Race and the Myth Surrounding the Military Service of Pedro Albizu Campos

As with many other topics in Puerto Rican history, there is more myth than fact surrounding the service of nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos in the armed forces of the United States during the First World War. Here, I offer what we know as fact within the pertinent content while analyzing why he served and the effects of such service.

In 1917 Pedro Albizu Campos interrupted his studies at Harvard to volunteer for service during the First World War. Ernest Gruening wrote that he was assigned to a black regiment that trained in the southern United States, which taught Albizu Campos “what it was to be a Negro, not only in the army, but in America. All his love for America turned to hate.” (Maldonado, Luis Muñoz Marín, 139, citing Gruening, Many Battles: The Autobiography of Ernest Gruening, 196–97).

However, it seems that Albizu Campos never trained with African-American units. Albizu Campos joined the Harvard Cadets Corps in 1916 (a precursor to the ROTC). After finishing the course, he was recommended to receive a commission as first lieutenant. On May 15, 1917, he left Harvard to join the armed forces. It seems that from May to September he completed a military course offered by the French Military Mission in the United States. But there is some truth to Gruening’s assessment as we shall see.

Late in September 1917, he offered his services to Frank McIntyre, Chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs during World War I, with the condition that he would serve with Puerto Rican troops. McIntyre recommended that he stay at Harvard.

Albizu Campos entered federal active military service on July 10, 1918, as a private and was sent to officers training at Camp Las Casas in August.  Located in Santurce, east of San Juan, and with an area of 537 acres, Camp Las Casas served to train more than 500 Puerto Ricans as officers of the U.S. Army and roughly 18,000 soldiers. On November 5 Albizu Campos was commissioned as a first lieutenant of infantry and assigned to the 375th Colored Regiment of Infantry. El Águila de Puerto Rico,  a newspaper and organ of the staunchly pro-American and pro-annexation Partido Republicano, congratulated Albizu Campos for his commission as first Lieutenant.  

Colorized image of Pedro Albizu Campos in U.S. Army officer uniform, 1918

The 375th Infantry Regiment, was part of the 94th Puerto Rican Division, the archipelago’s contribution to the “National Army”. Thus, Albizu Campos served in a Puerto Rican segregated Black unit. Regarding the decision to segregate the troops in the island, the newspaper Justicia commented: “Under the administration of [Puerto Rico’s governor]Arthur Yager the line separating the men of color is finally established in Puerto Rico” followed by “the old racist fart from Kentucky accused of being the instigator.” The editorial continued by arguing that “the complete triumph [of the United States and the Allies] will also defeat all privileges.”

El Diluvio, one of the most vociferous critics of the Yager administration, took special interest in the 375th Porto Rican Colored Regiment and wrote a series of articles detailing their training and progress. An editorial asserted that those soldiers were not “the less intelligent, nor the less smart, neither the ones less disposed to learn and ready themselves to defend with honor the name of Puerto Rico.” Instead, “the more apt, humble and the most attentive of the recruits are those of the 375.” The editorial also mentioned that “the boys [muchachos] of the 375 will one day respond to the call of arms with the same unconditional bravery and tenacity shown by the colonial French troops and the brave Black soldiers of America.”

José Celso Barbosa, an afro-Puerto Rican leader of the annexationist republicanos, took interest in the well-being of the “Porto Rican Negro Regiment”, the 375th. He wrote to the regiment’s commander, Col. Frank C. Wood, expressing his willingness to accept that the “national citizenry were divided in organizations and racially,” but hoping that when the war ended the men’s willingness to sacrifice in “defense of their nation” would help to erase such divisions.”

José Celso Barboso - Wikidata
José Celso Barbosa

Unlike the federal unit known as the Puerto Rican Regiment which was sent to Panama to relieve white American troops (and which was renumbered as the 65th Infantry after the war), the Puerto Rican Division never left the island.  The armistice of November 11, 1918 ended the war before the division’s four regiments were battle worthy. And, at any rate, the military had no plans to send the division overseas.

Frank McIntire, Chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, (a branch of the War Department in charge of administering Puerto Rico) wrote a memorandum to Governor Yager regarding where to train the Puerto Rican recruits and insisting that training them in the U.S. would:  “…make them better men on returning to Porto Rico, physically and otherwise, this, even though they should not go abroad at all for service” (McIntire to Yager, November 24, 1917).    

Because of racial prejudice and institutionalized racism,  the military was not inclined, at all, to send the Puerto Ricans into combat, not even after President Wilson, heeding to pressure from Puerto Rican leaders, had ordered the War Department to create a Puerto Rican Division.

By March 1919 Albizu Campos, along with some 12,000 Puerto Rican soldiers from the 94th Infantry Division, had been discharged from the Army.  On April 2 he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Officers’ Reserve Corps. Soon thereafter he resigned his commission and returned to Harvard. (Marín Román, El caldero quemaó, 514–20).

The 375th marches as part of the Liberty Day celebrations. The would also participate in the celebrations of March 2, 1919 alongside the rest of the Porto Rico 94th US Army Infantry Division.

In an interview published on the weekly Los Quijotes on June 11, 1927, Albizu Campos defended volunteering for military service and stated:

I have always believed that our participation in the European War could had been a great benefit for the people of Puerto Rico. The military organization of a people is necessary for its defense, and that is only attainable through the painful sacrifices imposed by a war. If 30,000 or 40,000 Puerto Ricans had returned from France lamed, one-eyed, or mutilated in any other way, today there would be an organized resistance that would make the American Empire respect us. The European war offered us that splendid opportunity to organize our collective value. For Puerto Rico the armistice was premature, hence recruitment contributed to the demoralization of our people.

… siempre creí y sigo creyendo, que nuestra participación en la Guerra Europea, hubiera sido de gran beneficio para el pueblo de Puerto Rico. La organización militar de un pueblo, es necesaria para su defensa y eso se consigue solamente con los sacrificios dolores que impone un aguerra. Si de Francia hubieran regresado 30 o 40 mil puertorriqueños cojos, tuertos o mutilados en cualquier otra forma, habría hoy en nuestra tierra una rebeldía organizada que impondría respeto al imperio norteamericano. La Guerra Europea nos ofreció esplendida oportunidad para organizar nuestro valor colectivo. Para Puerto Rico el armisticio fue prematuro, y el reclutamiento contribuyó a la desmoralización del pueblo.”

This answer, however, is in hindsight and does not address why he wanted to serve in the first place. And Ernest Gruening’s assessment- even if Albizu Campos did not train with a Black regiment in the southern United States, being assigned to the 375th as a Black Puerto Rican made him confront his Blackness and the limitations it imposed on him within the American colonial empire. After all, Albizu Campos had bypassed his Blackness within the context of Puerto Rico and was celebrated as part of the Criollo elites and had even attended the exclusive Ponce High School in the Puerto Rican city that came the closest to have a full slave society, Ponce.

As an exceptional man of mixed ancestry, Albizu Campos was accepted into the criollo elite- a function of white supremacy that allows for extraordinary non-white men and women to join the elites- individually. This function reinforces white supremacy and systemic racism by providing flexibility and creating the illusion of racial inclusion.

Thus, Albizu Campos served for the same reasons millions of men volunteered to fight. During WWI, war was considered a noble affair, and military service was a universal rite of passage into full manhood and adulthood. Fighting, being maimed, or even killed in war, was perceived as the most heroic act a man could perform. Albizu Campos was well aware of this- and he was seduced by that idea until the end as his reflections show. For a young Albizu Campos nothing could’ve seem more romantic, heroic and gallant than to lead men into combat in the “war to end all wars.” Hence, we can argue that his service put him on the path towards becoming a nationalist leader and emphasizing heroic sacrifice to liberate the Puerto Rican nation as he imagined it.

In more practical terms, since few Puerto Ricans saw combat during World War I, and no Puerto Rican unit reached Europe, there were few men, if any, with combat experience who could join the Nationalists in an open war against the colony’s police and military. Moreover, as historian Marín Román has noted, Albizu Campos himself never went beyond the initial training for an officer to lead a squad or platoon or command a company. He was trained as an infantry officer, which means that he was instructed in open warfare tactics, and that was a kind of war he could not hope to win against the Puerto Rican Insular Police or the National Guard. In sum, his training did not prepare him to organize, train, and lead an army. And this would cost the nationalist dearly during the 1950 insurrection.

Read More in: Harry Franqui-Rivera, Soldiers of the Nation Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868–1952, Studies in War, Society, and the Military Series University of Nebraska Press, 2018 (hard cover) 2021 (paperback) https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9780803278677/

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