Migrants Who Never Arrived: The Crash of Westair Transport's N1248N in 1950

By Camacho, Luis Asencio | Centro Journal, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Migrants Who Never Arrived: The Crash of Westair Transport's N1248N in 1950


Camacho, Luis Asencio, Centro Journal


abstract

The morning of June 6, 1950, found Puerto Rico waking up to radio newsflashes and newspaper headlines relating the crash of a plane carrying sixty-two Puerto Rican farmhands (the majority from Mayagüez) some 275 miles east of Florida. The aircraft, a converted C-46 belonging to the "nonscheduled" airline Westair Transport, was en route from San Juan to Wilmington, North Carolina. The passengers were contract workers hired to harvest beets in the state of Michigan. Twenty-eight passengers lost their lives during the ditching of N1248N, many by drowning or to savage shark attacks before a dramatic rescue involving the United States Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. This essay narrates the story of this fateful voyage. [Key Words: contract labor, migration, agricultural workers, Puerto Rico, airplane crash, Michigan]

In 1950, 5,300 Puerto Ricans were contracted to Michigan despite a plane crash in June that killed 29 of the 65 passengers en route to Michigan.

- Whalen (2001)

An airplane carrying 62 workers to Michigan crashed on June 5, 1950, a few days after the airliftbegan, killing 27 of the men.

- Findlay (2006)

"this is it," were juan vélez martí's words as he closed his eyes and gripped the edge of the wooden bench he sat on, bracing for the worst. The air stank of burned oil and fear; but he knew that if he opened his eyes, he would only see panic and chaos. A curse here, a prayer there, and men calling on their loved ones made him wonder for a moment whether he should thank the fact that the pandemonium helped drown out the roar of the engine and the racket of the trembling aircraftin rapid, uncontrolled descent. "My two children": those were his last thoughts as the plane hit the water at full speed.

The ditching of Westair Transport's N1248N on June 5, 1950, stands out as a tragic event that has gone relatively unnoticed by subsequent generations. If anything, the event has been reduced to a footnote, usually sandwiched between facts about the labor/migratory/economic history of Puerto Rico.

Overview of Labor Contracts and Migration to the United States

Among the historical accounts of labor contracting of Puerto Ricans for destinations in the United States-usually attached to studies of Puerto Rican migration and the origins of Puerto Rican communities on the mainland-there has been a tendency to overlook the aspect of transportation of the migrants. While the development of the itinerant worker programs is well documented in the works of Edwin Maldonado (1979), Dennis Valdés (1991, 1992), Jorge Duany, Carmen T. Whalen (2001, 2005), and Eileen Findlay (2006), to mention but a few, a quick review is helpful for the context of this essay.

Migration has been an important feature of Puerto Rico's demographic history, dating back to the days under Spanish rule, when only the wealthy could afford the luxury of travel. The change of sovereignty opened up opportunities for those seeking work away from home, first to the sugarcane fields of Hawaii (1899) and later in the cotton fields of Arizona (1926).1 By 1930, the number of Puerto Ricans buscando ambiente (looking for opportunity) in the U.S. exceeded 53,000.

The great migration, however, would take place only after the end of World War II, when planners and statesmen began to redefine the political and economic relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Interventions by the U.S. created the conditions for mass departures during times of overpopulation and unemployment on the island.2 The enactment of Law 89 in May 1947 finally provided regulations regarding the hiring of Puerto Ricans for work, mostly seasonal, outside the island under government-supported programs (both federal and insular).3

So satisfactory was the work program in the north-central states that, in 1949, for instance, New York farmers requested and expected some 2,800 laborers, twice the number available in 1948. Yet it is interesting to note that in the beginning, in spite of factors present on the island that encouraged migration, from any given cohort of Puerto Rican workers hired from the island, only 4 percent opted to stay in the U. …

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