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World War I & World War II

World War I

A native of Puerto Rico with a medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, MA, Dr. Pinero was practicing medicine and anesthesia in the town of Rio Piedras, PR, when World War I began.2 In her memoirs, she wrote that when she first went to Army headquarters in San Juan, PR, to apply to become a contract surgeon, the colonel in charge did not believe he could accept a woman applicant. Dr. Pinero then wrote to William C. Gorgas, the Army Surgeon General in Washington, DC, and “within days received a telegram ordering me to report to Camp Las Casas at Santurce, Puerto Rico.” Signing her contract with the Army in Oct. 1918, Pinero became the first Puerto Rican woman doctor to serve in the Army under contract. She was assigned to the base hospital at San Juan, working in the mornings as an anesthetist and in the laboratory during the afternoons.3

Within a month, a deadly new enemy emerged to challenge US Army doctors. Swine Flu, or influenza, swept through Army camps and training posts around the world, infecting one quarter of all soldiers and killing more than 55,000 American troops.4 Dr. Pinero and four male colleagues received orders to open a 400-bed hospital in Ponce, PR, to care for influenza patients. The five doctors worked day and night throughout the epidemic. When the contagion finally ended, Dr. Pinero was ordered back to the Army base hospital at San Juan, where her contract was formally terminated and she then returned to her practice in Rio Piedras.5

World War II
Later, during World War II, many Puerto Rican nurses wanted to volunteer with the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Initially, neither corps would accept them. In 1944, when large numbers of Puerto Rican men were being inducted into the Army, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) reluctantly began to recruit Puerto Rican nurses. Thirteen women submitted applications, were interviewed, underwent physical examinations and were accepted into the corps. They were Lieutenants Venia Hilda Roig, Rose Mary Glanville Campbell, Asuncion Bonilla-Velasco, Elba Cintron, Casilda Gonzalez, Olga Gregory, Eva Garcia, Carmen Lozano Dumler, Margarita Vilaro, Medarda Rosario, Aurea Cotto Carter, Julie Gonzalez and Marta Munoz-Otero. Eight of these nurses, valued for their bilingual abilities, were assigned to the Army post at San Juan, where they acted as interpreters whenever necessary. Four nurses worked at the hospital at Camp Tortuguero Training Center near Vega Baja, PR.6

One of these nurses was Carmen Lozano Dumler. She graduated from Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in Puerto Rico in the spring of 1944, knowing that she wanted to join the ANC. She was sworn in Aug. 21, 1944, and remembers it as the proudest day of her life. 2LT Dumler’s first assignment was at the 161st General Hospital in San Juan. The Army then sent her to Camp Tortuguero and later to the 395th Station Hospital at Ft. Read, Trinidad, British West Indies. At the 395th she nursed soldiers recovering from wounds received at Normandy and both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking soldiers appreciated being able to “talk out” their anxieties and nightmares with her.7

WWII also brought with it opportunities for women to serve in jobs other than nursing. When the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was first established in 1942, the Army did not think it necessary to recruit and train Puerto Rican women. The island suffered from a high level of unemployment and wages in the civilian sector were extremely low. Thus many civilian women were anxious to work for the military and therefore it was not necessary to put women into uniform to fill jobs. However, by 1944 the Army began having problems recruiting women and in April of that year the Women’s Army Corps (the WAAC became the WAC in 1943) sent recruiters to Puerto Rico to organize a unit of women. One WAC officer and three enlisted women were authorized to recruit no more than 200 women. More than 1,500 applicants responded to the announcement for the 200 slots.8 Most of the applicants were teachers or office workers, and 40 percent were college graduates.9 The women recruits were enlisted, trained and assigned as a single unit to the Port of Embarkation in New York City, working in military offices planning the shipment of troops around the world. When the war ended, the “Transportation WACs,” as they were called, remained on duty, helping millions of soldiers return home. Finally, in 1946, the women themselves returned home to Puerto Rico.10

The “Transportation WACs” unit included San Sebastian, PR, native Carmen M. Medina. She and her fellow WACs were assigned to Ft. Oglethorpe, GA, for their basic training. When the unit was sent to New York City, the 21-year-old PFC Medina worked as a clerk typist in an Army post office at the Port of Embarkation. She is proud of her service and believes that it was the most important thing she has ever done.11

The Navy also recruited a small number of Puerto Rican women as members of the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES) during World War II. One was Maria Rodriguez Denton, who was born in Guanica, PR, in 1909. The Navy assigned LTJG Denton as a library assistant at the Cable and Censorship Office in New York City. She forwarded the news, through channels, that the war had ended to President Harry Truman at the White House.12 Another Puerto Rico native, S1C Idalia Salcedo Rodriguez of Naguabo, was assigned to the Navy’s Bureau of Ships in Washington, DC, where she was thrilled to march with her unit in honorary parades for ADM Chester W. Nimitz and GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower at the end of the war.13

2 Pinero, The Medical Woman’s Journal, 310.

3 Pinero, The Medical Woman’s Journal.

4 Carol R. Byerly, Fever of War, (New York University Press, 2005), 6-10.

5 Pinero, The Medical Woman’s Journal.

6 “Annual Report, Medical Department Activities, Antilles Department, 1944,” 125-126, Record Group 112, Entry 54A, National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

7 Women In Military Service For America Memorial Register (hereafter Women’s Memorial Register) Carmen Lozano Dumler, Registration # 334561, hard copy.

8 Mattie Treadwell, The U.S. Army In World War II Special Studies: The Women’s Army Corps, (Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1954), 478.

9 “City Awes WACs from Puerto Rico,” New York Times, March 24, 1945, 19.

10 Mattie Treadwell, The U.S. Army In World War II Special Studies: The Women’s Army Corps, (Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1954), 478.

11 Women’s Memorial Register, Carmen M. Medina, Registration # 061809.

12 Women’s Memorial Register, Maria Rodriguez Denton, Registration # 336851, hard copy.

13 Women’s Memorial Register, Idalia Salcedo Rodriguez, Registration # 529526.