In September of 1951, El Diario de Nueva York published a picture of Corporal Ángel Gómez, receiving medical treatment at the Walter Reed Military Hospital in Maryland. In the photograph he was learning how to use his new prosthetic limbs. Gómez appeared in the picture wearing a “pava” (Puerto Rico’s traditional peasant hat) with the inscription “Puerto Rico” in big bold letters. He appeared flanked by two women identified as Puerto Rican nurses.
El Cabo Gómez, as the press referred to him, was born in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. He lost his two legs and one arm in Korea due to a direct mortar hit the previous year. The Puerto Rican press highlighted that Corporal Gómez was the first U.S. soldier to lose three limbs in Korea. While this may sound macabre, those wounded in war have a long history of becoming living examples of the sacrifices made for the nation.
In August of 1952, El Diario de Nueva York informed its readers that the corporal learned how to walk again and was training to drive a special car built according to his needs. El Diario also reported that the city of New York, where Gómez would stop briefly before returning to the island, was preparing a big reception for the “Puerto Rican hero” which would include city mayor Vincent Impelliteri, state representatives, and leaders of the Hispanic community.
Throughout the Korean War, the private sector was interested in using the soldiers as part of their promotions and to appear as unyielding supporters of the Puerto Rican soldiers and their efforts in Korea to “save democracy.” Hence, news that he would travel back to Puerto Rico by air on Eastern Airlines, and that his travel expenses had been paid by the Asociación de Productores de Azúcar de Puerto Rico appeared next to non-stop airfare sales between San Juan and New York. Gómez would be neither the first nor the last Puerto Rican veteran from the Korean War to make his way back to the island via New York, and to receive a heroes’ welcome by city officials and its rapidly growing Puerto Rican community. Sometimes they would receive the City’s keys after parading through Harlem and the Bronx.
As I have argued elsewhere and in my forthcoming book on the experience of the Puerto Rican soldiers in the Korean War, the participation of tens of thousands of Puerto Rican soldiers in this conflict was instrumental in the creation and solidification of the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (known in English as the Commonwealth), el. Equally important is what the war effort and having wounded Puerto Rican soldiers (and former prisoners of war) return to the island via New York meant for the growing Puerto Rican communities in this city and across the Eastern seaboard at a time in which newspapers and elected officials spoke openly of “the Puerto Rican problem.” The return of the wounded Puerto Rican soldiers and the POWs via New York helped to establish an unbreakable nexus, and air bridge, between New York and Puerto Rico.
On August 30th, 1952 at 2:18 PM, an Eastern Airlines plane landed at La Guardia Airport in New York. Unbeknownst to him, Gómez’s story had turned him into an icon for island-based Puerto Ricans and the growing Boricua colonias in New York.
The next day, he arrived to San Juan aboard an Eastern Airlines flight. He was received by elected officials who escorted him to the Caribe Hilton. Thousands of Puerto Ricans lined up the streets to greet the Puerto Rican hero. El Diario de Nueva York reprinted from El Mundo, an island-based newspaper:
“Corporal Angel Gómez, who left three of his limbs in the Korean battlefields, is getting ready to return to Puerto Rico. His body suffered grave amputations. But his indomitable spirit carries an imponderable strength: that of character purified by adversity. At twenty-three years of age, missing his legs and one arm, he has not surrendered. Efficiently and gently rebuilt in Walter Reed Memorial Hospital of Washington, Gómez is not a human ruin. He is a symbol of the new man whom, without letting his will falter when his limbs broke, reemerges in life full of hope and decides to be useful again. During his long hours of pain and estrangement, his memories filled with nostalgia and dreams. It felt as if the return home was always delayed. But that day has come when he can say: “It gladdens me much, very much, to return home. There is no place like home.”
The story of El Cabo Gómez, as narrated by state and island-based outlets was full of symbolism; the jíbaro turned war hero and surviving against all odds; the reunification of the family thanks to the efforts of the Puerto Rican diaspora community and of elected officials. He was the living incarnation of the jíbaro turned soldier; a soldier that after returning to the island would be part of a modern Puerto Rico.
El Cabo Gómez was just one of hundreds of Puerto Rican wounded soldiers and former prisoners of war (POWs) who made their way back to Puerto Rico through New York. In the process they helped to establish an air route for the Puerto Rican diaspora. Many more would make the growing Puerto Rican colonias in the eastern seaboard their homes in fact becoming pillars in those communities.
Narratives of the War in New York Hispanic Media
Continue to Raising the Puerto Rican Flag in Korea
Photo caption: Cabo Gomez arrive in New York, El Diario de Nueva York, August 31, 1952