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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
To go swimming or on the beach islanders needed approval from the naval observation post. Unapproved swimmers faced a $5000 fine or jail time. Sometimes exercises started with little to no warning or the wrong areas were bombed, endangering fishermen and islanders with near-death experiences. Once the USS Missouri shelled a buffer zone instead of the target area, and the Navy accidentally destroyed a cistern near the town of Dewey. Another bomb landed in Dewey’s harbor. By their own admission, the Navy accidentally shelled within 200 yards of seven children and an accompanying adult visiting what they thought was a safe beach – the red warning flag wasn’t flying and the Navy wasn’t scheduled to bomb.
Notwithstanding, no islander was ever killed by the bombings themselves. Instead Culebrans were maimed from handling the deadly remnants afterward, such as 13-year-old Sixto Colon losing an eye in 1964. But it wasn’t just locals at risk; nine sailors were killed in 1946 when an observation post was accidentally bombed – it was painted similarly to the target.
Culebrans Fought Back
The Navy again floated the idea of deporting native islanders in 1970, but by then Culebrans were fed up with having their island bombed. They began a concerted effort to push the Navy out. The Puerto Rican Senate asked President Nixon to reconsider military use. Island Mayor Ramón Feliciano Encarnación went to D.C. and met with the law firm Covington and Burling. The law firm represented the island Pro bono in federal courts and lobbied in the Senate and Congress. Culebrans trespassed on the beaches in protest. 20 made a human chain on the beach to block naval artillery from being fired. In another instance, three boats picketed offshore and the Navy towed one.
The next year a young Rubén Berríos, now president of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), led a protest in the off-limits Flamenco. Berríos and 12 others were dragged from the beach by military police. They received a three-month stint in federal prison on charges of trespassing on Department of Defense (DoD) property.
Protestors again occupied Flamenco and built a small chapel on the beach. The chapel was destroyed, with Culebrans alleging that the Navy knocked it down, while the Navy pointed blame at strong winds. The chapel was rebuilt, and a contingent of 50 Marines stormed the new symbol of resistance. They were met by rocks and a few Molotov cocktails. Three Marines were burnt, one badly on his hands and arms. Then the Navy used teargas against protestors. What happened next is disputed. Protestors claim teargas was sprayed from helicopters and canines were sicced on them, but the Navy denies this. Solidarity protests happened across Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth government protested to Washington.
In 1971, the Navy signed the Culebra Agreement. Military activities were restricted to ship-to-shore artillery and only on the northwestern peninsula near Flamenco. Aerial bombing was restricted to two uninhabited cays nearby. The agreement also stipulated the Navy would find another training ground by the next year. But by 1972, the Navy backpedaled and reaffirmed its right to use the island, even saying they would remain on Culebra until 1985 – if not indefinitely. Protests ramped up in Washington D.C. and a replica of the famous chapel was built by the Pentagon. Ultimately the diverse movement of legal action and protests was successful, and Nixon ordered the Navy to leave Culebra. They were gone by December, 1975, fully relocating to Vieques.
Vieques was bombed until 1999, when the Navy accidentally killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez by dropping a bomb near his observation post. The military was fully withdrawn by 2003.
The two destroyed Shermans were too much work for the Navy to remove, so they were abandoned on Flamenco. But the bombs remained too. Locals and tourists have been hospitalized from injuries caused by leftover explosives long after the military’s withdrawal.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams started clearing Culebra in the 1990s and Vieques in the 2000s, a combined effort of the Navy, Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Corps leads bomb disposal on Culebra with the Puerto Rican government overseeing cleanup. 572 acres near Flamenco are cordoned off because of the deadly debris. 15 Former Used Defense Sites (FUDS) were designated on Culebra and the adjacent cays, with 14 needing to be cleaned. Aside from Flamenco, the tourist areas of Playa Tamarindo, Playa Carlos Rosario, and Carlos Rosario trail are afflicted and need to be cleared of ordnance.
A young girl was hospitalized after being burned by white phosphorus as recently as 2013. Police said she was about seven years old, and she found a shell casing that held white phosphorus near the tank onshore. The munition activated when she dropped it while waiting for the ferry off-island. She was taken to a hospital on the Puerto Rican mainland; there wasn’t a hospital on Culebra at the time. Six other explosives were found near the tank after reexamination. A snorkeler found a 100-pound munition the next year, and after alerting police, a Navy EOD team detonated the bomb – blasting water and sand into the air.
Considerable work is needed to demine the waters around Culebra. Magnetometers, devices that detect large magnetic objects at greater depths than metal detectors, are trawled over the seafloor to detect munitions. Divers also locate suspicious objects with underwater metal detectors. After mapping, ordnance teams examine the metals further to determine if they’re explosive. Work is cautious for the safety of both EOD technicians and Culebra’s coral reefs.
Culebra’s mountainous terrain adds to the difficulty of minesweeping. Remote control excavators struggle to operate on the overgrown, steep land. Advanced Geophysical Classification machines also detect buried munitions, and also struggle with the island’s topography.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria hurt clean up; previously cleared sites had bits of ordnance blown in from other sites. Infrastructure damage, an issue that’s plagued all of Puerto Rico, pushed DoD contractors to leave Culebra as well.
Locals have good reason to be skeptical of the DoD, so channels for community input are in place. To minimize risk to the public, the Corps of Engineers runs an educational program on explosives safety summed up as the “Three Rs” – Recognize, Retreat, and Report. Educational materials and posters are distributed across Culebra.
31 munitions were removed from the northwest peninsula in 2020, including on playas Carlos Rosario, Flamenco, and Tamarindo. Since January of that year, over 5000 pieces of unexploded ordnance have been retrieved or destroyed across the island. Over 150,000 pounds of related munitions debris were also recovered. Most items were empty fragments and shrapnel, but multiple 81mm mortars, 60mm mortars, general-purpose bombs and a Zuni Rocket were found at Flamenco and other tourist areas – along with dozens of other bombs found across the island.
Within the last year, the Army Corps of Engineers detonated a bomb on nearby Cayo Lobito and recovered another just south of Flamenco. 161 other metallic objects were examined, but none were explosive. Part of an illumination round was found in Flamenco Bay summer of 2022, and soon after I was swimming there.
The DoD expects cleanup to continue into at least 2032. Per the Government Accountability Office (GOA), the total cost of the cleanup, including previous ordnance disposal, will have a final price tag of $800 million. Until then, much of Reserva Natural’s coastline will remain off-limits to visitors.
The next Army Corps of Engineers report on ordnance recovered from Culebra is expected September 2022.