“The seed of revolution is repression.”
– Woodrow Wilson
On October 28, 1950, the Puerto Rican revolution began with a prison break. Over five hundred prisoners rioted and 110 of them managed to escape from El Oso Blanco penitentiary in Rio Piedras, to all corners of the island. Many of these prisoners were Nationalists.
It was a bold unorthodox move. Instead of chasing Nationalists, the Insular Police now had to chase 110 fugitives all over the island – and the man who engineered the entire prison break, was a serial killer named Correa Cotto.
The Overall Plan
The Nationalists did not need to “win” a war against the US, which was impossible anyway. They only had to hold out long enough for the world to notice. At that point, the United Nations and other international organizations would persuade the US – the “leader of the free world” – to give up its colony.
Albizu Campos and the Nationalists had developed a two-step plan for the revolt, all structured around the centrally located town of Utuado:
Utuado was thus the focal point of the revolution. Here is how it all played out…
In the town of Peñuelas, on October 30 at 3 a.m., three dozen Insular Police surrounded the farm of Melitón Muñiz Santos and attacked the main house. A young Nationalist named Guillermo González Ubides horrified everyone – on both sides of the gunfight – when he opened a door and walked slowly toward the police, as if in a hypnotic trance. When he was twenty feet from the police, he raised a pistol…
“No!” screamed all the Nationalists, but it was too late. Every police gun fired and Guillermo was hit from all sides. Over a dozen bullets tore his face and body, but somehow Guillermo kept walking. Now he was ten feet from the police cars.
He raised his pistol again.
Another fusillade ripped Guillermo apart, and the gunfight ended quickly. Six policemen were wounded, three Nationalists were killed, and all the others were arrested. The leader of the police raid, Lieutenant Ismael Lugo Torres, received a special departmental commendation.
Two days later, several farmers swore that they saw the ghost of Guillermo. He was walking around in circles with a gun in his hand, as if patrolling the fields.
In the town of Jayuya, the police barricaded themselves behind steel drums.
However, the Nationalists successfully attacked the police precinct, the post office and the US Selective Service Center, where they burned all the draft cards. A woman named Blanca Canales cut all the outgoing phone lines and, at 6 p.m. in the Ponce town square, she raised the Puerto Rican flag and announced the free Republic of Puerto Rico.
In San Juan, a Nationalist demonstration developed outside the Jose Toledo Federal Courthouse building. But the main action involved the governor’s mansion.
At noon on October 30, five Nationalists waged an assault on the mansion, also known as La Fortaleza. They were led by Raimundo Díaz Pacheco, the commander-in-chief of the Cadets of the Republic – the youth division of the Nationalist Party.
They drove into the courtyard of La Fortaleza, but did not reach the mansion itself. Four of the five men were killed.
The only survivor, 23-year old Gregorio Hernandez, was gravely wounded and jailed in La Princesa prison.
Arecibo, Mayagüez, Ponce, Naranjito
Arecibo, Mayagüez, Ponce and Naranjito were all in disarray. Because of the hurried order to start the revolution, everything happened too early, or too late. Decisions were made on the fly. There was no coordination, no communication between the towns…once the National Guard shut down the major roads, it was every town for itself.
Arecibo started too early. They were the only town with the element of surprise, attacking the police station on October 30 at 10:30 a.m. They killed Lieutenant Ramón Villanueva and three other members of the Insular Police, but did not capture the station. The Nationalists hurried away and one of them, named Hipólito Miranda Díaz, was shot and killed while covering their retreat.
Mayagüez started too late. By the time the Nationalists approached the Insular Police station at 2 p.m., the policemen had been waiting for them for nearly two hours. The Nationalists backed off. The next day of October 31, in the Barrio La Quinta, police attacked the home of José Cruzado Ortíz and the Nationalists retreated into the mountains.
In Ponce a Nationalist tried to burn a building on Calle Victoria del Barrio Segundo, and was arrested. Another group was stopped in front of the Ponce Cement Factory, a gunfight ensued, and police officer Aurelio Miranda was killed.
The police were also waiting in Naranjito. The Nationalists failed to take the police station and retreated into the surrounding mountains. José Antonio Negrón, a World War II veteran, was able to wage guerrilla warfare until November 10. When finally arrested in the Barrio Palos Altos de Corozal a reporter asked why he held out for so long. Negrón responded: “Because giving up was not our mission. We were trying to bring international attention to the reality of Puerto Rico.”
In Utuado, 32 Nationalists split into two groups. The first attacked the post office and set it on fire. The second group attacked the Insular Police station, but were defeated by police snipers and street barricades all along Avenida Estevez. But the great retreat into Utuado, and the great concentration of all the rebel forces into this central town, never occurred.
The US National Guard and even the US Air Force, combined to isolate and shut down the entire town.
In addition to the revolts on the island, two Nationalists tried to kill President Harry Truman in Washington, D.C. Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola stormed the Blair House at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue (where Truman was sleeping) while the White House was undergoing renovations.
At 2:20 p.m., in the greatest gunfight in Secret Service history, President Truman came within seconds of being killed. He had been taking a nap, and was looking out the window in his underwear. Of the two Nationalists who waged this attack, Grieselio Torresola was killed and Oscar Collazo was imprisoned for 29 years, until 1979.
All across the United States, the press identified Collazo as “terrorists” and “desperados.”
The following newsreel from the Warner Pathé News Service declared them to be “fanatics.”
Even the Governor of Puerto Rico piled on, calling the revolution “a conspiracy against democracy helped by the Communists.”
Not one newspaper, anywhere in the US, mentioned a simple yet overwhelming fact: that the day before the assassination attempt on President Truman, the town where these two Nationalists were born, and where their families still lived (the town of Jayuya), had been bombed by the US Air Force. They used 500-pound bombs, 50-calibre machine guns, and left the town in ruins.
After they finished with Jayuya, the US Air Force then bombed the neighboring town of Utuado, demolishing 70% of the entire town.
The arrest of Pedro Albizu Campos
As soon as the Nationalist revolt began on October 30, the house of Pedro Albizu Campos at 156 Calle Sol in Old San Juan was immediately surrounded by Insular Police, the US National Guard, and FBI agents. A city garbage truck blocked Calle Sol.
Police buses blocked both ends of Calle Cruz, and the enclosure became a killing zone. Military and police vehicles were everywhere; soldiers, policemen and detectives crouched behind them; searchlights were brought in; machine guns and bazookas were mounted; snipers lay on the rooftops and two armored jeeps drove around the perimeter. It was a full-scale assault, a scene out of World War II.
For three days, assorted gunfire poured into the balcony and window of Albizu’s home. A Nationalist named Efrain Lopez was shot and killed. Another named Doris Torresola was shot in the neck. A few hours after the Truman assassination attempt, the US waged its final assault: the National Guard tear-gassed Albizu’s apartment, the FBI rushed in, and the Insular Police arrested him.
The US response to the Revolution
The US response to the October 1950 revolution was immediate and severe. Five thousand National Guard troops were mobilized.
The towns of Jayuya and Utuado were bombed by US ten P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes, using 500-pound (227 kg) bombs.
After bombing both towns, they strafed the sugar cane fields and mountainsides with .50 caliber, armor-piercing bullets.
Entire towns were locked down; roads were blocked; cars were searched by U.S. military personnel. Thousands of homes were raided by FBI agents, Insular Police and National Guard troops. They searched for any “subversive” materials including patriotic leaflets or Puerto Rican flags. And then came the arrests – they arrested Nationalists, Nationalist sympathizers, people who knew Nationalists, and people who played dominoes with Nationalists.
They arrested escaped convicts, and accused them of being Nationalists.
They arrested people in ten towns. According to the Governor and the Associated Press, the Nationalists were part of a Communist conspiracy against democracy. Also according to AP, the town of Jajuya had been destroyed by Nationalists – not by the U.S. Thunderbolt airplanes that bombed and machine-gunned the town for several hours. The airplanes weren’t mentioned at all.
With martial law firmly in place, the wave of arrests grew. They arrested farmers and schoolteachers; men, women and children.
They arrested jíbaros and dragged them down from their mountain shacks.
In the town of Jayuya, farmers were yanked off their plows and paraded through the town streets.
Women were arrested alongside the farmers A journalist named Ruth Reynolds, a schoolteacher named Olga Viscal, and a housewife named Carmen Perez were arrested for treason, attempted assassination, and conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.
After the first two hundred arrests in Jayuya, the National Guard commandeered several schools in order to hold all the prisoners. Some of these were children, imprisoned in their own schools.
In the University of Puerto Rico campus in Rio Piedras, students were arrested on their way to class.
Throughout the entire island, people were arrested on mere suspicion or accusation. The police did not need or use warrants – they simply used “lists” of Nationalists and “tips” from police informants. Anyone could be arrested at any time, day or night. Many people were dragged out of their own bed. Some prisoners arrived in pajamas.
All over Puerto Rico, people were arrested for nothing and interrogated about nothing. They were then held in custody, without legal process and without bail, by the National Guard and Insular Police. In the San Juan area, the arrests continued round-the-clock. Citizens were lined up against concrete walls; U.S. troops pointed submachine guns and rifles at their heads.
Within less than a week, over 3,000 people had been arrested throughout the island. In La Princesa alone, 350 inmates were moved in order to accommodate the tidal wave of prisoners. Another 300 were jammed into the Arecibo prison. Over 500 went to El Oso Blanco (the White Bear) penitentiary in Rio Piedras.
In addition to the arrests – Nationalists were killed in San Juan, Arecibo, Jayuya and Peñuelas. The most brutal killings occurred in Utuado, in what became known at the Utuado Massacre.
The Utuado Masacre
Five thousand US National Guard troops occupied the towns of Utuado and Jayuya. They patrolled every street and intersection, and fired their rifles into the cane fields and the surrounding mountains.
In Utuado, the troops used the rubble of the bombed-out houses as “protective cover” as they moved from one position to another. Since the entire island was under martial law, they had the authority to shoot at any “target” which seemed appropriate.
On October 31, around 1 a.m., nine Nationalists were marched through the streets of Utuado. The National Guard prodded them with bayonets down Calle Dr. Cueto, and ordered them to remove their shoes, belts and personal belongings. They marched down the street nearly naked, holding their pants up.
As they neared the police station, on the corner of Washington and Betances streets, a Browning M1919A4 machine gun suddenly faced them.
Every Nationalist was shot. Antonio Ramos died instantly, shot through the head and chest. Augustín Quiñones Mercado’s legs were shredded like ground beef; his left leg was almost completely severed from his body, connected only by two tendons. 17-year old Antonio Gonzalez asked for water while bleeding to death. “You want water?” said a Guardsman, then stabbed him in the chest with a bayonet.
Julio Colón Feliciano died while writing the word “Asesinos” on the pavement, with his own blood. The soldiers later erased it.
Four hours later the first sugar cane workers left home for work. They saw the bodies of nine men, all lying in a pool of blood. Four Nationalists were dead. Three of them had bled to death. Five were gravely wounded.
Even then, the corpses were still left on display, for the entire town to see, for five more hours until 10 a.m. Pools of blood ran in the gutter. Stray dogs roamed over the corpses, licking their faces and eating their intestines, which had spilled out onto the street.
The Guardsmen continued to patrol the area. They left a pool of blood and one shoe in the street. Men, women and children walked by it and moved on, afraid to utter a word.
President Truman’s famous phrase
Shortly after the October revolution, the bombing of two towns by U.S. fighter planes, the arrest of 3,000 civilians, the death and disappearance of hundreds of Nationalists, and the assassination attempt on his own life, Pres. Harry Truman dismissed everything as “an incident between Puerto Ricans.”
For a detailed history of the bombing of Utuado and Jayuya, the gunfights in eight towns, the arrest of 3,000 Puerto Ricans, and the attempted assassination of Pres. Harry Truman, please read…