The Unofficial View of How and Why of the Puerto Rico Camps

The ‘back story’ the Puerto Rico camp(s) comes mostly from Coates Redmon’s 1984 book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. Her author’s note at the opening of her history begins with a line that sums up Redmon’s personality and lifestyle as I knew it back in the early ’60s: “I decided to write this book over poached salmon and a glass of white win at the Jean-Pierre restaurant on K Street in Washington, D.C., April 1975.”

Coates was feature editor of Glamour magazine in the late 1950s. (In full disclosure, my wife, a Non-Peace Corps Volunteer (NPCV), was the Executive Editor of Glamour for over a decade, in years after Coates tenure.)

At the Peace Corps, Coates lists herself a ‘senior writer’ but my recollection was that she was attached to Charlie Peters Evaluation Division and in the early Sixties, as I recall, she spent a lot of time riding up and down in the building’s elevators and hang out in other people’s offices.

Later she was the Fellowship Chairman of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, a writer/producer at the Children’s Television Workshop, speech writer to Rosalynn Carter, and director of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards.

Besides that, she was a piece of work and someone I always liked.

Her book, Come As You Are, is a good read and should be read by anyone who is interested, even casually, in the early days of the agency. Coates takes a humorous look at the Mad Men and Women who established the Peace Corps, and in doing she fills in some holes of the early history, including how the Puerto Rico camps came to be.

The site at Arecibo was originally called the Puerto Rican Field Training Center. It was set up by British Frederick Fuller, of Outward Bound, who stayed six months in Puerto Rico to get that job done. Rafael Sancho-Bonet, in the Governors’ office, “begged, borrowed, and stole” as Coates puts it, everything that was needed in ways of equipment. Later, Sancho-Bonet became the CD in Chili.

Shriver hired what Redmon called, “the magnetic young Yale chaplain,” William Sloane Coffin, as camp director. Some RPCVs who trained there said Coffin spent most of his time hustling the women Trainees at the camp.

Frank Mankiewicz, the first CD in Peru, disliked the macho and risk aspects, and balked at the more draconian exercises of the camp.

Mankiewicz would tell Redmon about his experiences at Arecibo:

“It was bad form to criticize the place but I have to say that I didn’t like it at all. It was ultra-tough guy, let’s-see-if-you-can-take-it. I wanted people who cared about the social structure and language of Peru; I didn’t give a damn whether they could rappel down a wall or not. But they were doing it, males and females of all ages, and it was expected that visiting Peace Corps staff would do it, too. Well, I wasn’t going to do it. And I didn’t. I jogged, and I went over the goddamn obstacle course, but I wouldn’t go into that goddamn grubby pool where you were required to float with your hands and legs tied. I think it was called “drownproofing.” I mean, I was not going to risk my life. To hell with it.  

“The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was running the place, and he was a terrific guy, but there were plenty of rigid jocks down there, too. I got one of them fired-this Georgia redneck swimming coach-because he insulted some of the black trainees by tell them, “You colored boys will have trouble doing it because colored boys don’t float good.” Jesus.  I told Sarge about that, and shortly thereafter the guy was gone.

“But as it turned out, the kids came out of that experience pretty well trained in the language and anthropology. Most of them had liked the super-summer-camp aspects of it and they were all fired up and ready to go.”

According to Redmon’s book, and quoting Charlie Peters, it was Bill Haddad who came up with the idea for a training post at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Not Shriver.

Haddad, before his time at the Peace Corps was a prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Post, in 1956 he had been Senator Estes Kefauver’s floor manager at the Democratic National Convention, and had had other political backroom positions inside the Democratic party. And Haddad hated the State Department. Redmon quotes Bill in her book:

“The State Department actually told us not to send Catholics to Latin America, blacks to Africa, Jews to North Africa. Those people managed to combine so many lousy things in that one directive: coyness, obsessive caution, ignorance, and bigotry. That we weren’t going to operate that way was a policy decision that Sarge made early.”

Haddad would bring to the Peace Corps some of the best of the early men of the agency: Evaluator David Gelman, a fabulous writer who he worked with at the New York Post; he also recruited Ben Schiff from what was called the “Poet’s Corner” at the Post.: Haddad, Gelman and Schiff.

Haddad told Sarge about the British Voluntary Service Overseas program (VSO), relating an article that he had read. These volunteers had been trained at Outward Bound Schools, with training developed during World War II by British psychologists trying to figure out why some people survived life-threatening situations and other didn’t. “A majority of the Peace Corps staff had seen combat in World War II and we’d survived, and I think that’s what bound us together. That connection clicked with Sarge. He said, ‘Fabulous! Find out more!” And Haddad did.

The schools stressed a devotion to an ideal of community and service. They exposed their students to unexpected challenges. The training was meant to generate self-confidence and erase unreasonable fears of the unknown.

Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) was a private venture financed by a small grant from Parliament as well as by private contributions. It began sending young British men and women, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, overseas in 1958. Bu 1960, there were only eight-five workers overseas. 

British psychologists, Haddad also discovered, had devised tests to spot survival qualities during WWII. Haddad was overjoyed. This was the full package to get young Americans for the Third World! Training plus tests!

Haddad got Summers and Fuller from the VSO to come to Washington to meet Sarge and help him set up the first camp. He selected Puerto Rico as the site because he knew the governor, Munoz Marin. Also Puerto Rico had the tropical climate, plus the cultural and linguistic similarities to Latin American countries where Volunteers would be going.

Quickly two camps were established, and while the first one was initially nicknamed ‘Camp Haddad,’ the names changed when tragically struck the Peace Corps. Two new PCVs, David Crozier and Lawrence Radley, were killed in a 1962 plane crash.

A jack-of-all trades staff member at the first camp, Victor Crichton, who was born in Grenada, graduated from Columbia University, was a construction crew chief on Okinawa just after WWII, was an assistant to Haddad, and he conceived of the idea of renaming the campus after the first two PCVs to die overseas. Haddad rushed the idea down the hall to Shriver who rushed it into reality.

Camp Radley and Camp Crozier were part of the early days of the agency, as were camps in Hawaii, St. Croix and St. Thomas. The majority of Volunteers going to Africa had eight to ten weeks at a college or university in the United States, then one to two weeks in-country.

For most PCVs who trained in those early years, it wasn’t whether you were at a college or a university, or in one of the camps, training was bad. It was only after the PCVS got overseas, that they told tales of how bad training was. Charles Peters and the other Evaluators consistently complained that PCVs were not being given the realistic preparation necessary for going overseas. As Robert Textor, an early consultant wrote, “The quality of training ranged from very good to very bad.”

As one PCV in Sierra Leone told Evaluator David Gelmen in 1962, “They just don’t tell it to you the right way in training. It’s not romantic. It’s hot, sweaty and tedious. It’s not the challenge of the mud hut and all that-that would be too easy. It’s the challenge of the principal changing schedules on you every day and sending two teachers to the same class. It’s the unruliness of the students, the indifference of the other teachers…That’s what they ought to tell you in training.”

In other words: What this PCV found in Africa was a lot like what teaching was in America! Say, didn’t we know how to train teachers for our classrooms?

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  • I am so dumb that when I first heard of Redmon’s book, I thought “Come as you are – The Peace Corps Story” referred to actual Peace Corps Volunteers. Of course not. It was all about the “wild and crazy” guys and gals who manned the Fun House on the Potomac.
    i think her story contributed to the romantic myth about Peace Corps, to the detriment of real Volunteers in the real world dealing with real people, who could not begin to compete with the myth.

    The lightening quick way in which Shriver and his staff could get so much done so fast; the contact with heads of government, the ability to leverage resources because of the White House support; flying around the world; all of this was in such contrast to the actual work “in the field.”

    Redmon also got the author of the “In, Up, and Out” memo wrong.
    She left out or did not know that the originator was Dr. Robert Textor.
    He explains, in detail, how that all happened on his website.

    Patricia,
    Redmon does describe in good detail the CD Volunteers working in Peru, in Arequipa as well as Lima.

  • I remember well the evening on Macomb street WDC in 1993 when you,john .
    Coyne, brought Coates Redmond to my home for dinner

    Having been a 66-68 Ethiopia Volunteer it was a memorable evening where I was able to hear from an eye witness to the early days. I had heard rumors about Puerto Rico training and was relieved that my training was in Salt Lake and then to ShipRock New Mexico.. The character and personality of all the original team was bigger than life and as you made sure I met all of them through the years they were indeed bigger than life and their passion for Peace Corps stayed with them and they continued to serve until their last breath.
    As I dropped Coates off at her apt on Wisconsin Ave that evening I knew her spirit would stay with me.
    Thanks for sharing John…you now are the keeper of the heart of Peace Corps and know all of our stories.

  • Fascinating. Before I went to Ghana as a PCV, I had been assigned to a Panama co-ops program, simply because its training began when I was available, in February, 1969, and it was PC policy to keep guys like me out of the clutches of the draft. (Francophone Africa training classes, for which I was much more qualified, didn’t–and still don’t–start until June.)

    And so I was sent to Camp Radley to train for Panama. By 1969, the harsher, Outward Bound-inspired aspects of training had been eliminated, but we trainees heard all the horror stories from veterans of the early 60s. What we experienced was downright pleasant, an upscale camping-out experience (we were housed in the comfortable casetas built by previous generations)–the only real reminder of the old days were the open-pit latrines we had to share. One aspect of training that remained from the bad old days was the resident shrink,with whom you had to meet at least twice during the 3-month program, and, with that, the general feeling that you were being “observed” by all staff–you’d see certain staff members sitting in the back of the room during some training session, just watching, without saying a word. It was disconcerting, but I made the decision to be the best, most positive trainee imaginable. It must have worked, because when I left the program–much as I was enjoying training I couldn’t picture myself plopped into an open-ended “community development” program in the Panamanian campo–I shocked everybody.

    By sheer luck I ended up in my Ghana program, which had the first-ever in-country training program in the Peace Corps world. And that Panama program? Peace Corps left the country in 1970, mid-tour for my training class. One of the friends I’d made there ended up with me in Ghana!

      • Actually we left Panama as a country rebuke to the us for what they considered illegal activities by the DEA in Panama. I remember the group. I was there for the pre-invitational staging in Boston.

  • My husband and I trained for three weeks In camp Radley in 1963. We don’t remember meeting with shrinks but four volunteers were deselected out of 26. Guess we were closely observed. We then trained in New Mexico plus two weeks in Mexico. Our assignment was El Salvador. Frankly captain Marble & his 6 a m training, drown proofing, repelling a dam & living off the land for 3 days were not good preparations for our peace corps assignment. Camp Radley was more of a victorious experience. Maybe peace corps saw our willingness to try new challenging obstacles an indication of our flexibility for peace corps success.

  • My training group, Colombia 11, trained in New Mexico and we had the Outbound training, including “drown-proofing.”
    When the CBS 60 Minutes news show featured the training for Navy Seals, and showed “drown-proofing”, my email lines went crazy. My group was all female and those of us who remained emailed that if we had been “selected out”, we could have joined the Navy!

    Which brings me to another grossly inaccurate historical “false fact” that may still be being perpetrated throughout colleges, today.
    The book is: Mission Mystique: Belief Systems in Public Agencies (Public Affairs and Policy Administration)Oct 19, 2010
    by Charles T Goodsell. In the First edition, Goodsell states that only male Peace Corps Trainees were sent to Puerto Rico for physical training. I emailed him and respectfully explained that women trainees went to Puerto Rico, also. He explained that he had been in Puerto Rico on a teaching assignment and had seen two male trainees throwing a football. I was able to direct him to the JFK RPCV Oral History Collection. The description of each interview was posted on the website and he could see that women who went to Puerto Rico, Camp Radley, had documented that experience in the interview description. He finally said that he would consider amending that section in his book on Peace Corps if there were a 2nd Edition. I had no way to pursue any further. Is it important to know contrary to prevailing cultural norms in the early 60s, Peace Corps endeavored to treat women equally with men. The best PCV Leader in Colombia was a woman PCV from Colombia V111, (63-65). Our history is important.

  • Our Guatemala 7 group trained entirely at Crozier in 1966. By then the Outward Bound physical stresses had disappeared, but may have been replaced by psychological ones in that many of us were frankly more interested in not going to Vietnam than we were interested in Peace Corps service and were spooked by the psychologists looking for such issues or other reasons to deselect us. The language training was particularly effective, involving several trips to communities where we were required to find families who’d put us up for a few days and otherwise cope with and/or otherwise entertain us. Other than the shrinks, who unsurprisingly knew nothing about how’d succeed overseas, the staff was good, particularly the RPCVs who had credible counsel on what life was like out there.

  • It’s good to read something positive about the training at Camps Radley and Crozier in 1966. I happened to be working there at that time as one of the Returned PCVs hired by Richard Hopkins, the director of the camps in 1965, to create a very different kind of program. And we did!
    We all came from different countries of service, mostly in Latin America, and we put our hearts into this experimental, experiential program, hoping it would do what Jim Jaffe says — help trainees understand “what life was like out there.” We wanted to prepare them to sustain themselves, contribute, and thrive.
    It was a heady time. We LOVED that work and the intense involvement with the trainees. Some of the big guys were concerned about whether or not they were getting enough content. But we, based on our own training and work experiences, knew that the process, resilience, and ability to constantly learn and adapt, was far more important to being successful volunteers. Life-long learners know how to find the facts, the expertise, and the content when needed. And, yes, the psychological “oversight” and “deselection” process was unnerving and often counterproductive.
    Unfortunately, in my opinion, the “unstructured” training developed at the camps in 65 and 66 never reached its potential, as it was put aside for more conventional approaches, and a great opportunity was missed. But training has transformed in many ways over the years, hopefully overall for the better; and at least in-country training is truly on-the-ground experiential — it’s real!
    I wonder, if we were to ask all returned volunteers to rate their training with a common rating system, what the result would be.

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