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The Caribbean Frontier During World War II  

Jose L. Bolívar Fresneda

Though World War II is part of the Caribbean’s popular imaginary and cultural production, World War II scholars have relegated the region to a footnote. It should not be so. From January 1942 to July 1943, 20 percent of all the allied shipping was sunk as a result of the one-sided naval battles that occurred there. German submarine warfare was sinking one oil tanker or merchant ship per day in Caribbean waters in the worst months of 1942. Nazi Germany’s aggressiveness in the Caribbean was strategic. In 1942 Aruba, Curaçao, and the Venezuelan oil fields and refineries provided roughly 95 percent of the oil required to sustain the East Coast of the United States—59 million gallons a day. The supply of bauxite from British Guiana and Surinam was crucial for the war effort. Moreover, control of the Caribbean meant control of the Panama Canal, which since 1914 had allowed the US Navy to control the eastern Pacific and the western Atlantic. The US Merchant Marine suffered heavy losses of ships and men, while the Allies struggled to contain the damage done to the supply of oil from Venezuela and airplane fuel from Curaçao to the United States. The United States invested billions in military installments on the British and American islands and transformed Puerto Rico into “the Gibraltar of the Caribbean.” Despite these investments Puerto Rico experienced food shortages because of German U-boat warfare in 1942, while Martinique suffered near famine in the aftermath of a British and American blockade induced by the Vichy government’s control of the Caribbean island.