Bombs Have Killed Many Civilians
by Iván Ramos Soler
The U.S. Navy claims that the accident on April 19, 1999, which killed a civilian in Vieques, is the only casualty that it has caused on the Island. In making this statement, the Navy is, once again, covering up the truth about its dangerous activities in Vieques.
For example, the Navy is concealing the tragic accident in which four boys stepped on a bomb that was carelessly left in Vieques after a military drill in 1952. The details of this accident are narrated in full herein as seen through the eyes of several children caught in the explosion. In investigating these boys' tragedy, it has also been discovered that several other similar accidents have occurred in Vieques. Unfortunately, very little has been done to uncover the circumstances surrounding some of these other casualties.
What is left of a parachute in the middle of the road
to "Monte David." It was used to throw a cluster bomb.
The accident, suffered by Jesús "Chuito" Legrand, Frank Santiago, Miguel "Miguelín" Legrand and Luis "Campeche" Campos Encarnación, after stepping on a mortar bomb, left a strong mark in the minds of many other children who lived in Vieques at the time. Many of those children are now influential community leaders and activists who oppose the Navy presence on the Island.
The accident occurred when a group of four boys were playing near a small dairy farm owned by Pedro Felix, in an area in Vieques formerly known as Bastimento. There was another group of three older boys, who were also in the area of the accident but were not injured. Carlos Zenón, who is now one of the leaders of the movement to oust the Navy from Vieques, was one of these older boys who was in the vicinity of the accident.
Witnesses recall that they heard a loud explosion coming from the Bastimento area. Most assumed that the explosion was part of a military drill because, even though no maneuvers were supposed to take place that day, it is common for the Navy to conduct exercises without warning the civilian population. Several minutes after the explosion, Zenón heard wailing sounds and cries coming from a bushy area nearby. He advanced, with his brother Julio and another boy named José Vidal Lucas, towards the area were the sounds were coming from. He found the four younger boys, Frank, Miguelín, Campeche and Chuito, lying on the ground, covered with blood. Apparently one of the four boys had stepped on an explosive left on the ground by the Navy, setting it off.
Zenón recalls that he saw the body of Chuito Legrand lying face down on the ground, shivering and swinging its arms. He approached the body of the boy and flipped it face-up, in order to be able to see his face. When he turned the body around, Chuito's skull opened, dripping blood and, spilling its encephalic matter on the ground. Although Chuito's body was still moving at the time, Zenón knew immediately that his friend would not survive the explosion.
Chuito was a vivacious seventh grader who always played around Vieques with his shirt off, as if he were enjoying his last days in a tropical Eden.
"His skin was really tanned, like copper", recalls Angel "Tato" Guadalupe, another well known Vieques activist, "and his eyes were impressive, because they were green or hazel, and made a nice contrast with his skin color."
The three other boys involved in the explosion suffered serious injuries also. Frank, Miguelín and Campeche were strewn across the field, bleeding profusely. Zenón ran to a dirt road nearby, and signaled a Navy jeep to stop. "I didn't know English, but when the sailors saw my hands covered with blood they knew that it was serious. The Navy men followed me to the place were the boys were lying on the ground. They immediately radioed for help and several rescue helicopters were flown in from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba", recalls Zenón who was one of the oldest boys in the group.
The day after the explosion, life, in the otherwise quiet Island, came to a stand still. The men from Roosevelt Roads confirmed what many, already suspected: Chuito was dead. "I will never forget that day. I was about nine years old. When the news came in, I was on the baseball field playing short stop", recalls Ismael Guadalupe, a fiery Vieques leader who has lead numerous civil disobedience campaigns to stop the bombing of the Island. "I even remember the clothes that I was wearing that day. It was a white shirt that was too big for me. Undoubtedly, the explosion that killed Chuito has played an important role in my development as an activist."
The other three boys caught in the explosion were maimed for the rest of their lives. Miguelín, Chuito's brother, suffered permanent injuries in one of his arms. Several bomb fragments were lodged inside Frank's body, causing pain and discomfort throughout his adult life. Campeche was paralyzed for many months and had difficulty walking many years after the bomb smashed his legs.
Although Chuito's death moved the people in Vieques, his story did not receive much attention from the news media in Puerto Rico. Political repression was widespread in those days and many were going to jail for openly criticizing the United States dominion over Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rico's National Poet, Francisco Matos Paoli was imprisoned in 1951 solely because he uttered "four subversive speeches".
Due to this atmosphere of political persecution, the people of Puerto Rico were not fully aware of the large number of casualties caused by the Navy in Vieques. A careful review of the history of Vieques shows that Chuito's death was not an isolated incident and that many similar tragedies have gone unreported.
In the early 1940's, Anastasio Acosta and his son Domingo were killed when the hoof of the horse that they were riding struck and detonated an explosive. In the 1960s, a stray bullet fired by a sailor during target practice killed Elena Holiday. In addition, hand grenades left over by military men have caused several accidents on the Island. In the early 1970's, a young girl lost several fingers when a group of children, who were playing on the beach, accidentally detonated a rusty hand grenade.
Similar accidents also occurred on the neighboring Puerto Rican Island of Culebra, where the Navy conducted military training until 1975. In 1940 a child died in Culebra from a grenade explosion. In another similar accident, Alberto Peña García, a fifteen-year-old child, died when a grenade exploded in his hands. Issac Espinosa lost an arm, also as a result of a grenade in 1914. In 1940, Vicente Romero lost an arm in a similar incident.
In 1964, Sixto Colón lost his right eye from the explosion of a weapon abandoned by the Navy. Moreover, a bomb that was mistakenly dropped at the observation point in Culebra killed nine Navy officers in April of 1946.
Unexploded ordnance and, stray bombs and bullets were a serious problem in Vieques throughout the 1990s and are still a problem today. After the fatal accident in April of 1999, journalists from all over the world photographed hundreds of unexploded bombs scattered all over the Island ‹evidencing the Navy's continuous disregard for the safety of children like Chuito. Stray bullets have also been a problem in recent years. On one occasion, several stray bullets hit motor vehicles from the Department of Public Works in Vieques. Fortunately, no one was injured in this incident.
Not all the victims of the Navy have died directly from bombs and bullets like Chuito. Many have died by the criminal acts of drunken sailors and authoritarian Navy officers. The people in Vieques still remember when an elderly man named Mapepe Christian was brutally killed by a gang of drunken sailors. They also remember the murder of Urbano Rosario and the fatal shooting of a twelve year old boy named Esteban Correa, who was killed by a Navy officer right in front of the gate to Camp García.
Toxic materials present in the Navy's bombs and weapons have caused the cancer rate in Vieques to skyrocket. Due to the use of toxic substances by the Navy such as napalm, uranium, chromium, mercury, lead and cadmium, the people of Vieques suffer from a cancer rate that is 27 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico. These persons who are dying of cancer in Vieques are, like Chuito and his friends, victims of the Navy's military practices.
Therefore, it is disingenuous for the Navy to claim that there has only been one casualty in the sixty-year history of its bombing range. To date only some casualties, such as the one suffered by Chuito and his friends, have been documented. Many others are currently being investigated with the hope that the findings of such investigations will expose to the world what the people of Puerto Rico already know: the suffering of the people of Vieques and the arrogance and moral turpitude of their military oppressors.
The author is a member of Todo Connecticut con Vieques