José A. Rivera

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Interviewed by
Doralis Perez Soto
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By Melissa Ayala

A devastating bomb on the other side of the Pacific Ocean and, the war was over for Jose Rivera and the rest of the world.

When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, destroying that Japanese city, Rivera was stationed in the Galapagos Islands as a driver with U.S. Special Services. It was near the end of his two years of service during World War II.

The youngest of three sons, Rivera was born in Lares, Puerto Rico, in the mountainous western interior of the Caribbean island, on March 1, 1920.

Games with paper airplanes and trips to the river for fishing were typical of life with his two brothers and sister.

Rivera's family lost its patriarch to murder when Rivera was eight years old. As a result, he recalled having had to leave school to find work to help support his family.

Scorching heat and humidity blanketed the rice fields of Las Minas, in Lares, which would become his workplace for the next seven years.

"I was paid six cents weekly," he said. "I would cut the rice stalk and the person behind would pick up the stalks and tie them up."

After finding additional work in the coffee industry, Rivera decided to look for other opportunities along the pier in a nearby town. There, a friend got him a job delivering food to people in camps along the waterfront.

This stint would turn out to be short-lived, as Rivera was soon found by members of the military police and sent to Fort Buchanan, near San Juan, the island's capital, to fulfill a previous written promise of military service. He was 24 years old at the time.

"Two weeks later, they sent me to Gurabo and one month later, they split the group in half and sent me to Ponce," he said, referring to a town south of the San Juan metropolitan area. "Fifteen days later, they sent us to Panama."

Panama would be his home for a year and a half. Rivera's family received a weekly $20 remittance back home.

"My friends were all Puerto Rican, but there were also Americans and Panamanian soldiers. We all got along well," Rivera said.

"From Panama I went to the Galapagos, because the Japanese had attacked near the islands. So we went and stayed for six months, to make sure they would not station there."

With a bed of sand, a tent shared with six other soldiers and a single canteen of water for 24 hours, the islands proved to be "very different," especially with iguanas, which he recalled being "the size of dogs," sunbathing everywhere.

After the war, Rivera said half of his regiment was sent home; then he laughed, noting he was sent back to Panama and, "luckily," chosen to stay with American troops.

"I had to stay three months, but it was wonderful," he said. "I got to work with an American commander, who took me into his regimen and told the other soldiers, 'whoever messes with him messes with me.' I never had a problem with anyone."

He said this "wonderful" experience was made up of an abundance of sandwiches and apples, an experience unlike his previous service in Panama.

After the war, Rivera was discharged in 1946 in Fort Buchanan, in the San Juan area. That is where he met and --15 days later-- got married to his wife of almost six decades by the time of the interview.

Rivera also had the opportunity to resume his education. After finishing his service, the GI Bill allowed him to study mechanics.

After attending classes for one year, the Riveras headed west and settled in the town of Angeles, in the municipality of Utuado, east of his birthplace, where they formed a family and lived for four decades, before moving to Arecibo, on the island's northern coast.

"I didn't have any children; my wife did," Rivera joked. "She had four girls and one boy. All are married now and none entered the forces."

"One of my children lives in New Jersey and another here, another is a pediatrician," Rivera said, adding with a smile,

"After the war, I got a plaque for my service. I gave it to my granddaughter."

Mr. Rivera was interviewed by Doralis Perez Soto in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on March 28, 2003.