MI history column showcases first Cuban-born American officer in WAC
Monday Aug. 26 was Women’s Equality Day, a day when the nation commemorates the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. In addition, during the month of Sept. 15 – Oct. 15, the nation celebrates Hispanic Heritage month, taking time to recognize the contributions made by Hispanics and Latino-Americans. For these reasons, “This Week in MI History” highlights the life and career of Lt. Col. Mercedes Cubria, the first Cuban-born American officer in the Women’s Army Corps.
Mercedes Olympia Cubria was born in 1903 in Guantanamo, Cuba. She lost her mother when she was 3 and moved to the United States with her two sisters when she was 13. Cubria became a registered nurse in 1924 and took the oath as a naturalized U.S. citizen the same year.
Between 1924 and 1943, Cubria worked as a nurse, an interpreter and a rancher, returning to school in 1940 to take business courses in Philadelphia.
In February 1943, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which became the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, in July 1943. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, she served in England as a codes and ciphers and security officer in the Signal Corps for the duration of World War II. In addition to being responsible for the supervision and administration of some 60 enlisted men and women working in the code room, Cubria also set up code rooms, determined coding equipment and personnel required, and ensured compromised material was withdrawn and recoded.
Upon her promotion to captain, Cubria was selected for a 12-week course at the Counter Intelligence Corps Center at Fort Holabird, Md. After serving in the Intelligence Section in the U.S. Army Caribbean, Cubria attended the Strategic Intelligence School at Fort Holabird and became an instructor at the school.
During the Korean War, Maj. Cubria served as an analyst in the Intelligence Division at the Far East Command in Japan. She was awarded the Bronze Star medal for meritorious achievement in ground operations against the enemy. Cubria was released from the Army in 1953, due to illness, after 10 years of distinguished service. She eventually settled in Miami.
Cubria was recalled to active duty in 1962 at the age of 58. Cuba had undergone a Communist revolution in 1958, and thousands of Cubans had fled to the United States. Cubria spent the next 11 years interviewing thousands of Cuban refugees and preparing daily reports for military intelligence while helping many of these same refugees obtain jobs, housing, schooling and social services. During this time, Cubria worked with both Army intelligence organizations and the CIA. She received the Legion of Merit for her work during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In 1972 Cubria attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, after which her health began to decline, forcing her to retire from active duty. On her retirement date, July 1, 1973, she was 70 years old. Her health declined over the next seven years until she died in 1980.
Cubria’s life is an inspiration to the millions of immigrants who have come to America in pursuit of a better life. She is part of a rich tradition of Hispanic Americans who have contributed significantly to her country. Her distinguished military career, that spanned three decades and included service in World War II, Korea and the Cold War, is an inspiration to all women – especially service women – and to all military intelligence, or MI, professionals. Cubria was posthumously inducted into the MI Hall of Fame in 1988.