Vote on Puerto Rico's status brings painful memories for lawmaker

Vote on Puerto Rico's status brings painful memories for lawmaker

Last week’s House vote to allow Puerto Rico to decide if it wants to end its 112-year status as an American territory by seeking statehood or declaring independence evoked painful memories for many people, but perhaps none more so than Rep. Paul Kanjorski and Allan Cromley.

That’s because Kanjorski, the 12-term Pennsylvania Democrat, and Cromley, a former Washington newspaper correspondent from Oklahoma, are believed to be among the few people still living who were present 56 years ago when four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House floor and wounded five members of Congress.

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Ironically, in light of the controversial law passed in Arizona last week requiring police to verify the immigration status of anyone they think might be an illegal immigrant, the March 1, 1954 shootings happened as the House was voting on a bill to reauthorize a program allowing migrant Mexican farm laborers to work in the U.S.

The 73-year-old Kanjorski was a 17-year-old House page, one of two future congressmen serving as pages at the time — the other was the late Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), whose widow, Jo Ann Emerson (R), now holds his seat. The 88-year-old Cromley was a rookie reporter for the Oklahoma City Times.

Kanjorski, who helped evacuate the wounded members, said Monday that the violent episode “has stayed in my mind since it happened.” He recalled that he and Emerson, who were roommates, were sitting in the front row on the Democratic side when he got up to answer a phone call “and heard what sounded like firecrackers.”

But Kanjorski immediately realized they weren’t firecrackers, because as a boy he used to fire shots in a stone quarry “and felt the spray of marble, which I felt at this time, and it made me acutely aware that they were gunshots. I hit the floor and after things settled down a bit, Bill and I helped carry three of the five members to an ambulance,” including Rep. Alvin Bentley (R-Mich.), who was shot in the chest and critically wounded.

“At the time, it was something like slow-motion visual pandemonium and you weren’t aware that it was an historic moment, but that it was something very serious. When I got home about two hours later, that’s when it hit me.”

Nevertheless, the experience didn’t affect Kanjorski’s attitude toward gun control. “I’m opposed to gun control,” he said. “I’d call this a political act by a small group of violent people gone awry that never should have happened.”

Kanjorski, who voted against last week’s Puerto Rico resolution, said he’s a “very strong supporter of securing our borders. I don’t feel we have to do all these things together to protect us against illegal aliens. Basically, I think we should make an all-out effort to close our borders and then have something like the 9/11 Commission do an independent review, which we could then act on.”

Like Kanjorski, Cromley heard “what sounded like several firecrackers” while making a call from a phone booth in the House Press Gallery, he recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Falls Church, Va., last week.

“It was about noontime, close to our afternoon deadline — we had both morning and afternoon editions then. I rushed into the chamber and had to push through a bunch of reporters who were running out as I was going in, and I saw House members taking cover on the floor and a dark-complexioned man in the visitors’ gallery holding a pistol while spectators grappled with him.

“I rushed around to the hallway outside the chamber where you would enter the visitors' gallery and saw a policeman wrestling with somebody holding a pistol. He had the person on the floor and I saw it was a woman. I bent down — my wife always laughs when I say this — but I asked her how she spelled her name. She spoke enough English to understand me and told me her name was Lolita Lebron. She spelled it out for me.

“Then I realized I had better get back into the gallery because there were only five or six telephones — no cellphones in those days. I managed to get a phone and called my city desk, but they didn’t believe me because they hadn’t seen anything from any of the wire services. But finally, the wires reported it and they believed me and I dictated a story.”

In his story, which was accompanied by photos of the woman and one of the gunmen being escorted from the chamber by police, as well as Rep. Bentley being carried to an ambulance, Cromley wrote, “Chaos hit the press gallery. Everyone was interviewing everyone else for details. How many were there? Did one get away? How many injured?”

He added last week, “Members were already posting statements about how they’d escaped the shooting on the House floor. There were many more statements than there were members on the floor. I guess they were all getting into the act.”

The other wounded members besides Bentley, who all survived, were Clifford Davis (D-Tenn.), George Fallon (D-Md.), Ben Jensen (R-Iowa) and Kenneth Roberts (D-Ala.). The four Puerto Ricans involved in the shooting were later given minimum sentences of 70 years, after their death sentences were commuted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The 1954 shooting was not the last time that Cromley witnessed an historic act of gun violence. He was in the motorcade following President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. “I’ll never forget the sign when we pulled up at Parkland Hospital and saw Kennedy’s empty limo with the flowers and blood,” he said.

Nor was it the first time Cromley was involved in an event that changed history. In December 1944, he was an Army infantry officer during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, when American troops turned back a last-ditch German offensive that cost the lives of 19,000 U.S. troops and helped turn the tide against Nazi Germany. His father was an Army infantry officer in China at the same time.