Memorial ceremony honors victims in 1979 attack on Navy sailors in Puerto Rico
By GENE ZALESKI | The Times and Democrat | Published: January 3, 2020
ORANGEBURG, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — Orangeburg resident and retired U.S. Navy veteran Cottie Boyd Allen's life changed in the blink of an eye 40 years ago.
It was around 6:33 a.m. Dec. 3, 1979.
She was aboard a bus carrying 17 Navy communications technicians to work on a transmitting tower about a mile away from Sabana Seca Naval Base, where she was stationed.
Gunmen intercepted the bus and opened fire in a terrorist attack against the unarmed sailors.
"We were attacked," Allen recalled. "I was wounded four times."
"One bullet went through my face and landed in my temple area; one landed in my buttocks and in my thighs," Allen said. Shrapnel from the bullets is still within her body.
Allen, a native of New Jersey, lost consciousness and was listed in critical condition after the attack. She was transported to Roosevelt Roads Navy Base, which at that time served as a U.S. Navy base in the town of Ceiba, Puerto Rico.
"From my understanding in losing consciousness, it was touch and go between the governments as to where some of the victims would go, and I was one of them," she said.
There was a medical convention on the island at the time, and a plastic surgeon volunteered to work on Allen's facial wounds.
Allen was sent back to the states in January 1980 to be with her mother and seven siblings.
Allen stayed in the Navy until she retired in 1996.
Allen and others wounded and affected by the terrorist attack were honored at a memorial ceremony in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 16.
"It means a lot," Allen said. "We were not recognized after the incident. We were kind of just pushed to the side."
Each of the service members did eventually receive a Purple Heart for the ordeal but never have been memorialized until now. Allen was one of two women injured in the attack.
"This is our big recognition now," she said.
The granite monument is about 6 feet tall and has the names of those killed and wounded in the attack.
It was Allen’s first visit to Puerto Rico since the attack. She was accompanied on this visit by her daughter, Cheyra Allen; her daughter's fiance, Louis Rivers; and friend Rosemary Green, a Navy veteran.
The monument sits at the FBI field office in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The memorial was made possible by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI.
"The actual ceremony was pretty rough," Allen said. "All of us were pretty emotional that were there."
Allen said some could not make it due to the emotional toll and the cost.
"It was so emotional," she said, tearing up. "It was really hard to deal with it. I think it brought some closure for a lot of us. It was something we all needed."
While many may have forgotten the attack over the years, Allen thinks about it daily.
"Walking and talking was quite a rough time for me years afterward," she said.
But the wounds did not end there.
"I am still going through quite a bit of trauma, both physically and emotionally," she said.
Two sailors were killed and 10 wounded in the incident, according to various news reports.
The bus driver was killed. Chief Petty Officer Warren C. Smith ended up taking over the bus and driving it back to the base.
"Sometimes I remember like it was yesterday," Smith said at the dedication ceremony. "It was something that was a shock to all of us. It was something that was hard to endure."
"Some people said I was a hero, but I don't consider myself as a hero," Smith said. "I did what had to be done at the time."
Allen had been in the U.S. Navy for about three years at the time. She and 16 others were part of a top secret communications team when they headed out early that Dec. 3 morning.
"We were all pretty much third class and second class petty officers," Allen recalled.
The Press in Atlantic City, N.J., reported Allen's bus was blocked by a pickup truck on its route and then gunmen opened fire with shotguns and pistols from a van.
The gunmen sped away from the scene.
The windshield and front side windows of the bus were riddled with about 41 bullet holes. Officials later found the van with several M16 shells within it, according to press reports.
The attack was the bloodiest at that time against the military in the U.S. commonwealth.
Captain of the U.S. Navy Mike Werner, skipper of the Sabana Seca at the time of attack, said the attack is still vivid in his mind.
Fighting back emotions, Werner reflected on the men lost in the attack as well as on those wounded.
"Their grit and courage were exemplary and their actions heroic," Werner said. "Every single one of the sailors on that bus demonstrated great fortitude and stamina as we taxed our medical capabilities to find comfort and relief. Shipmates, may God bless you and keep you."
Three terrorist groups — the Armed Forces of Popular Resistance, the Puerto Rican Popular Army and the Organization of Volunteers for the Puerto Rican Revolution — claimed responsibility for the act. In all, 13 militants orchestrated the attack.
The attack was in response to the deaths of two pro-independence youths killed in a shootout with police a year before and to the death of an anti-Navy activist in a Florida federal prison earlier that same year.
Prison officials say the anti-Navy activist committed suicide but the militants did not accept that story.
President Jimmy Carter at the time called the attack a "despicable act of murder."
One of the planners of the attack was apprehended and another subject was killed on the execution of a warrant after he opened fire on agents.
"We gather to reflect on what was a very dark and tragic day 40 years ago this month," FBI Associate Deputy Director Paul Abbate said. "We are here to honor these heroes and to stand beside and show our everlasting support to their families and their loved ones. It is essential that we never forget these heroes, the victims of terrorism and that we pursue justice relentlessly on their behalf."
Abbate said the department owes the victims and families their efforts to pursue justice, "even if those efforts take years or even decades."
"We will never give up in pursing those responsible for harming others and those who have committed this reprehensible attack," Abbate said. "Agents from the NCIS, PDNY and FBI San Juan continue to execute DNA warrants. There will be no rest until all those responsible for this attack are identified, hunted down and brought to justice."