The first military unit in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was established on March 2, 1899, less than a year after the July 25, 1898, incursion of U.S. forces into Puerto Rico as Spain ceded the island to the United States under the Treaty of Paris.
That first military unit was the Puerto Rico Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, and it was designed to allow the people of Puerto Rico to participate in their own defense. On May 27, 1908, the U.S. Congress attached the Puerto Rico Regiment of Volunteer Infantry to the United States Army.
In 1915, Lieutenant Colonel Teófilo Marxuach ordered the first shots fired on behalf of the United States in WWI. The shots were fired on a German supply boat that was attempting to leave the harbor in San Juan. Marxuach, the son of a San Juan mayor, was born in the town of Arroyo, Puerto Rico when the island was still under Spanish colonial rule. He was educated in Spain and joined the Spanish Army, but ultimately gave up his Spanish citizenship in favor of U.S. citizenship. He furthered his education at Cornell, and in 1908 became one of seven U.S. Army officers born in Puerto Rico.
On March 2, 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act granted citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. As citizens, Puerto Ricans were eligible to join the U.S. armed services, but few enrolled. A few weeks after the bill’s passage, however, President Wilson signed a compulsory military service act, and ultimately nearly 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted to serve during World War I.
The Puerto Rican Regiment was segregated from the rest of the U.S. Army, and most of its members served in Puerto Rico and the Canal Zone. Puerto Ricans living on the mainland also joined the military during WWI. Some served in the 396th Infantry Regiment, which was known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. This was another racially segregated unit.
In June of 1920, the Puerto Rican Regiment of Volunteer Infantry was officially reorganized as the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment popularly known as “the Borinqueneers.” Though this unit was not established until after the end of the first World War and would not see combat service until the second World War, the regiment’s heritage extends back to 1899.
For more information on Puerto Rico’s proud tradition of military service, click here.