Hospital where he was hospitalized for 62 days. According to 1st Lt. Reinaldo Deliz Santiago:
"Sgt. Cartagena's actions prevented much heavier casualties within my platoon and I feel that his courage and superior leadership and own initiative were decisive factors for the accomplishment of the mission of the unit"
Cartagena was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) which is the second highest military decoration of the United States Army (second to the Medal of Honor), awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.
Distinguished Service Cross Citation
"The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Modesto Cartagena (RA10404100), Sergeant, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving with Company C, 1st Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division. Sergeant Cartagena distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in the vicinity of Yonch'on, Korea, on 19 April 1951. On that date, Company C was assigned the mission of capturing Hill 206, a terrain feature dominating a critical road junction. When the company assaulted the summit, it encountered stubborn resistance from a well-entrenched and fanatically determined hostile force. Sergeant Cartagena, directed to move his squad forward in order to approach the enemy positions from another ridgeline, led his men toward the objective, but, almost immediately, the group was forced to seek cover from an intense and accurate volume of small-arms and automatic-weapons fire. Locating the hostile emplacements that posed the greatest obstacle to the advance of the friendly forces, Sergeant Cartagena left his position and, charging directly into the devastating enemy fire he hurled a grenade at the first emplacement, totally destroying it. Ordering his squad to remain under cover, he successfully and single-handedly assaulted the second enemy position. Although knocked to the ground by exploding enemy grenades, Sergeant Cartagena repeated this daring action three more times. Finally, an increased volume of fire from the remaining hostile emplacements was concentrated on him and he was wounded. The extraordinary heroism and completely selfless devotion, to duty displayed by Sergeant Cartagena throughout this action enabled the company to secure its objective successfully with a minimum of casualties, reflect great credit on himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service."
Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, Korea: General Orders No. 698 (September 16, 1951) Home Town: , Puerto Rico
Cartagena spent 20 years in the Army before retiring as a Sergeant First Class, in 1971. He continued to be an active figure around the 65th Infantry Headquarters in Puerto Rico long after his retirement. He also had family in El Paso, Texas. His family, upon learning of Modesto's actions, had taken it upon themselves to make a request to Congress, that he be awarded the Medal of Honor. They received support on this quest from the Republican Veterans Committee. His supporters argued that the segregation policy of the army, at the time, and the limited English capacity of his company members when filling out the forms for the application, resulted in the awarding of the nations' second highest decoration, "The Distinguished Service Cross."
On March 2, 2010, the day that Puerto Rico commemorated the 93rd anniversary of American citizenship, Cartagena died in his home in the town of Guayama, of a heart attack following a long battle with stomach cancer, he is survived by his sisters Mar√≠a and Virginia and his children Modesto Jr., Luis Antonio, Fernando, Sara, Wilma and V√≠ctor. Cartagena was buried with military honors in the Puerto Rico National Cemetery located in the city of Bayamon. While no Federal government representative attended the interment ceremony for this highly-decorated veteran, Puerto Rico's second-highest official, Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock attended. He delivered to Cartagena's family a personal letter from Governor Luis Fortu√Īo and stated that while Cartagena was actually being buried with a Distinguished Service Cross, "in our hearts we're sending him off with the Medal of Honor he deserves" and made a commitment to seek it posthumously.
January 4, 2007, was officially declared as "SFC Modesto Cartagena Day" in the City of Hartford, Connecticut.
"SFC Modesto Cartagena Day" Proclamation. An avenue in his native town of Cayey is named after him.
From the New York Times, March 5, 2010
Modesto Cartagena, Hero of Korea, Is Dead at 87
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.‚??