Veteran, in Korean War at 15, fought with persecuted Puerto Rican unit
Fox River Grove veteran fought in Korean War at age 15
In December 1950, 15-year-old Walter McCostlin ran away from home in rural Alabama, lied about his age, and enlisted in the Army at the height of the Korean War.
At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, the heavyset McCostlin blended in with older enlistees, who were required to be 17 years old to enlist with parental consent, and 18 without.
After training for eight weeks in Japan, McCostlin landed in Pusan (now Busan), South Korea, and ended up getting on the "wrong bus" in joining the 65th Infantry Regiment. He was the only non-Hispanic enlisted man in a unit of Puerto Ricans -- dubbed "The Borinqueneers," nicknamed after "Borinquen," the word given to Puerto Rico by its original inhabitants, the Taíno Indians, meaning "land of the brave lord."
"Being a 'gringo,' it was a snafu that the Army assigned me there," he said. "I look at that as the best mistake the Army ever made."
It turned out to be a life-altering experience for McCostlin, who still chokes up when relating what he went through.
"War is hell," McCostlin said. "What I did there and the reason I went there stayed there. I had to work real hard to forget it."
McCostlin, now 81 and living in Fox River Grove, will travel to Washington, D.C., April 13 to see the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the 65th Infantry Regiment in honor of its service. It is the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.
McCostlin said he hopes to be reunited with other surviving members of his unit with whom he fought but never saw again after leaving Korea. The Puerto Rican unit was split up as a result of President Harry Truman's executive order to desegregate the military and its members were integrated into other units.
"I've been trying so long (to find them). ... Most of them are deceased either through service-connected injuries or were killed after I left," McCostlin said, holding back tears.
War and finding peace
The 65th Infantry Regiment was created in 1899 by Congress as a segregated unit primarily comprising Puerto Ricans, with mostly continental officers.
For decades the contributions of the mostly all-Hispanic unit to the U.S. Army went largely unnoticed. Its history now is memorialized in the 2007 documentary film "The Borinqueneers," which includes rare archival materials and interviews with veterans, commanding officers and historians.
The Borinqueneers served in World War I, World War II and Korea. During the Korean War, the 65th Infantry helped contain the Chinese advancement and supported the Marines in the aftermath of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, according to the documentary.
Despite not speaking Spanish, McCostlin said he successfully communicated with his Puerto Rican peers using sign language. "I only learned bad words in Spanish," he said laughingly.
Though trained as a radiological, biological, chemical warfare specialist, McCostlin was unprepared for what war really meant -- charging up hills, digging wells and being the intelligence reconnaissance chief for the 1st Battalion. He was charged with slipping out at night and bringing back the enemy for interrogation. "I wasn't scared. I was too stupid," he said.
Ultimately, McCostlin was wounded Sept. 13, 1951, in a bayonet fight and by shrapnel from an artillery shell exploding nearby. It earned him a Purple Heart. His unit mates saved his life.
"The medic bandaged me up. I was still a walking casualty. My wounds were not sufficient for evacuation," he said.
Yet, the psychological wounds were far greater. McCostlin said he finally broke down crying and confessed his true age to the unit chaplain and battalion commander. Not long after, he was discharged and shipped back stateside in October 1952.
By then a 17-year-old war veteran, McCostlin said he grew up real fast but still had difficulty adjusting to life back home in Alabama.
"I was a real hell raiser right after I got back," he said. "It took a lot of doing. I was a bad boy for a long time. It sent me on a course.
" ... When I went back home I found out that most of the old gang was dead (in the war) or in prison. The only therapy I could get was I joined the National Guard."
McCostlin re-enlisted in the Army in 1957. He rose up the ranks, eventually becoming an officer. He retired as a colonel after nearly 37 years in military service, and he later was bestowed the title of retired brigadier general by Gov. Jim Edgar. McCostlin also worked with lawmakers as a veterans' liaison helping them secure disability benefits. He has three grown sons living in Cleveland and Indiana.
On April 13, leaders of the U.S. House and Senate will present the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the 65th Infantry Regiment's pioneering military service, devotion to duty and acts of valor. The unveiling ceremony is 2 p.m. in Emancipation Hall of the United States Capitol Visitor Center and live-streamed on speaker.gov/live. An awards reception will follow.
McCostlin said the recognition is long overdue.
"I'm so happy to see it," he said. "They had a history of being persecuted. They looked down at the Puerto Rican outfit in such a way that they had no confidence in them. I thought they were great."
In the Korean War alone, the regiment earned nine Distinguished Service Crosses, roughly 250 Silver Stars, more than 600 Bronze Stars, and more than 2,700 Purple Hearts, according to the unit's website.
Only a single gold medal has been struck for the unit, which ultimately will be kept at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. However, surviving members will get a replica to take home.
Yet, because the unit was split up, many soldiers have lost their paperwork and have a tough time proving they were ever part of the Borinqueneers. McCostlin said he learned that anecdotally from other soldiers when getting his own documentation together.
"I feel out there some place there are individuals that are not acknowledged," McCostlin said. "I'm lucky. A lot of good units go unnoticed."