Puerto Rican Servicewomen in Defense of the Nation

Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.

Puerto Rican women were anxious to volunteer to serve in the armed forces during World War II. Initially, however, Puerto Rican nurses were not accepted into the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. Also, the Army’s Antilles Department did not think it necessary to recruit and train Puerto Rican women for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) because the island had an abundance of civilian women anxious to work for the military. In April of 1944, the Army revised its opinion, and requested that WAC recruiters be sent to the island to organize a unit of Puerto Rican WACs. One WAC officer and three enlisted women arrived on the island with authorization to recruit no more than 200 women. There was an extremely enthusiastic response to this announcement, and over 1,500 applications were submitted for the 200 slots. The women selected were enlisted, trained and assigned as a single unit.

After basic training, the Puerto Rican WAC unit was assigned to the Port of Embarkation of New York City, where the women worked in military offices which planned the shipment of troops around the world. There the women helped millions of soldiers return home before they themselves returned to Puerto Rico in 1946. Carmen M. Medina, born in San Sebatian in 1922, joined the Army in 1944 and went with her unit for basic training at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. When the unit was sent to New York City, Private Medina worked as a clerk typist in an Army post office in the New York Port of Embarkation. She is proud of her service and believes that it was the most important thing she has ever endeavored to do.

In early 1944, when large numbers of Puerto Rican troops were being inducted into Army, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) decided to accept Puerto Rican nurses. Thirteen women submitted applications, were interviewed, underwent physical examinations, and were accepted into the ANC. They were Venia Hilda Roig, Rose Mary Glanville, Asuncion Bonilla-Velasco, Elba Cintron, Casilda Gonzalez, Olga Gregory, Eva Garcia, Carmen Lozano, Margarita Vilaro, Medarda Rosario, Aurea Cotto, Julie Gonzalez, and Marta Munoz-Otero. Eight of these nurses were assigned to the Army Post at San Juan, where they were valued for their bilingual abilities. Four nurses worked at the hospital at Camp Tortuguero.

Carmen Lozano Dumler graduated from Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in Puerto Rico in the spring of 1944 knowing that she wanted to join the Army Nurse Corps. She was sworn in on August 21, 1944, and remembers it as the proudest day of her life. Her first assignment was at the 161st General Hospital in San Juan. The Army then sent her to Camp Tortuguero Training Center near Vega Baja. The patients were happy to have a Spanish-speaking nurse that they could relate to. Lozano assisted as interpreter whenever necessary. Her next assignment was at the 395th Station Hospital at Ft. Read, Trinidad, in the British West Indies. While there, she nursed soldiers recovering from wounds they had received at Normandy. Many appreciated being able to “talk out” their anxieties and nightmares. Planning to become a doctor after the war, Lozano took correspondence courses towards a medical degree from Louisiana State University. She met her husband, Army Doctor Lieutenant Joseph Dumler, while in Trinidad, and they were married in the Base Chapel.

The Navy recruited a small number of Puerto Rican women as WAVES during World War II. One was Maria Rodriguez Denton, born in 1909 in Guanica. Lieutenant (JG) Denton worked in New York City.

Puerto Rican women continued to volunteer for service during the 1950s and 1960s. Army Nurse Julia Benitez Aviles, born in Orocovis in 1912, was the first Puerto Rican servicewomen to obtain the rank of captain. She joined the ANC in 1950 and served in Occupation Germany; Washington, DC; Texas; and Puerto Rico as a nurse anesthetist, leaving the service in 1964.

Rose Franco, born in Ensenada in 1934, joined the Marine Corps in 1954 and was assigned as a Supply Administrative Assistant at Camp Pendleton, California. She returned to Puerto Rico at the end of her four-year enlistment, intending to work for an airline company. However, she missed being a Marine so much that decided to re-enlist, and was sent to the First Marine Corps District in Garden City, Long Island. In 1961, Rose was sent to Parris Island, and several years later she was selected for a job at the Pentagon as the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. On his recommendation, Rose was appointed as a warrant officer, one of only 11 women warrant officers in the Marine Corps at that time. She was then assigned as the adjutant and congressional inquiry officer of a staging battalion in Camp Pendleton, California. CWO3 Franco looks back on a prestigious and significant career with the US Marine Corps.

Nilda Carrulas Cedero Fuertes was born in 1932 in Toa Baja, and joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1953, serving on active duty until 1964. She then joined the Reserves, where she served until 1990. Her most memorable experience in the military was teaching the latest modern nursing techniques to Nicaraguan Army nurses while TDY (on temporary duty) in Nicaragua for six months.

Today, Puerto Rican women are serving throughout the armed forces breaking barriers. Major Sonia Roca, born in 1955 in San Juan, is proud to be the first Hispanic female officer to attend the Command and General Staff College at the School of the Americas.