War veteran and Costa Rica are not often mentioned in the same breath.
But a wreath-laying ceremony in San José’s Parque de Francia this week on the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I attested to the fact that Ticos came to France’s aid during the “War to End All Wars.”
Officially, Costa Rica remained neutral during the 1914-1918 war to protect trade interests with Great Britain and Germany, top destinations for coffee exports at the time, according to Erika Golcher, history professor at theUniversity ofCosta Rica.
“For Latin America, this wasEurope’s war,” Golcher said.
That didn’t stop several Ticos from enlisting, particularly those already in the theater.
An aspiring aviator, a prized poet, and a celebrity surgeon were among the handful of young Costa Ricans joined the fabled Foreign Legion that fought in the war.
One of them was Tobías Bolaños, a national hero who has an airport named after but whose story few Ticos know. An aviator in WWI, Bolaños was Costa Rica’s first pilot.
“Tobías was a very energetic young man who had read a lot about flying, and decided in 1910 to become a pilot; and so he went to France,” said Gerardo Bolaños, the aviator’s great nephew, who attended the Nov. 11 Armistice Day commemoration in the park, organized by the French Embassy.
With newly earned wings, Tobías Bolaños joined France’s fight when he was 22, flying in northern France and in the Catalan Pyrenees, until injuries, a plane accident, and an amputated right leg, ended his battle time, according to his proud great nephew.
A journalist, Gerardo Bolaños is well versed in the stories of his great uncle and the other Costa Ricans in the war. He wrote portions of the text for an exhibit called “The Great War, 90 years on – Ticos fighting for peace,” unveiled this week at theNationalMuseum. On display are manuscripts, medals of honor, helmets, swords, and Luger and Colt .45 pistols.
José Basileo Acuña, another WWI veteran, left medical studies in London when he was 19 to join the legion in France. “He thought this was very romantic to fight for freedom for France,” Bolaños said. Only 1 meter 60 inches tall, Basileo worked in an ambulance gathering injured soldiers to bring them to health and safety.
Basileo later became known as “the poet who went to war,” Bolaños said, earning Costa Rica’s top literary prize, the Premio Magón.
Bolaños recalled a third Costa Rican who served in the war, Ricardo Moreno Cañas, who was studying medicine in Switzerland at the time.
He perfected his surgical techniques in field hospitals during the war, and when he returned to Costa Rica became a successful surgeon and politician.
Moreno and another doctor were killed in 1938 by a patient who was reportedly dissatisfied with an operation, though Bolaños said there may have been a political motive behind the killing.
To this day, when they feel sick, some Costa Ricans recite a “Moreno Cañas prayer” and put a glass of water beside their bed to drink when they awaken, Bolaños said.
Present at the Armistice Day commemoration were a host of foreign ambassadors, a band, and Costa Rican excombatientes of World War II and the 1948 Costa Rican Civil War.
Asked how he felt 60 years after his country abolished its military, civil war veteran Ismael Quesada replied, “It makes me want to raise the flag.”