Staff Sgt. Gabriel Soto-Rivera (Ret.)
Staff Sgt. Gabriel Soto-Rivera (Ret.) passed away on June 20, 2006 after a long battle with several illnesses mainly caused by being bedridden. Gabriel was born in the barrio of Cordillera of Ciales, Puerto Rico on March 20, 1923. He lived the typical poor self-sufficient Jíbaro life working on his father’s farm and was one of 9 children. In March 1944, he volunteered in the Army and served with the 295th Inf. Regt. “Todo Por La Patria” where he was subjected to Mustard Gas experiments in Panama. During the Korean War, he served in Fort Buchanan then briefly with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 65th Infantry before his enlistment ran out and he was shipped back to Puerto Rico for reenlistment. Afterward he was a Cadreman in Camp Tortuguero training new soldiers for the war. He was sent to Vietnam from 1965-1966 with 1st Battalion, 2nd Inf. Regt, 1st Inf. Div. where he served as an infantryman and squad leader. While there, he supplemented his C ration diet with fresh fruits and vegetables from the tropical plants of Vietnam which only a Jíbaro would recognize. He was wounded in combat and returned to the USA. Gabriel retired from the Army with 24 years service. Submitted by his son, LTC Bart Soto (Ret.).
NAME: Gabriel Soto-Rivera
DATE ENTERED SERVICE: April 4, 1944
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII
Born on 20 March 1923, Gabriel Soto-Rivera was a poor mountain farmer from the tropical Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. They were called “Jibaros” (pronounced Hee-bar-rows). The word was roughly equivalent to “Hillbilly” in English. The Jibaros were self sufficient mountain farmers growing what they needed and, with the little they could make from selling their crops, they bought other necessities they could not make or grow. Transportation was by foot unless their horses were not being used for other farm chores. As a boy he sometimes would look out from a high hill on the farm and observe the emerald blue sea of the Atlantic. He could see ships traveling on it and daydreamed that one day he would like to travel on it and see what the world was like.[i]
Gabriel learned about the world war and the call for young men to join the US Army. He figured soldiering was the way to escape poverty while serving his country and at the same time helping his family by sending back money he earned. Gabriel also heard that soldiers were well fed in the U.S. Army. He was rejected on his first try at enlistment in early 1943 because he was too skinny and sickly. As the war progressed demands for soldiers grew. Gabriel tried registering again and was finally called to enlist in March 1944. He was 5 foot 9 inches tall and weighed only 139 lbs.
As a new applicant, his initial processing was in Fort Brooke located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At that time Fort Brooke consisted of the old Spanish Fortress of “El Morro” and outlying buildings. Today this area belongs to the National Park Service and is a big tourist attraction in San Juan.
In 1944 the Army was still segregated. After completion of their basic training Puerto Rican soldiers were segregated into White or “Colored” units. Soto’s medical records have the Stamp of “Puerto Rican” under race, with a hand written note “White” next to it. Orders with Soto’s name from the period indicate his name along with several other soldiers with initials next to their names, “WPR” or “CPR”. WPR meaning White Puerto Rican and CPR meaning “Colored” Puerto Rican.
After successfully completing his physical and test he was accepted into the Army on 4 April 1944. He was sent to Fort Buchanan, located about 10 miles away near Caparra, PR, for issue of his clothing and equipment. Since he rarely wore shoes as a poor farmer, the Supply Sergeant measured his feet as a much larger size, about a 12. In time his feet would narrow and fit neatly into a size 9 ½.
Gabriel was sent for 3 months of Infantry Training reporting to the 12th Training Company located in Camp O’Rielly, near Jurabo, PR. It took Gabriel many days to get use to wearing shoes and leggings and marching in them. He tripped over his leggings and learned to wear them with the lacing on the outside. One episode he remembers was being punished for falling asleep in a class on the
M-1 rifle. He was ordered to report for a punishment detail after supper and “burying a mosquito” in a hole four by four by four. The next day he was ordered to dig it up again. His Drill Sergeants were constantly yelling at them, calling them “Hairy Hungry Hillbilly’s”, (Jibaro Pelu Esmayao in Puerto Rican Spanish slang).
Most of the Enlisted Men who joined or were drafted into the Army during WWII from Puerto Rico did not speak English well or not at all. In 1944, the average Puerto Rican soldier was much like any other citizen of a Latin American country. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and its citizens are U.S. citizens by Law, (The Jones Act of 1917), the Puerto Rican native was more Latin American than U.S. Continental American. Therefore, the training of Puerto Rican troops at the time was unique, being conducted mainly in Spanish until the troops could be taught English and gain enough knowledge and experience. Gabriel had to take two hours of English each day. He remembers his books titled, “Private Peter”.
Despite the strict discipline and harsh training, Gabriel liked the many benefits of serving in the Army. Now he ate three square meals a day, each one of them with meat, he was never hungry and gained weight which was put on his skinny frame as muscle. In the Mess hall, he ate foods he never had tasted such as Beef Steak, potatoes, and Ice Cream. The Army had issued him uniforms, shoes, gave him free food, and his own bed. Compared to his previous life, Gabriel thought he was rich even with his Private’s pay. Before, if he could find work, he earned 40 cents for a full day of back breaking labor. To Gabriel the Army was like jumping from miserable poverty to middle class in one day. He saved as much of his pay as he could and sent it home to his parents and siblings.
After Basic Training, Private Soto was sent to Camp Henry, located in Cayey, PR in the central mountain range. They were issued wool clothes and everyone immediately speculated they would be going to the European Theater. All were given a three day pass to visit family prior to deployment overseas.
Upon his return to his barracks he learned that orders had been changed. Their wool clothes were turned in. Soto remembers standing in formation, prior to deployment and everyone being asked to remove their shirts. The inspecting officer walked thru the formation, looking at their backs. Soldiers were then ordered into one of two groups, White or Colored. It was then he realized that there was racism in the U.S. Army. Soto was selected for a “White” Puerto Rican unit.
He received orders to report to Panama Canal Zone and join
, C “Charlie” Company, 1st Battalion, 295th Infantry Regiment. The 295th whose motto was “Todo Por La Patria” (All for the Country), was previously part of the Puerto Rican National Guard and had been mobilized for the war and deployed to Panama with the mission of guarding and securing the Canal Zone from enemy attack. Soto even remembers guarding German POWs in Panama.
While serving in Panama he performed guard and observation post duty at Fort Morgan and Camp Pina. His unit took extensive Jungle training. In Panama the U.S. Army was looking for soldiers to participate in a series of secret experiments involving mustard gas. Gabriel was “volunteered” by his First Sergeant, along with several other soldiers selected from the ranks.
Gabriel was sent to San Jose Island, Panama. The Army wanted to know how Puerto Rican soldiers would perform in a Jungle Environment while exposed to Mustard Gas with the impregnated protective clothing and mask issued to them. Some leaders in the Army thought that Puerto Rican soldiers, who are from a tropical climate, could perform better in chemical protective clothing than a Continental White soldier. So the experiment was organized. [ii]
The US military Chemical Corps was planning a poison gas attack of Japan as part of the overall invasion of Japan.[iii] There were also plans to use mustard gas against Japanese jungle military fortifications. The US was stock piling mustard gas, and other poison gases for the huge invasion.[iv] So experiments were needed to determine if the equipment our GIs would be using in the invasion would protect them from mustard gas. At the time the Chemical Corps had no idea what the Manhattan Project was building, an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project had the highest security classification of the time, which explains why the Chemical Corps was not aware of it, so planning continued for the poison gas attack of Japan.
As part of the experiments in Panama, animals were tied down to expose them to the mustard gas. Planes flew over the area and dropped Mustard Gas bombs. Soldiers from the 295th Infantry Regiment, a segregated US Army unit of Puerto Rican soldiers, were ordered into the area wearing full chemical protective clothing and gas masks. Soto recalls the gas soaked through his gloves and burned his knuckles. Gabriel considered himself lucky, since one fellow soldier panicked, tore his mask off and tried to run away. That soldier was hospitalized and he never saw him again.
Soto was only authorized to speak openly about the Mustard gas experiments he was subjected to when he received a letter from the Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Benefits on March 9, 2005.
After the sudden death of President Roosevelt in April, the soldiers were withdrawn from the experiments to attend memorial services for the President.
The company received orders for Salinas, Ecuador and Talara, Peru
; to provide Military Police support to Army Air Corps bases there. The U.S. Army Air Corps, VI Bomber Command, had bomber units stationed in Salinas and Galapagos, Ecuador and Talara, Peru. They also had bases in Central America. The Air Corps bombers had the mission of patrolling the Pacific Ocean in a triangle from Salinas, Ecuador, to the Seymour (Baltra) Island of Galapagos Islands. Baltra Island was nicknamed “the Rock” by the airmen stationed there. From Galapagos the patrol triangle flew north to Corinto, Nicaragua. This wide area of air patrol was designed to give early warning to the defenses of Panama and attack any Japanese naval force early, prior to enemy ships being able to launch an attack on the Panama Canal.
Imperial Japan actually had plans to attack the Panama Canal. A special class of submarine, the I-400 class, was designed and built for the mission. This submarine was the largest in WWII. It carried a hanger that could hold 3 aircraft and a catapult to launch them. So the I-400 submarine was a submarine aircraft carrier.
The I-400s were the largest sub of WWII. It could carry 3 aircraft in a special hanger. The Japanese planned to use three of these submarines to attack the Panama Canal. When the tide turned in the Pacific after the battle of Midway, the Japanese were forced onto the defensive and changed their original plan and the Panama Canal attack never materialized.
The Puerto Rican soldier’s knowledge of Spanish made them ideal for providing security for the bases in South America. The Puerto Ricans helped in dealing with the local population especially when bored US servicemen went into town, got drunk, and ended up in trouble.
Gabriel rose to the rank of Corporal, when his leaders observed how good he was in Drill and his knowledge of infantry weapons.
In Salinas, Soto remembers buying a Burro from an American serviceman for $12. Gabriel named his burro, “Mickey Mouse”, and rode it to his guard post each day. Soto guarded the Ammo Dumps at Salinas, performed as an MP at the gate, and patrolled the nearby town. Corporal Soto remembers serving in South America when the war ended. He had to escort a prisoner from Ecuador to Galapagos, and then finally back to Panama.
Gabriel returned to Puerto Rico with an Established Termination (of) Service (ETS) of February 27, 1946 from Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. For his service in the US Army during WWII he received the American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, and Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII.
Soto would later serve in the Korean and Vietnam Wars eventually retiring as a Staff Sergeant from the US Army on 30 JUNE 1973.
[i] Note. Most of this story was taken from interviews with Gabriel Soto-Rivera by the author.
[ii] World War II on San Jose Island…GIs Gassed to Test Racial Differences
by Eric Jackson, From The Panama News, August 16-29, 1997
[iii] Allen, T.B. and N. Polmar, “Poisonous invasion prelude,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (August 4, 1995). [New York Times special features].)
[iv] Weber, Mark. “American Leaders Planned Poison Gas Attack Against Japan,” Institute for Historical Review (http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v16/v16n3p12_Weber.html)