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Puerto Rico and World War I

Updated on May 28, 2016
Early picture of the first Puerto Rican soldiers to serve in the US ARMY in 1899.
Early picture of the first Puerto Rican soldiers to serve in the US ARMY in 1899.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens

As an American, born in New York City from a Puerto Rican background, I have noticed one thing. In this day and age, there is much confusion when you hear the word Puerto Rican. The first thing that comes to mind is a foreigner. Nothing could be further than the truth. Believe it or not, Puerto Ricans are actually American citizens. The Jones Act of 1917 gave Puerto Ricans the right to become American Citizens. The Island, though, remained a commonwealth or colony of the United States. They are free to elect their government and elected officials, but cannot vote for the President of the United States unless they become a state.

My Uncles and Family have, proudly, served in the Military. My Uncle, Enrique Santos, won a purple heart in the Korean War. My Father, also, served in a Artillery Unit and saw some action in that war. Puerto Ricans have, for the most part, heeded the call to arms and have served in the military in times past. This article is dedicated to their memory. Their acts of bravery must never be forgotten.

World War I and Puerto Rico!

Puerto Ricans had a role to play in World War I. Porto Rico as it was once named by the United States saw some action off the island's coast land. In a little-known fact, the first shots fired in World War I was,actually, off San Juan bay in Puerto Rico. A German ship had approached the island and a special artillery unit consisting of Puerto Rican soldiers saw action.

It is estimated that 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in the war. At that time, Puerto Rico was a melting part of African, Indian and Caucasian people, The inhabitants lived in that island not looking at skin color and segregation was not known in that area. Meanwhile, in the United States, the ugly head of racism was at its core. Puerto Ricans were called to military service and the armed forces were segregating those of African descent from the white ones.

A well known Puerto Rican figure named Pedro Albizu Campos had achieved the rank of 1st lieutenant and saw action in the war. It is believed that he became so bitter at the hatred and separation of the races that he became a voice for the popular Independence movement. That movement advocated separation from the United States, which would in turn, make the island a sovereign independent nation. Albizu Campos became very outspoken in his political views. and would become a thorn to the United States. As radical as his views were, he is, still, held in high regard among many Puerto Ricans.

1st Lt Pedro Albizu Campos--  US Army
1st Lt Pedro Albizu Campos-- US Army

More Puerto Rican heroes of World War I

There were other notable Puerto Rico figures that served in World War I. One of them was Rafael Hernandez, who became a well-known songwriter in Puerto Rico. He and his brother Jesus saw action in the war. Due to his African background, Rafael and his brother Jesus, did not fight along his white counterparts, joining instead with the French. They fought in a all African-American unit called the Harlem Hell-fighters. They were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.

Another notable mention is the brothers Riefkohl, who, also, served with honor in the military. The Riefkohl were of German ancestry but were born in Manuabo, Puerto Rico.The eldest was named Rudolph W Riefkohl. At 14 years old, he would impact the history of Puerto Rico, providing a map to an American Spy during the Spanish-American war of 1898.This was a deciding factor for the invasion of Puerto Rico by the American forces. In 1911, he joined the US Army and got commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. Distinguishing himself in combat, he would again impact history when in 1919, he helped Poland overcome the typhus epidemic. He would, again, answer the call to serve in World War II and retired as a Colonel in 1945, but once again, he would yet achieve a milestone. Running for Mayor in Surfside, Florida, he got elected to serve the community. Another notable achievement indeed.

His younger brother Frederick served in the Navy and was awarded the Navy Cross for outstanding valor in battle. He went on to serve in World War II, where he would, again, serve with honor. Later on, he would retire as a Rear Admiral. These brave men should always be remembered for their sacrifices and call to duty. These little-known facts should are worthy of mention. Let us take some time to salute these great American patriots who gave their all to serve in the Military.

Colonel Rudolph W. Riefkohl--US Army
Colonel Rudolph W. Riefkohl--US Army


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