In December 1941, the 40th Bomb Group, United States Army Air Corps, was stationed at Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, where it flew 12 B-18 bombers. Its mission was to fly antisubmarine patrol over the Atlantic sea-lanes leading to the Panama Canal Zone, and to carry out aerial reconnaissance over the French naval vessels anchored at Martinique. There were persistent rumors that the Germans planned to invade Puerto Rico and establish a submarine base on the island.
On the northwest corner of Borinquen Field, a Puerto Rican National Guard crew manned a water-cooled, .50 caliber antiaircraft gun. The emplacement was located on the edge of a large cane field. In December, the cane was fully matured, and since the leaves were dry, any movement in the cane created a noise that was audible for a considerable distance.
A small pasture on the other side of the cane field was enclosed by a wire fence. The pasture was home for one ancient saddle horse belonging to our equally ancient Base Commander, one Colonel Ignico. Some people said the two served together in World War I. We often saw the Colonel riding his ancient friend around the field at a very slow pace. They seemed to be perfectly suited for each other.
The wartime blackout at Borinquen Field caused some men's nerves to become frayed. It was especially hard on mechanics who had to accomplish maintenance work at night under blackout restrictions while guarding their planes. One night, someone approached a plane without the proper password, and during the following confrontation, the guard accidentally fired his gun. Others nearby returned the fire. This triggered a prolonged period of mass hysteria in which hundreds of rounds were fired by those who happened to have a gun.
To its credit, the ack-ack crew near the cane field held their fire and listened to the fusillade taking place on the airfield. The sight of tracers arcing near them did not sooth their anxiety. While they waited with their weapon ready to fire, their gunnery chief arrived with a disturbing message. He informed his men that German troops being put ashore from submarines would soon attack the field. The nerves of the crew became more unsettled. They crouched by their gun and waited.
While gunfire raged across the airfield, the Colonel's horse became frightened, broke through the fence, and headed full tilt for the gun emplacement. His thrashing in the cane was audible to the nervous gunners. When the noise from the cane field became unbearable to the gunnery chief, he yelled, "ALTO! ALTO!" The horse came nearer and nearer. After screaming, "ALTO! ALTO!" a second time, he yelled the order, "FIRE!" A continuous blast erupted from the heavy machine gun. The thunderous firing continued until the ammunition can was empty. When the firing stopped, the crew heard nothing from the cane field. They quickly reloaded the overheated gun, and waited nervously at their position until dawn. When they had mustered enough courage to venture into the cane field, they found the ancient horse stone dead from a dozen or more .50 caliber bullet wounds. The horse was the first Borinquen Field casualty of World War II. The poor beast did not understand that the Spanish command ALTO meant HALT in English, and probably did not understand what HALT meant in English either.
From all this, the reader should readily understand why 40th Bomb Group veterans are not particularly proud of having been participants in THE BATTLE OF BORINQUEN FIELD.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *