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Puerto Rican soldiers in the First World War: colonial troops for a new empire.

"Race is neither an essence nor an illusion, but rather an ongoing, contradictory, self-reinforcing, plastic process subject to the macro forces of social and political struggle and the micro effects of daily decisions." (1)

In 1917, Eduardo Curbelo, born in the coastal town of Ponce in southern Puerto Rico, enlisted to serve in the United States Army even though he had already two daughters, one of them my mother, not yet one year old. He became part of the Porto Rico Infantry Regiment and was sent for training to the Panama Canal Zone. What prompted him to sign up? What made many men born in colonial territories such as India, Martinique, and Puerto Rico--a newly acquired US colony--to feel it was their war too? Of course, we can speak of imperial coercion, but there is more to it than the obvious burden of subalternity.

Many years later my grandfather told me that it was out of a sense of duty combined with a sense of adventure that he signed up for the Army but he could not pinpoint which one moved him more. Although he was aware of the horrors of trench warfare, there were ideals to fight for, and also a vague feeling that war could bring some kind of change in his life. He did not get the chance to fight in Europe because the conflict ended as the Puerto Rican regiment was preparing to sail for France but nevertheless his life was transformed as an intense wave of modernization--both cultural and technological--precipitated by the war spread over the whole world.

German sociologist Georg Simmel believes that Europe embraced war in 1914 trying to find a social bond that has been lost amidst the momentous and often ruthless transformations of the 19th century. (2) As "a prophetic wind"--in the words of another sociologist, Max Weber,--the roar of the August guns constituted a calling for many anxious to escape the multiple contradictions of modernity. (3) Ironically, the Great War that caused the death of more than eight million people, solidified even more capitalist structural tenets, and nurtured mass consumerist culture through technologies tested during the conflict (such as propaganda).

The First World War appears in Puerto Rican historiography mostly as a far away event with no significant impact except for the increased militarization of the territory and the recruitment of the new American citizens into the US Armed Forces. I think that the first centennial of the Great War constitutes a good moment to go back to our own war "trenches", that is, to assess how our country experienced the war, not just in a military or political sense, but also in everyday life and how during the entire 20th century war dictated destiny for Puerto Rico. Specially, how the conflict that ended in 1918 unveiled the limits and contradictions within our still emerging colonial relationship with the United States.

The War to End All Wars

War became one of the principal topics of public conversation in Puerto Rico as news of the general mobilizations of both the Central Powers and the Entente reached our country. Because the United States was not a belligerent power, La Correspondencia, the leading newspaper in the island, continuously reminded its readers of President Wilson's warnings of not to discuss anything related to the conflict and avoid any appearance of entanglement. (4) However, public opinion in Puerto Rico was decidedly on the side of the Entente. As in many countries in Latin America such as Argentina and Mexico, Puerto Rico experimented in the last decade of the 19th and beginnings of the 20th century a strong affinity with French cultural production and urban proposals. (5) The afrancesamiento was particularly evident in architecture, literature, journalism and city planning. When the war broke out, it was seen as an aggression to French ideals of civilization.

Germans became the "despised Huns" and war was depicted as civilization's crusade against barbaric hordes. Exactly one month before the start of hostilities, there had been public festivities in San Juan honoring the 125th anniversary of the Bastille. (6) War illuminated once more the epic and heroic character of France and many Puerto Ricans of French and Corsican descent volunteered to serve in the French Armed Forces when the General Consulate in San Juan posted on August 24 the general mobilization order. For many of those young men eager to step into battle, war was being fought to preserve the best ideals of humanity, to protect the land of the forefathers, symbolized by the courageous Marianne. (7) If Puerto Rico was their "little homeland," France was "the historical and cultural motherland." For Victor Veve, Carlos Bartolomei and Antonio Fantauzzi, and many others, war would be a rite of passage, for others, their final destiny. When an aspiring journalist named Luis Munoz Marin, who in 1948 would become Puerto Rico's first elected governor, asked a young peasant that has just arrived to San Juan from the countryside about his place of birth, the man answered: "In Jayuya, sir, but I am going to die in France." (8)

It is not surprising then that the first American shots in the conflict originated from one of the batteries of El Morro Castle in Puerto Rico. In March 21, 1915, Lt. Teofilo Marxuach, a Puerto Rican-born US officer, ordered fire upon the German merchant vessel Odenwald after its commander disobeyed neutrality dispositions during a stopover at the port of San Juan. The vessel was carrying munitions and other materials to supply German submarines roaming in the Atlantic. The German ship returned to port where it was confiscated and renamed as the USS Newport. The incident was denounced by Germany as a breach of the neutrality stand set up by the United States. (9)

Puerto Ricans became American citizens by virtue of the Jones Act in 1917. The granting of citizenship after two decades of American dominion over the island acquires full significance with the almost simultaneous entry of the United States in the Great War and German geopolitical designs in the New World. By purchasing the Danish Virgin Islands in 1916, the US frustrated German ambitions to obtain territories in the Caribbean.

Once the war started in 1914, Puerto Rico's strategic importance, especially as a naval base, increased. The imminent entry of the United States in the war provided an opportunity for the Puerto Rican majority political party (the autonomist Union party) to secure reformist gains from US Congress among them a popular-elected Senate, American citizenship, and the elimination of the anachronistic Executive Council (a remnant of the early colonial period). (10) In 1940, as another war loomed in the horizon, Puerto Rico was able again to gain political reforms benefiting from its strategic importance. (11)

The Puerto Rican peasant that envisioned a glorious death in French battlefields and my grandfather were two of the many thousands that answered the call to arms in 1917. But they and their fellow recruits were unaware that the induction of Puerto Rican soldiers was far from epic. In a colonial setting such as Puerto Rico other wars were brewing. Wars that had to do with entrenched prejudice against the thousands of "inferior" and "colored" subjects, about to be incorporated into a military establishment still ruled by Jim Crow laws.

The World of Jim Crow

In every war in which this country has participated, Black Americans have had to fight for the right to fight. At the start of each war, military leaders questioned the abilities of Black Americans and finally accepted their participation under the pressure of necessity. (12)

At the onset of World War I, the US military was racially organized by a strict segregation code. (13) In its 1896 landmark decision Plessy v. Ferguson, the US Supreme Court upheld the validity of the so-called Jim Crow laws under the doctrine of "separate but equal." It is no coincidence that the most direct precedent for this doctrine is found in the Army Reorganization Act of 1866 in the early Reconstruction era that provided for separate black units in the US military organization chart.

By the end of the 19th century, a flurry of theories appeared to reinvigorate the claims of racial inferiority of African-Americans traditionally held during the slavery centuries. (14) These pseudo-scientific theories served as legitimate arguments to back the notion that African-American troops had to be confined to menial duties and not assigned to combat missions.

In an institution where many of its high-ranking officers were from the South, the assertion that "colored" units were inferior in mental capabilities and fighting spirit was part of the general military culture. At the time that the US entered into the war in 1917, there was almost unanimous opposition in the southern states to allow training or quartering facilities for "colored" troops. (15) One of the arguments most widely used was that the presence of Black units in southern districts would encourage racial disturbances and even foment treasonous behavior among disgruntled African American soldiers. In the summer of 1917, a group of soldiers from the 24th Infantry Regiment and local police clashed in the streets of Houston. In the aftermath of the disturbances, 19 soldiers were summarily hanged and 63 were convicted to life in prison. All of them were African Americans. (16)

Just a few Black units were sent to Europe although leaders as W.E.B. DuBois pledged that victory over Germany would take precedence over the struggle against racism for the war's duration. One of those units was the 369th Infantry Regiment from the state of New York. The unit had a famous military band led by one of the pioneers of Jazz music, James Reese Europe. (17)

James Europe recruited 18 musicians during a trip he made to Puerto Rico, among them the highly talented Rafael Hernandez who would later become the renowned author of some of the most popular Puerto Rican songs in the 20th century. After the war Hernandez penned a very exquisite ballad, Oui, Madame, in memory of his stay in France and as a reminder that romance can grow even against the backdrop of a cruel war.

Much to the disgust of the American command, French authorities did not comply with US requirements that segregation protocols prevalent in the US be observed on French soil. During their assignment in France, African Americans enjoyed the freedoms that white soldiers customarily had when they were placed under French command or on leave. However, the segregationist mentality was too ingrained in the military system. In the Victory Parade held in Paris in July 1919, the United States was the only country that did not include colonial or "colored" soldiers among its marching troops.

Camp Las Casas

The decision of the United States to enter the war presented another "racial" situation, as thousands of Puerto Rican recruits were now available for military duty. It was a complicated scenario: on the one hand, colonial, racial, cultural and linguistic vectors emphasized the "otherness" of the potential soldiers; on the other hand, the geopolitical importance of Puerto Rico and the need of manpower for a war effort whose future was still unpredictable, dictated flexibility and adjustments.

A few months after the US invasion in 1898 an infantry battalion made up of local elements had been organized; in 1908 the Puerto Rican unit increased to regiment capacity. (18) According to General Guy V Henry, the members of this regiment were "the best element of the population." Of the 122 officers of the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry, 95 were Puerto Ricans, the majority (71) had been born between 1888 and 1898 and 53 were graduates from US universities. Many of them came from affluent families with political connections. They were part of the island's economic, political and professional elite and enjoyed the privileges of college education and modern lifestyles. (19)

The war changed everything. The Selective Service Act of 1917 (40 Stat. 76) was passed by the 65th United States Congress on May 18, 1917. All males aged 21 to 30 were required to register for a military service period of 12 months. The new law had the immediate effect of increasing the number of Puerto Rican units and also to democratize its composition. The need of training facilities for thousands of Puerto Rican males produced a logistics crisis but also fueled a debate about the racial identity of the new recruits.

On August 16, 1917, Lt. Colonel Orval P. Townshend asked Roberto H. Todd, the mayor of San Juan, to look for a suitable site to establish a facility that would accommodate 7-8,000 trainees. (20) He had just learned that South Carolina had refused to allow the Puerto Rican units to train in the state. The political authorities of South Carolina, including the influential senator Benjamin Tillman, suggested that Puerto Ricans would be better off training in Cuba as "Porto Rican negroes ... were unused to the Southern view of the negro question." (21)

Arthur Yager, the governor of Puerto Rico at that time, was incensed. In a letter to General Frank McIntyre, the director of the US Bureau of Insular Affairs, Yager took aim against Tillman's assertion that Puerto Rican troops were "colored" as it "touches the sensibilities of the White people here". (22) The governor admitted that there was a racial problem in Puerto Rico but not quite as acute as in the United States. He was of the opinion that the best alternative was to train the Puerto Ricans locally but in separate quarters, according to race.

Mayor Todd was a pragmatist; he saw South Carolina's refusal as a business opportunity. His sales pitch for a training camp in the outskirts of San Juan included: a special water tariff, a guaranteed price for fresh meat, an extension of the railroad main line and a clean and healthy environment. In less than a month he convinced local businessmen, civic institutions and the governor to buy a special municipal bond issuance to improve the water works in San Juan. (23) It was not a smooth ride for Todd. McIntyre was adamantly against the idea of a training site located in the territory. He convinced the War Department that it would be more effective to train the Puerto Rican recruits in an American milieu and in English. As for the racial situation, his plan was to train the "white" Puerto Ricans first and postpone the training of "colored" troops until next spring "by which time climatic conditions in the North will be more favorable." (24) The popular belief that "colored" people could not endure cold climates was the perfect alibi for a racialized decision.

A desperate governor Yager pleaded with McIntyre to establish the training camp in Puerto Rico with a different racial twist:
   Perhaps one-third of these men who will be accepted
   for service have never worn shoes in their lives; they
   wear nothing but a cotton shirt and cotton trousers and
   have nothing else to wear unless it is furnished them,
   and when gotten together they will look like a bunch
   of ragamuffins and tatterdemalions out of which an
   observer who doesn't know the actual conditions here
   would think it utterly impossible to make soldiers. But
   we know the contrary is true, as has been abundantly
   proved by experience with the Porto Rico Regiment
   [already stationed in Panama]. They are good material
   for soldiers in spite of their looks. (25)

Mayor Todd added his own touch: he portrayed the potential trainees as noble savages or child-like men that would be overwhelmed by a strange environment in the United States. Most of them, Todd claimed, were of peasant stock and "naturally ignorant." The cultural shock could impair the military objective. (26)

Political expediency, military priorities and the continuous resistance of various states to accept Puerto Rican troops notwithstanding guarantees to its "whiteness", finally caused the War Department to reverse their initial decision. On 14 February 1918, Commander Townshend announced that the new camp established in San Juan would be named Camp Las Casas in honor of the Spanish priest that fought for the rights of the indigenous population during the early conquest of the Americas. (27) Some things remained the same: there would be separate dorm and dining facilities for "white" and "colored" trainees. A local newspaper designated Yager as "a decrepit racist from Kentucky" after the governor claimed that by building separate facilities he was deferring to a pre-existing color line in the island. (28)


In the spring of 2014, both houses of Congress approved bills to grant the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor to the 65th Infantry Regiment for their bravery during the Korean War. Surrounded by 65th veterans--most of them 80 years old or more--President Barack Obama signed the 65th Infantry Regiment Congressional Gold Medal legislation on June 10, 2014.29 The Borinqueneers (Borinquen is the Arawak Indians's name for Puerto Rico), as the segregated Puerto Rican unit was known, saved the First Marine Division from annihilation by the Chinese back in December 1950 and arguably prevented a surprising defeat for the United Nations forces during the early stages of the Cold War. 30 The Puerto Rican unit was following in the footsteps of other minority units such as the Nisei soldiers, the Navajo Code talkers and the Tuskegee Airmen that had been awarded long-awaited distinctions during the presidency of George W. Bush. For more than sixty years, 65th veterans, their families and Puerto Rico waited for that special roll call. War and remembrance did not fade away. Sadly, many of the soldiers that fought for barren hills and frozen rivers near the Chinese border passed away during that period.

It is altogether fitting that the congressional recognition for the Puerto Rican soldiers--although six decades late--comes as the world commemorates the first centennial of the First World War. Even though the congressional medal was granted for specific actions taken during the Korean War its deep significance touches all wars where Puerto Rican soldiers have fought under the US flag. As "colonial" troops the Puerto Ricans have not only fought and died at the front lines but also have withstood, with dignity and in many instances suppressed anger, a more pervasive enemy: racial and ethnic prejudice.

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo, University of Puerto Rico

(1) Ian F. Haney Lopez, "The Social Construction of Race," in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic, (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 165.

(2) P. Watier, "The War Writings of Georg Simmel". Theory, Culture & Society (SAGE, London, Newbury Park @ Nueva Delhi), Vol.8 (1991), 219-233.

(3) Hans Joas, War and Modernity, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).

(4) "Croniquillas", La Correspondencia, September 5, 1914.

(5) Enrique Vivoni and Silvia Alvarez Curbelo, Ilusion de Francia: Arquitectura y afrancesamiento en Puerto Rico (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico/ Archivo de Arquitectura y Construccion de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1997).

(6) "El pueblo que derribo La "Bastilla," Puerto Rico Ilustrado, July 18, 1914, 1.

(7) " Los que van a defender a Francia, una despedida carinosa", Puerto Rico Ilustrado, August 29, 1914, 20.

(8) Carmelo Rosario Natal, La juventud de Luis Munoz Marin, (San Juan, Puerto Rico: 1989), 57.

(9) "Calls Odenwald Affair an Attack," The New York Times, April 7, 1915, 3.

(10) Jose Trias Monge, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 77-87.

(11) Jorge Rodriguez Beruff, Strategy as Politics: Puerto Rico on the Eve of the Second World War, (San Juan: La Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2007), X.

(12) Thurgood Marshall, "Summary Justice: The Negro GI in Korea," Crisis, May 1951, 297-355.

(13) C. Van Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Third Revised Edition (1955; London: Oxford University Press, 1974).

(14) Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996).

(15) William T. Bowers et al, Black Soldier, White Amy. The 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea, (Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1996), 13.

(16) Robert V. Haynes, A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976).

(17) Ruth Glasser, My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians And Their New York Communities 1917-1940, (California: University of California Press, 1995).

(18) For a comprehensive history of Puerto Rican units in the U.S. military, see Hector Negroni, Historia Militar de Puerto Rico, Madrid: Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario/ Ediciones Siruela, 1992).

(19) Paniagua, Reinaldo, Jr., Roll of Honor, (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Imprenta Cantero, Fernandez and Co., 1918). The biographies of the Puerto Rican officers are included in pages 62 thru 175.

(20) Archivo General de Puerto Rico (AGPR), Fondo Documentos Municipales (San Juan), Serie Proyectos 18811917, Legajo 104, Pieza 1, Comunicacion del Alcalde al Consejo Municipal, August 13, 1917.

(21) National Archives (NARA), Record Group 350, Doc. 517-U, August 21, 1917.

(22) NARA, Record Group 350, Doc. 14-G, September 5, 1917.

(23) Archivo General de Puerto Rico (AGPR), Fondo Documentos Municipales (San Juan), Serie Proyectos 1881-1917, Legajo 104, Pieza 1, Carta de Roberto H. Todd al Alcalde de Ponce, 21 de agosto de 1917.

(24) "Have to Train in U.S. Porto Ricans defeated in Fight for Cantonment on Island," Washington Post, November 19, 1917, 1-2.

(25) NARA, Record Group 350, Letter from Yager to McIntyre, Doc. 14-D, 19 November 1917.

(26) AGPR, Fondo Documentos Municipales (San Juan), Serie Proyectos 1881-1917, Legajo 104, Pieza 1, Carta de Roberto H. Todd al Alcalde de Ponce, 21 de noviembre 1917).

(27) AGPR, Fondo Documentos Municipales (San Juan), Serie Proyectos 1881-1917, Legajo 104, General Order from Acting Chief of Staff John Biddle, February, 1918.

(28) NARA, Record Group 350, Doc.517-J June 18, 1918.

(29) Katie Zima, "Obama honors Puerto Rican Infantry Regiment with Congressional Gold Medal," Washington Post, June 10, 2014, accessed August 26, 2014, http://www. honors-puerto-rican-infantry-regiment-with-congressional-gold medal/

(30) For an official account of Puerto Rican units during the Korean War see Gilberto Villahermosa, Honor and Fidelity: The 65th Infantry in Korea (1950-1953), (Washington: Center for Military History, 2009).
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Title Annotation:Special Section: Empire and the Great War
Author:Curbelo, Silvia Alvarez
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U0PR
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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