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Puerto Rico's Overlooked Veterans

by Lance Oliver

November 11, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Who are the Puerto Rican veterans? They are rarely mentioned and occasionally uncomfortable on their own home island. They are oddities in a democracy's military: the few soldiers who did not have the chance to vote for their president and commander-in-chief and will lack the same right once they go home as veterans.

Yet there are thousands of them, men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces for as many thousands of reasons, since World War I.

Prior to the implementation of the Jones Act in 1917, Puerto Ricans were not U.S. citizens and therefore were not subject to being drafted. Threats to the United States from the growing war in Europe were among the forces that impelled Congress to grant citizenship to Puerto Ricans.

A month after Congress passed the Jones Act, the United States entered the war to help its allies, Britain and France. The new citizenship was quickly followed by a uniform for thousands of men, who spent the remainder of the war in such tasks as guarding the Panama Canal.

During World War II, more than 62,000 Puerto Ricans entered the military ranks, including the 65th Infantry, made up mostly of Puerto Ricans, which would later gain fame and awards for bravery in Korea. During the Second World War, Puerto Ricans saw action in Italy, Corsica and the French Alps.

Korea was the war that brought Puerto Rican soldiers their greatest visibility, highest awards and most punishing losses. A total of 43,434 Puerto Ricans served in the military during the war and 39,591 of them were volunteers.

The 65th Infantry, chosen to guard the rear flank during a retreat from Chinese forces, earned awards for its bravery. It was the last group of soldiers to leave, and reports said bullets were whizzing by them even as they boarded the ship to evacuate.

"I wish we had more like them," said Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Puerto Ricans paid heavy dues in the Korean War. The conflict killed 3,540 Puerto Ricans, making the island's per capita losses nearly twice that of the United States as a whole. One of every 42 U.S. military personnel killed in Korea was Puerto Rican.

The island's contribution to the force in Vietnam was even bigger at 48,000, but losses were lower. Some 270 were killed and more than 3,000 wounded.

From the jungles of Panama to the deserts of Kuwait, from the harsh Korean winter to the snowy Alps of Europe, Puerto Ricans have been part of U.S. military operations. One Puerto Rican pilot died when he was shot down over Libya, after President Ronald Reagan ordered air attacks on that country.

It's not easy to come home and be a veteran in a place where a portion of the public wants to expel all military bases. It takes an unusual kind of patriotism to volunteer for an army led by a commander-in-chief for whom you do not have the right to vote, and then to go forth in the name of protecting democracy.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans have done so, and their efforts are insufficiently recognized. So insular is the point of view sometimes in Puerto Rico that it's not hard to find history books that do not even mention World War II, much less Puerto Rico's contributions to it.

But military service has been one of the many ways Puerto Ricans have proven themselves ­ even to fellow Puerto Ricans.

Major Gen. Luis Raúl Esteves was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. More than 50 members of his famous class of 1915 made general, including one, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also made president.

Esteves was given command of Puerto Rican troops to prepare for World War I. Keep in mind that Puerto Rican was very much a poverty-stricken island in those days.

"My first impression of the Puerto Rican soldier was poor," Esteves later recalled. "Seeing our malnourished jíbaritos of that era, and comparing them to the regular American soldiers I had been commanding, I couldn't help but think that I would prefer to be in front of my 23rd Infantry battalion than a battalion of Puerto Rican troops."

But once training began, Esteves saw a "physical transformation" and a "spirit of discipline and military pride inherited from our past" that changed his mind.

"And that is why, at the end of the First World War, I so strongly insisted in the organization of our National Guard, because I was then convinced that Puerto Ricans make good soldiers, as good as the best of any country in the world."

One veteran's thoughts worth repeating on Veterans Day.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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