Commissioning As An Infantry Officer In Puerto Rico
Despite the U.S. War Department’s authorization of Harvard’s R.O.T.C. program and later acknowledgment of its success by government officials, including generals and the Secretary of War, none of the 1,885 members that received instruction in that first class were given a commission as officers at graduation. Instead, they were given a recommendation for commission — in Don Pedro’s case, he was recommended for commission as a First Lieutenant.
In September 1917, one month after completing the Harvard R.O.T.C. program, Don Pedro presented himself before the head of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, General Frank McIntyre, to express his desire to fight in World War 1. Requesting to serve as an infantry soldier, he specified further that he desired to serve with a unit from Puerto Rico. Don Pedro’s request was denied and the War Department advised him to continue his law studies and await orders. After the 1917-1918 school year, during which time he never heard back from the War Department, Don Pedro renewed his efforts to join the war with success.
Sent to Puerto Rico as he requested, on July 10, 1918 he signed enlistment papers in Ponce as a Private with a length of service defined as “for duration of War.” Don Pedro then received additional training at Camp Las Casas where, three weeks prior on June 21, a Third Officers Training Camp was established. On November 6, of the 278 students admitted to this training camp, there would be 253 graduates to receive a commission as a Second Lieutenant and another 23 graduates, Don Pedro included, to receive a commission as a First Lieutenant — all to serve as infantry officers. Only eight of the Second Lieutenants were classified as “colored,” with Don Pedro being the only graduate classified as such among the First Lieutenants.
As a commissioned officer Don Pedro seems to have had two main responsibilities during his time serving the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico: train with the 375th Infantry Regiment, and organize a company of “Home Guards.” The 375th Infantry Regiment was one of the Army’s segregated all-black units — their sole purpose was to train and await orders to be sent to the frontlines overseas. The “Home Guard” was an all-volunteer unit of those not able to serve in an active military capacity due to their age or condition but who could serve as a defense force in Puerto Rico in the event those in the active military were sent overseas. Don Pedro led this “Home Guard” effort in Ponce where some 200 volunteers were militarily trained on the local beaches.
Leaving Puerto Rico For Europe
The 375th Infantry Regiment had trained under the impression they could be sent overseas at any moment, Don Pedro himself saying their transports had been made ready for such. Nevertheless, the war came to an end before they were activated. Stating he was one of five officers to “wind up the affairs of the regiment,” once this work was done Don Pedro was then discharged from the service in March 1919 — the end of the war also brought the dissolution of the “Home Guards.” Offered a follow-on commission as First Lieutenant in the Army Reserve, Don Pedro refused.
Still in Puerto Rico in April, Don Pedro received a cablegram from the President of Harvard’s Cosmopolitan Club indicating that he had been selected among students to form part of a delegation to attend the Paris Peace Conference in Europe. He had already been publicly named by the Cosmopolitan Club as their nominee months before in a January 25 article in the Harvard Crimson student paper announcing a fundraising event to support his travel. Already having lost possible planning time, Don Pedro faced the added challenge of travel out of Puerto Rico being extremely difficult due to all ships having been dedicated to the war effort.
As an honorably discharged Army officer, Don Pedro was able to leave Puerto Rico on a warship and begin his way to Harvard from where he would travel to Europe with the rest of the student delegation. Having to first travel through the U.S. South, beginning in Galveston, Texas, the trip had a deep impact on Don Pedro. It was here that he witnessed the violent, humiliating racism of the segregated South first-hand. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived at Harvard the rest of the student delegation had already left, so Don Pedro stayed behind and prepared for the 1919-20 school year.
The Need For Military Training For Puerto Ricans
In his April 14, 1917 article in the Harvard Crimson, Don Pedro wrote specifically about Puerto Ricans entering World War 1 to defend the cause of the United States and the Allied Powers. In a 1926 interview published in Los Quijotes, a magazine in Puerto Rico, he shared the thoughts he held on the need for Puerto Ricans to receive military training in general, saying that “our participation in the European War would have been of great benefit to the people of Puerto Rico. The military organization of a people is necessary for its defense and such is only achieved with the painful sacrifices that a war imposes.”
Juan Antonio Corretjer, the Puerto Rican poet and independence activist who spent several years as a close associate of Don Pedro, claimed that he made an aborted attempt to organize an insurrectionist faction within the company of “Home Guards” that he had established in Ponce. Apparently inviting a friend to take part in this effort, Don Pedro was responded to with laughter. When his friend realized he was serious, he advised Don Pedro to never share the idea again, as anybody else would betray and report him. Corretjer went on to explain how Don Pedro believed Puerto Ricans returning from WW1 as combat veterans could serve as the core of “an independence movement capable of reorganizing the country’s will against the Yankees.”
In his 1926 Los Quijotes interview Don Pedro addressed why he had denied, at the end of WW1, a commission as First Lieutenant in the Army Reserve. Saying that Puerto Ricans should not form part of the military organizations of the United States, he specifically rejected the idea of developing a “Cipayo Army of Puerto Rico.” Cipayo, the Spanish word for ‘sepoy,’ was used by Don Pedro in reference to the professional infantry soldiers native to India that were recruited and employed in service to the British and French East India Companies. Don Pedro was clear in his belief in the need for Puerto Ricans to organize a military capacity in their homeland, but such should be singularly focused on defending Puerto Ricans’ own national interests.
- Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
- Cosmopolitan Club Plans for “International Night” Feb. 21 (The Harvard Crimson, 25 January 1919).
- Historia Militar de Puerto Rico, by Héctor Andrés Negroni (Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario, 1992).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
- The Porto Rican Division, by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera in The Puerto Rican Experience In The U.S. Military: A Century Of Unheralded Service (Center for Puerto Rican Studies).
- R.O.T.C. Training Completed Successfully At Barre (The Harvard Crimson, 21 September 1917).