McDonough resident earns Congressional Gold Medal

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

“Mama, there’s Warren.”

It was 1952 and it had been seven long, strife-ridden, war-torn years since young Fraulein Hilda Harant had laid eyes on a handsome young U.S. Army soldier, Warren Torres-Toro. Some 71 years later, that soldier would be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his military service. But on this day, Hilda was walking on the street with her mother when she spotted the G.I. who stole her heart years before.

The family of Sgt. 1st Class Warren Torres-Toro, U.S. Army-Ret., middle bottom, celebrates with the 92-year-old in McDonough on Friday, a few months after his regiment was bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal. Top left, son Bernd holds the Congressional Record with remarks by House Speaker Paul Ryan; son Hugh holds the medal certificate; bottom left, wife Hilda leans in, and bottom right, daughter Diana Stephens holds the medal replica. Photo by James Saxton

In 1945, the World War II infantry platoon had been tasked with policing her neighborhood in the recently captured town of Mannheim near Frankfurt, Germany. That’s the first time she met this 20-year-old Puerto Rican with the winning smile.

“It was right after World War II,” she said. “Everything was kaput. The whole town was demolished. We had nothing to eat. We had to move out of our houses because naturally, we were the enemy and we had to give them the houses. Because we had nothing to eat, my mother washed uniforms for the Americans, for cigarettes, for coffee, things like that. One day she washed Warren’s uniform. She mixed it up with somebody else’s.”

When Torres-Toro discovered the error, a big discussion ensued and the ravishing 15-year-old brunette walked in to investigate. A settlement was reached, and the encounter was the beginning of an impossible romance.

“He was handsome, he was,” she said. “But, you understand, he was our enemy. Some of the Americans, after they ate enough, took the leftovers and burned them. They were under orders not to feed the Germans – you see, even those of us who didn’t vote for Hitler had to pay. Others were kind, and slipped chocolates to the children. And Warren, oh, he was daring. He would bring me all kinds of food from the mess hall, even doughnuts.”

The kindness paid off. Although he was desperately trying to learn German “so we could talk,” she said they managed. “Love has many languages.”

The two were falling for each other when the private, who re-enlisted after the war, was ordered to leave Germany. He told her he’d come back for her; it took far longer to get back than he’d ever dreamed.

Sgt. 1st Class Warren H. Torres-Toro, U.S. Army-Ret., and his wife Hilda hold the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed to him by President Barack Obama. Photo by James Saxton

“He tried over and over to get stationed in Germany. He didn’t get it, and, he didn’t get it. And then one day, he did get it.”

But his attractive belle had steeled herself against the withering chance of seeing him again, despite the promise. Letters from U.S. military personnel to Germans were not allowed. Although he wrote anyway, for years, few got through. For her, it was a maddening silence. “People used to tell me, he’s just a soldier, you know? But, I never gave up. And then, seven years later, there he was, walking toward me.”

It took awhile to win her fractured love back, and his gaining permission from his superiors to marry her took considerable effort, but Warren and Hilda were married two years later. The couple had four children: Bernd, Hugh, Warren Jr., and Diana.

Today, the 92-year-old veteran, his faithful wife Hilda and all four children live in and around Henry County.

And the soldier with the winning smile went on to a successful military career. Born in 1923 in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, Torres-Toro joined the Army in May 1942 as a member of the 65th Infantry, a predominately Puerto Rican regiment known as the Borinqueneers that is the only Hispanic segregated unit to fight in every war of the 20th century.

He served 31 years and through World War II and the Korean War in the infantry, military police, missile command, and served as a warrant officer and recruiter. He was stationed in Germany, Italy, Puerto Rico, and on bases in Georgia, Massachusetts and New York. He earned ten medals, including the Meritorious Service Medal and the Army Commendation Medal before retiring in 1973.

But one medal tops all others. Following a 2014 Act of Congress, in April members of the regiment were presented the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama in a ceremony in Washington D.C. It was presided over by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who called the medal “long overdue.” Only about 1,000 members of the regiment are thought to be alive today, and only a handful served in World War II.

Torres-Toro was invited but, being unable to travel, could not attend. After receiving his personal replica of the medal, the four children of Torres-Toro hosted a small ceremony Friday in McDonough to honor their father, Sgt. 1st Class Warren H. Torres-Toro, U.S. Army-Ret.

The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor. The original medal is on display at the Smithsonian Institute. As Torres-Toro earned the medal, he also received from U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., a Certificate of Special Congres-sional Recognition.

Torres-Toro served with a unique outfit. The Borinqueneers represent “a distinguished group of American heroes,” Speaker Ryan said in a speech before the Senate in April, just before the awards ceremony. The unit was “denied equal benefits and equal honors for their service, despite the fact that their regiment experienced equal risk and equal duty in combat.”

The 65th Infantry was created in 1920 from a unit of Puerto Rican volunteers. Its nickname, the Borinqueneers, comes from the original pre-Spanish name for Puerto Rico.

“Over the years,” Ryan said, “even in the shadow of unequal treatment, the Borinqueneers never faltered and never failed to prove just how valuable they are to the cause of freedom. My favorite example is the story of Operation Portrex, a military exercise that occurred on the eve of the Korean War. It was intended to test how the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines would do as liberators of an enemy-controlled island.

“The Borinqueneers were tasked with playing the role of the enemy aggressors and attempting to prevent the more than 3,200 American troops from liberating the island. It was a task that, quite frankly, they were not expected to accomplish. The 65th Infantry, badly outnumbered, was able to halt the offensive forces on the beaches. After seeing the skill of the Borinqueneers, our Army commanders quickly deployed them into the heart of the Korean War, where the unit earned more than 2,700 Purple Hearts, 600 Bronze Stars, 250 Silver Stars, nine Distinguished Service Crosses, and one Medal of Honor.”

The war veteran saw intense combat action in the two wars, “but he won’t talk about it,” his son Hugh said. “I guess when soldiers come back home, they just want to leave it all behind, move on. He just won’t talk about the things he saw.”

One Korean War scene that Torres-Toro did relate to his daughter, Diana Stephens of McDonough, involved seeing so many enemy troops pour down the sides of a mountain, “they looked like thousands and thousands of ants,” Stephens said. “My father’s unit was poorly clothed in cold, wet, harsh conditions. They lacked supplies, and were way, way outnumbered, but they found a way to prevail. What amazing men those were, to fight so hard after treatment that wasn’t so great.”

The heavy, shiny Congressional Gold Medal has deep meaning for Hilda Torres-Toro. “I’m very, very thankful they finally are recognized, these many people from Puerto Rico who served their country. They deserve the honor.”