On Island of Culebra, US Navy Bombings Leave Scars

On Island of Culebra, US Navy Bombings Leave Scars

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The island Culebra is a jaunt from the Puerto Rican mainland. The ferry from Ceiba to the island is about an hour, depending on weather. About two miles northeast of Culebra’s port sits Playa Flamenco – one of the world’s best beaches and my ultimate destination on the island.

Playa Flamenco on Culebra Island. An M4 Sherman tank is visible offshore near the horizon. Photo by Collin Mayfield.

Tourists, mostly American, crowd the sand and lounge in the clear, cool sea. Our ferry landed at dawn so we beat the onslaught of visitors. Flamenco is a site envied by influencers around the world, some of whom pose atop the beaches unique landmarks – two ruined Sherman tanks. One tank is on shore, rusting into the sea, while the other, in far better condition, sits further back along the fenced-off treeline. Local islanders regularly coat the Shermans with vibrant paint, but few tourists seem to wonder why two tanks are abandoned on Flamenco.

An M4 Sherman tank on Playa Flamenco. Photo by Collin Mayfield.

The hills behind la playa are not uglied by development –  the land remains heavily forested and complement the pristine Caribbean water. But this land isn’t left untouched out of an altruistic love of beauty; other parts of the island are being developed – often to the detriment of the island’s reefs. Instead it’s too dangerous to build here. A construction crew or a wandering tourist might get blown up or burned.

Parcels of woodland near Flamenco are cordoned off behind chain link fences, with dirty old, yellow signs reading “PELIGRO/ DANGER” and “PRESENCIA DE EXPLOSIVOS SIN DETONAR/ EXPLOSIVES – UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE.”

A sign warning of unexploded ordnance on Culebra. Photo by Collin Mayfield.

Ordnance occupies the relatively-young Reserva Natural de Culebra on the island’s northwest peninsula – where many bombs were dropped. It’s perhaps better to have an off-limits reserve than develop on land filled with unexploded bombs. 


Foreign Occupations

In 1880, Spanish King Alfonso XII, eager to protect his dying empire from being encroached by other nations, divvied the uninhabited Culebra to settlers. They received inland plots of farmland while the crown kept the coastline, including Flamenco. The Spanish American War in 1898 put royal properties into the hands of the US Navy.

A Marine Corps base was built on the island soon after the American annexation, to the ire of Culebrans. Issac Espinosa lost his left arm and an eye after finding a munition on the beach in 1914. 15-year-old Alberto Peña Garcia was killed playing with a careless Marine’s lost grenade in 1935. Vincento Romero lost an arm later that year. 

Marine Corps exercises moved to Vieques island but the Navy remained on Culebra. President Roosevelt claimed exclusive airspace around the island in 1941, and this remained long after World War II. The island was hammered by naval artillery and aerial bombardments, which increased with the development of jet strafing. Eminent domain put a third of the island and all of the once-public coastline under naval control by the 1950s, with many Culebrans forced from their homes. The Navy considered taking the entire island and evicting citizens to nearby Vieques, itself also a bombing target, but the proposal was shelved after protest from the Puerto Rican government. 

In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Culebra was bombed multiple times a day for 229 days. The island was pock-marked with craters and unexploded munitions. Houses shook and windows broke. Pastures where cattle grazed were burnt by napalm, while especially unlucky steers were killed. Terrified stampedes tore down fences, which the Navy refused to compensate for. Lobster traps and fishing nets were destroyed, while fish were killed by shelling and torpedoes. Dead fish washed ashore. <