|Puerto Ricans in World War I
Puerto Ricans and people of Puerto Rican descent have participated as members of the United States Armed Forces in every conflict in which the United States has been involved since World War I. One of the consequences of the Spanish-American War was that Puerto Rico was annexed by the United States in accordance to the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, ratified on December 10, 1898. On January 15, 1899, the military government changed the name of Puerto Rico to Porto Rico (On May 17, 1932, U.S. Congress changed the name back to "Puerto Rico"). On March 21, 1915, the first shots by the United States in World War I were fired by the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry from El Morro Castle at a German ship in San Juan Bay. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens as a result of the 1917 Jones-Shafroth Act and those who were eligible were expected to serve in the military. Puerto Ricans who resided in the island were assigned to the "Porto Rico Provisional Regiment of Infantry", organized on June 30, 1901. The United States implemented the policy of military segregated units in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans of African descent where assigned to units made up only of blacks, such as the 375th Regiment. Those who resided in the mainland served in regular units of one of the following branches of the United States military, the United States Marine Corps, Army or the Navy. As such, they were assigned to regular military units; however, Puerto Ricans of African descent were assigned to segregated all-black units and were subject to the discrimination which was rampant in the U.S. in those days.
It is estimated that 236,000 Puerto Ricans in the island registered for the World War I draft and that 18,000 served in the war. It is, however, impossible to determine the exact number of Puerto Ricans who resided in the United States mainland served and perished in the war because the War Department did not keep statistics in regard to the ethnicity of its members.
Puerto Ricans fought and defended their homeland against attacks from the Caribs and pirates. They fought against the invasions of foreign countries and defeated the British, French, and Dutch in doing so. They fought alongside General Bernardo de Gálvez during the American Revolutionary War in the battles of Baton Rouge, Mobile, Pensacola and St. Louis. and in Europe against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Siege of Saragossa.
In the 19th Century, Puerto Ricans fought against the Spanish Empire. They fought for Mexico's independence and in the Latin American revolutions alongside Simón Bolívar. In Puerto Rico they revolted against Spanish rule and fought for Puerto Rico's independence in "El Grito de Lares" and in the "Intentona de Yauco". They also fought for Cuba's independence in the Ten Years' War alongside General Máximo Gómez and as members of the Cuban Liberation Army alongside Jose Marti.. At the end of the 19th century, Puerto Ricans fought alongside their Spanish counterparts in the Spanish-American War against the United States in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba and in Puerto Rico when the American military forces invaded the island in what is known as the Puerto Rican Campaign  and against the "Tagalos" during the Philippine Revolution.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. Territory in accordance to the 1898 Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish-American War. The United States appointed a military governor and soon the United States Army established itself in San Juan. The Army Appropriation Bill created by an Act of Congress on March 2, 1889 authorized the creation of the first body of native troops in Puerto Rico. On June 30, 1901, the "Porto Rico Provisional Regiment of Infantry" was organized. On July 1, 1901, the United States Senate passed a Bill which would require a strict mental and physical examination for those who wanted to join the Regiment. It also approved the recruitment of native Puerto Rican civilians to be appointed the grade of Second Lieutenants for a term of four years if they passed the required tests. An Act of Congress, approved on May 27, 1908, reorganized the regiment as part of the "regular" Army. Since the native Puerto Rican officers where Puerto Rican citizens and not citizens of the United States, they were required to undergo a new physical examination to determine their fitness for commissions in the Regular Army and to take an oath of U.S. citizenship with their new officers oath.
There were many military installations in Puerto Rico, however Camp Las Casas played an instrumental role in preparing the native Puerto Ricans for the military. On January 30, 1908, the "Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry" was stationed at Las Casas Camp in Santurce a section of San Juan in what is now El Residencial Las Casas, a public housing complex. Camp Las Casas served as the main training camp for the Puerto Rican soldiers prior to World War I, the majority of the men trained in this facility were assigned to the "Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry". Puerto Ricans were unaccustomed to the racial segregation policies of the United States which were also implemented in Puerto Rico and often refused to designate themselves as "white" or "black". Such was the case of Antonio Guzman who at first was assigned to a white regiment only to be reassigned to a black regiment at Camp Las Casas. He requested a hearing and argued his case to no avail. Captain Luis R. Esteves, who on June 19, 1915, became the first Hispanic to graduate from the United States Military Academy (West Point), organized the 23rd Battalion which was composed of Puerto Ricans.
Marine aviation was fairly new, it came into existence on May 22, 1912, and the first major expansion of the Marine Corps' air component, of which Puerto Rico played a major rule, came with America's entrance into World War I. On January 6, 1914, First Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith established the Marine Section of the Navy Flying School in the island municipal Culebra. As the number of Marine Aviators grew so did the avid desire to separate from Naval Aviation. By doing so, the Marine Aviation was designated as separate from the United States Naval Aviation. The creation of a "Marine Corps Aviation Company in Puerto Rico consisted of 10 officers and 40 enlisted men.
In addition several local militia units called "Home Guard" units were organized in various cities and towns to defend and maintain domestic order in the island. Virgil R. Miller, a native of San German, Puerto Rico, who in World War II served as the Regimental Commander of the highly decorated 442d Regimental Combat Team, served in the San Juan unit of the Puerto Rico Home Guard and 2nd Lt. Pedro Albizu Campos organized the Ponce unit of the Home Guard.
Lt. Teofilo Marxuach's unit of the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry was stationed at El Morro Castle, (then an Army base called Fort Brooke) at San Juan Bay. The United States tried to remain neutral when World War I broke out in August 1914. However Washington insisted on its neutral right to send ships without them being attacked by German U-boats. The American ships carried food and raw materials to Britain. On March 21, 1915, Lt. Marxuach was the officer of the day at El Morro Castle. The Odenwald, built in 1903 (not to be confused with the German World War II war ship which carried the same name), was an armed German supply ship which tried to force its way out of the San Juan Bay and deliver supplies to the German U-boats waiting in the Atlantic Ocean. Lt. Marxuach gave the order to open fire on the ship from the walls of the fort. Sergeant Encarnacion Correa then manned a machine gun and opened fire with little effect. Marxuach then ordered a cannon located at the Santa Rosa battery to fire a warning shot, forcing the Odenwald to stop and to return to port where its supplies were confiscated. The shots ordered by Lt. Marxuach were the first fired by the United States in World War I.
Marxuach's actions became an international incident when the German Government accused the United States Government of the holding the Odenwald illegally against its will without firing the customary warning shot as required by international law. The United States Government responded that the official report of the United States War Department made by the commander of the fortress of El Morro Castle, Lt. Col. Burnham, made it clear that only warning shots were made and that none were aimed at the Odenwald. Eventually, the Odenwald was refitted and renamed SS Newport by the U.S. Government and assigned to the U.S. Shipping Board, where it served until 1924 when it was retired. In 1917 the Germans resumed submarine attacks, knowing that it would lead to America's entry into the war.
On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress declared war on Germany. By May 3, the Regiment recruited 1,969 men and the 295th, 296, 373rd, 374th and 375th regiments of Puerto Rico were created. The United States also applied their military segregation policies to the native Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans of African descent were assigned to all black units such as the 375th Regiment. Puerto Ricans were to be sent to North Carolina to train for deployment over seas, however Senators from the southeastern states opposed and foiled these plans, citing that Puerto Ricans would be a problem to the laws and customs of the racist Jim Crow policies. Southern politicians were alarmed of the idea of having armed African-Americans in the south and believed that Puerto Ricans of mixed race, who did not understand their racial policies, would only add to their problems. On May 17, the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry was sent to guard the Panama Canal in defense of the Panama Canal Zone and other vital military installations while the other Puerto Rican regiments guarded Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens as a result of the 1917 Jones-Shafroth Act and those who were eligible, with the exception of women, were expected to serve in the military. On November 1917, the first military draft (conscription) lottery in Puerto Rico was held in the island's capital, San Juan. The first draft number pick was made by Diana Yager, the daughter of the U.S. appointed governor of Puerto Rico Arthur Yager. The number she picked was 1435 and it belonged to San Juan native Eustaquio Correa. Thus, Correa became the first Puerto Rican to be "drafted" into the Armed Forces of the United States. It is estimated that 236,000 Puerto Ricans in the island registered for the World War I draft and that 18,000 served in the war. Prior to the Jones-Shafroth Act, Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States as all other non-citizens, who were permanent residents were required to register with the Selective Service System by law and could be drafted.
In New York, many Puerto Ricans of African descent joined the 369th Infantry Regiment which was mostly composed of Afro-Americans. They were not allowed to fight alongside their white counterparts; however, they were permitted to fight as members of a French unit in French uniforms. They fought along the Western Front in France, and their reputation earned them the nickname of "the Harlem Hell Fighters" by the Germans. Among them was Rafael Hernandez Marin, considered by many as Puerto Rico's greatest composer. In 1917, Rafael Hernández was working as a musician in North Carolina, when the United States entered World War I. The Jazz bandleader James Reese Europe recruited brothers Rafael and Jesús Hernández, and 16 more Puerto Ricans to join the United States Army's Harlem Hell fighters musical band, the Orchestra Europe. He enlisted and was assigned to the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment (formerly known as the 15th Infantry Regiment, New York National Guard, created in New York City June 2, 1913). The regiment, nicknamed "The Harlem Hell Fighters" by the Germans, served in France. Hernandez toured Europe with the Orchestra Europe. The 369th was awarded Croix de guerre by France for battlefield gallantry.
Pedro Albizu Campos was another renowned Puerto Rican who volunteered in the United States Infantry. Albizu was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves and sent to the City of Ponce where he organized the town's Home Guard. He was called to serve in the regular Army and sent to Camp Las Casas for further training. Upon completing the training, he was assigned to the 375th Infantry Regiment. The 375th was a regiment of black Puerto Ricans who were trained by non-Puerto Rican officers for overseas deployment, but the war ended before it could join the fight in Europe. Albizu was honorably discharged from the Army in 1919, with the rank of First Lieutenant. During the time that he served he was exposed to the racism of the day which left a mark in his beliefs towards the relationship of Puerto Ricans and the United States, thus becoming a leading advocate for Puerto Rican independence.
One Puerto Rican who distinguished himself in combat during World War I was Lieutenant Frederick Lois Riefkohl of the US Navy. On August 2, 1917, Riefkohl, a native of the town of Maunabo, became the first Puerto Rican to be awarded the Navy Cross. The Navy Cross, which is the second highest medal after the Medal of Honor, that can be awarded by the U.S. Navy, was awarded to Lt. Riefkohl for his actions in an engagement with an enemy submarine. Lt. Riefkohl, who was also the first Puerto Rican to graduate from the United States Naval Academy, served as a Rear Admiral in World War II. His citation reads as follows:
|“||The Navy Cross is awarded to Lieutenant Frederick L. Riefkohl, U.S. Navy, for distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commander of the Armed Guard of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and in an engagement with an enemy submarine. On August 2, 1917, a periscope was sighted, and then a torpedo passed under the stern of the ship. A shot was fired, which struck close to the submarine, which then disappeared.||”|
First Lieutenant Felix Rigau Carrera, from Sabana Grande, had received his pilot training in private pilot schools in Seattle, Washington and Minneapolis, Minnesota. He then traveled to New York City and joined the Marine Corps. After receiving additional aviation training he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and assigned to the First Marine Air Squadron which deployed to France as the newly renamed 1st Marine Aviation Force in July 1918. There Rigau Carrera and his unit provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy's Day Wing, Northern Bombing Group, thus Rigau Carrera became the first Hispanic fighter pilot in the Marines.
Lieutenant Frederick L. Riefkohl's brother, Rudolph William Riefkohl also served. When the United States declared war on Germany in World War l, Riefkohl was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and assigned to the 63rd Heavy Artillery Regiment in France where he actievly participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. According to the United States War Department, after the war he served as Captain of Coastal Artillery at the Letterman Army Medical Center in Presidio of San Francisco, in California (1918). He played an instrumental role in helping the people of Poland overcome the 1919 typhus epidemic.
In 1918, a U.S. Employment Service Bulletin estimated that 75,000 unemployed laborers in Puerto Rico were available for work in the United States. The War Department agreed to transport workers to labor camps in the United States where they would be housed and fed while working on government construction contracts at defense plants and military bases in located mostly in Louisiana, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Many of these work camps, however, subjected the new migrants to harsh conditions and even forced labor, which Rafael Marchán, a laborer, described in his 1918 deposition to the commissioner of Puerto Rico.
By 1918, the Army realized that there was a shortage of physicians specializing in anesthesia, a low salary specialty required in the military operating rooms. Therefore, the Army reluctantly began hiring women physicians as civilian contract employees. The first Puerto Rican woman doctor to serve in the Army under contract was Dr. Dolores Piñero from San Juan. She was assigned to the San Juan base hospital where she worked as an anesthesiologist during the mornings and in the laboratory during the afternoons. Dr. Piñero and four male colleagues received orders to open a 400-bed hospital in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to care for the patients who had been infected with the influenza or as it was also known "the Swine Flu". The Swine Flu had swept through Army camps and training posts around the world, infecting one quarter of all soldiers and killing more than 55,000 American troops.
Fernando E. Rodríguez Vargas, a dentist, joined the United States Army on August 16, 1917, and on September 14, was commissioned a First Lieutenant. Rodríguez Vargas was assigned to the Army Dental Reserve Corps and attended a course at the Medical Officer's Training Camp at Camp Greenleaf, Georgia before being sent overseas to the United Kingdom. On August 1919, he was reassigned to San Juan, Puerto Rico and served in Camp Las Casas. On February 18, 1921, Rodriguez Vargas was sent to Washington, D.C. and assigned to the Army Dental Corps where he continued his investigations in the field of bacteriology. Rodríguez Vargas was there as an educator and investigator of the bacteriological aspects of dental diseases. His research led him to discover the bacteria which causes dental caries. According to his investigations, three types of the Lactobacillus species, during the process of fermentation, are the causes of cavities.
First Lieutenant Pedro Del Valle, the first Hispanic to reach the rank of Lieutenant General in the Marine Corps and who in World War II would play an instrumental role in seizures of Guadalcanal and Okinawa, commanded the Marine detachment on board the USS Texas (BB-35) in the North Atlantic during World War I. In 1919, he participated in the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet.
Puerto Rican migration to the United States increased during and after World War I. May of those who went to the United States to work in the wartime factories or served in mainland military units made their homes in working-class communities that were mostly populated by Latinos.
The Porto Rico Regiment returned to Puerto Rico in March 1919 and was renamed the 65th Infantry Regiment under the Reorganization Act of June 4, 1920. The 65th went on to serve in World War II and the Korean War, where its members distinguished themselves in combat.
The need for a Puerto Rican National Guard unit became apparent to General Luis R. Esteves, who had served as instructor of Puerto Rican Officers for the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry at Camp Las Casas in Puerto Rico. His request was met with the approval of the government and Puerto Rican Legislature. In 1919, the first regiment of the Puerto Rican National Guard was organized; Esteves became the first official Commandant of the Puerto Rican National Guard.
Some of the Puerto Ricans who served in World War I continued in the military and led distinguished careers, among them: Teofilo Marxuach who retired in 1922 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. As a civilian he worked as a civil engineer for the Department of Interior, Luis R. Esteves, who founded the Puerto Rico National Guard and retired in 1957 with the rank of Major General, Virgil R. Miller, led the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. After the Second World War he retired with the rank of Colonel, Frederick Lois Riefkohl who retired in 1947 with the rank of Rear Admiral, Frederick's brother Rudolph W. Riefkohl' retired with the rank of Colonel and went on to become the mayor of the town of Surfside, Florida and Pedro del Valle, who as the Commanding General of the U.S. 1st Marine Division during World War II played an instrumental role in the defeat of the Japanese forces in Okinawa and is the only Hispanic to have retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of Lieutenant General.
Others led distinguished careers as civilians, among them the following: Dr. Dolores Piñero who returned to her private practice in Río Piedras after her contract was terminated at the end of the war., Rafael Hernández Marin who is considered by many to be the greatest composer of Puerto Rican music, Pedro Albizu Campos lawyer and distinguished political leader became the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party from 1930 until his death and Felix Rigau Carrera also known as "El Aguila de Sabana Grande" (The Eagle from Sabana Grande), who was the first Puerto Rican pilot and the first Puerto Rican pilot to fly on air mail carrying duties in Puerto Rico.
It is estimated that 18,000 Puerto Ricans from the Porto Rico Regiment served in the war; however neither the military nor the War Department of the United States kept statistics in regard to the total number of Puerto Ricans who served in the regular units of the Armed Forces (United States mainland forces), therefore, it is impossible to determine the exact number of Puerto Ricans who served and perished in World War I. The "Monumento de la Recordacion", which is a monument in San Juan, Puerto Rico dedicated to Puerto Rico's fallen military heroes, has the name of Luis Munoz, inscribed on Panel 5, Line 1 as the only Puerto Rican casualty of the war, however There were more. The "American Battle Monuments Commission, World War I Honor Roll" has listed the following Puerto Ricans as casualties: Santiago Cintron Sergeant, U.S. Army; 6th Infantry Regiment, 5th Division; Died: October 29, 1918; Buried at: Plot B Row 34 Grave 9; Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Alberto J. Fernandes Civilian, U.S. Army; 127th Quartermaster Labor Company; Died: September 2, 1918; Buried at: Plot B Row 19 Grave 10; Suresnes American Cemetery; Suresnes, France and Alfredo A. Lima Civilian; Died: January 4, 1919; Buried at: Plot B Row 20 Grave 3; Suresnes American Cemetery; Suresnes, France. Mario Cesar Miranda Cruz, from Arecibo died during combat in France and is buried in San Juan.