William Feliciano Ruiz
THE FIRST PUERTO RICANS AT THE BATTLEFRONT
By WILLIAM FELICIANO RUIZ, ESQ.
Originally published in “EL VISITANTE” Weekly
(Dec. 30, 2001-Jan. 5, 2002)
In the December 23, 2000 edition of the weekly paper “EL VISITANTE”, there was an article written by my old law professor, J.J. Santa Pinter, titled “The First Bomb on Christmas Eve of That Year of 1944”, where he recounts his experiences during World War II in his native country of Hungary with the destruction caused by the bombs and his arrival, after escaping from a Nazi forced labor camp to his house in ruins, on December 24, 1944.
What Santa Pinter did not know was that his former pupil who is writing this, also had an unforgettable experience of war in France the same Christmas night of 1944…
In 1943, our Regiment, the 65th Infantry, was stationed in Panama, with rumors that we would be sent to the battlefields. Since it did not have an artillery unit, they began to organize a company of cannons. They selected a group of soldiers from the 62nd Artillery and another group from the Anti-tank Company of the 296th Infantry, which I was a part of, and sent us to Panama through Guantanamo integrating us into the 65th Infantry where they formed the Cannon Company. Later we were moved to Fort Eustis, Virginia and then sent to North Africa after the great Desert Tank Battles when Gen. George S. Patton beat the Desert Fox, the German Erwin Rommel.
In Morocco, North Africa next to Oran and Casablanca, we received an intense training in preparation for the invasion of France. We arrived at the Port of Marseilles at the beginning of September, 1944 and after certain special missions, we were sent on December 13, 1944 with our 105mm cannons to the front lines to support the Third Battalion of the 65th in the Maritime Alps, which are located on the borders of France and Italy.
As we were climbing that narrow and tortuous road with several feet of snow in the hillsides, we began to listen to the clatter of machine guns and the explosions of artillery. We positioned our cannons at around five o’clock in the afternoon. My squad, Cannon #2, had the assignment of shooting the first 45 lb. bullet at the Germans and this is how we began our odyssey in that war theater with temperatures reaching below zero and with no previous combat experience. Our squad, with its two cannons, was commanded by Sgt. Valladares of Mayaguez and my Section by Sgt. Ramon Ramirez of Bayamon. I was the artillery gunner of my squad; and amongst my buddies, I remember William Lopez, Pedro Rios, Basilio Agosto, residents of the Metropolitan Area; Paco Charriez, today living in Lajas, and Chamorro of Ponce.
The Regiment was commanded by Colonel Ford, the Third Battalion by the well-remembered Colonel Cesar Cordero Davila and our company was commanded by Captain George Norris of Georgia. The First Sergeant was Herminio Melendez Vela of Ponce and Lieutenant Felipe Vias was the Executive. Historically, it was the first time that a unit of Puerto Ricans entered into action and we were boys between the ages of 18 and 25.
Of our six cannons, four were positioned and two were in reserve. Our primary mission was to have continuous shifts of cannons firing night and day aimed at the Germans who were entrenched in Fort Forca, in the Piera Cava area, and give support to the infantrymen of Third Battalion. At night the sky would ignite with artillery and occasionally you could hear a soldier sing a tango… “My dear Puerto Rico, when will I see you again … “, parroting the singer Carlos Gardel’s version of “My dear Buenos Aires” … and in the silence of the night we would accompany him in the chorus. In fact, one day we visited Toulouse in the South of France where the “Creole Thrush” singer had been born.
And Christmas came. Since we had to protect ourselves from the German patrols, Vicente Lanza, a brave combatant who now lives in Ponce, was in charge of placing explosive mines surrounding our cannons. The night of December 23, 1944, while we were resting a bit in our trench (dugout), we reminisced about our families in Puerto Rico and remembered the get-togethers, the Christmas Eve Masses, the roast suckling pig and tears fell from our eyes. At about four o’clock in the morning, a mine explosion woke us up. “The Germans” – thought Ramirez. And in a deathly silence we positioned ourselves on guard since even the smallest noise might make us victims to the German bullets, but the hostile patrol never arrived. At dawn, we immediately went to the place of the explosion with our carbines ready to capture the German who had stepped on the mine in case he was still alive or to recover his corpse. But to our great surprise, we looked in disbelief – as if with children’s eyes waiting for a Christmas gift – and saw that is was an enormous porcupine that had stepped on the mine.
A wild dead pig in the snow”, we said in unison … and … it was already December 24th. We could not contain our emotions. How did it arrive there? Who sent it to us? We wondered and stared at each other looking for an explanation for this Christmas gift. “It was a gift from God”, murmured Sgt. Ramirez, who would later became Governor of the Lions Club of Puerto Rico and is now deceased.
Shortly thereafter Chago, the cook, arrived with his sharp machete. We searched for firewood, made a fire, cut a pole of pine and there we placed part of the porcupine. Basilio had a hidden bottle of wine and Pedro another one of Eau de Vie (Water of Life, which was nothing more than tears of French mangroves). We improvised some spices, found grapes and old apples and celebrated that Christmas of 1944 with roast porcupine, a few drinks and singing Puerto Rican folkloric Christmas songs softly on the snow-covered French soil and to the sound of artillery furrowing the skies. We saved the leftovers of the meat in the snow which lasted us until the New Year. Later we celebrated the end of the year by firing twelve bullets from each cannon towards the enemy, each bullet containing the phrase “Happy New Year” written in chalk.
In that front, as I recall, died Colonel Ford, Captain Espada and Corporal Aristides Cales of Guayanilla.
Years later, we erected the first monument in Puerto Rico to honor those who did not return to our native town of Lajas.
On February 26, 1945, we were relieved from the battlefront. We returned for a few days to rest in the French Riviera, very close to the Alps and then on Easter crossed the Rhine River, finally entering Germany, where we stayed until the end of the war.
When we returned to Puerto Rico on November 9, 1945, the Puerto Rican people came out in a victorious reception at the Military Terminal of Buchanan. On a trip to Normandy several years later with Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez, my wife Ana, and other Puerto Ricans, we visited the cemetery where they put to rest thousands of American soldiers. And there is a monument to the old cannon 105mm Howeitzer aimed towards the sky as a symbol of respect and courage in preserving the values of Justice, Freedom and Democracy.
Translated by Noemi Figueroa Soulet