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Bizarre History of Cape May > Cape May congressman witnesses attack on the House firsthand

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 When the congressman from Cape May walked into the chamber of the House of Representatives on the afternoon of Monday, March 1, 1954, he expected a lively exchange to follow among his colleagues on the subject of immigration rights for Mexicans.

What he got instead was a lively fusillade of bullets from Puerto Ricans on the subject of independence.

Until then Thomas Millet Hand had served as a congressman during two wars and under the three presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. That covered a period starting on January 3, 1945, some eight months before the biggest war in the history of mankind was to come to an end.

He thought he had seen it all until that fateful day in March when while talking to another congressman, Benjamin F. Jensen of Iowa, he heard what he first thought were the sounds of exploding fireworks on the House floor. He soon realized that it was the sound of gunshots when he heard Jensen gasp in pain as a bullet entered his shoulder. He saw another congressman, Alvin M. Bentley of Michigan, fall to the floor eight feet from where he stood.

The four shooters were terrorists, members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which was seeking full independence for Puerto Rico. The island had been under United States control since the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The quartet, led by a woman, Lolita Lebron, had made its way to a spectators galleryOUSE just above the House floor and started firing away at random, hitting five congressmen. Lebron, stylishly dressed as if she were going to a cocktail party, shouted “Viva Puerto Rico!” as she fired her weapon. Then she emptied the chambers of her Luger pistol, waved it wildly and also displayed a Puerto Rican flag.

Later, she was to say that she wasn’t trying to shoot anyone, just trying to bring attention to their cause. The woman and her cohorts, Rafael Miranda, Irving Flores Rodriguez and Andress Figueroa Cordero, were all captured in the Capitol and were later given long prison terms.

Lebron was to live until the age of 90 in Puerto Rico. Cordero, suffering from cancer, was released from prison in 1978. The others were released by President Jimmy Carter the following year in an attempt to bring about the release of American hostages in Cuba.

Among the assailants, there was not always agreement on how to stage their shootout. They had rendezvoused at Grand Central Station in New York and by the time they reached Washington, D.C. Miranda suggested that they postpone their attack because it was raining and it was late. Lebron vetoed the idea and when she threatened to do it on her own, the men joined her and reached the Capitol while the congressmen were discussing the state of economy that existed in poverty-stricken Mexico. The assailants then recited the Lord’s Prayer and started shooting people.

Pandemonium followed and Joe Martin, the Speaker of the House, quickly rapped a gavel and declared, “This House stands recessed.” Later a friend was to say to him, “That was the greatest understatement of all time.”

Hand, unscathed by the shootings, helped his wounded friend Jensen stagger to a nearby cloak room where he and four other congressmen awaited an ambulance. Jensen had been shot in the right shoulder, the bullet lodging under the left shoulder blade. Bentley was carried on a stretcher by two congressional pages who were later to become congressmen.

The other wounded lawmakers included Clifford Davis of Tennessee, George Hyde Fallon of Maryland and Kenneth A. Roberts of Alabama.

All were treated at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Due to the extent of his injuries, Bentley was confined there for several days before he was released.y

On that same day Hand’s son, also named Tom, was a freshman majoring at nearby George Washington University in journalism and history. Word gets around fast when something like that happens in the nation’s capital and it soon reached the 23-year-old Hand in the classroom.

“Somebody told me,” recalled Hand, who is now retired. “It was very shocking news and I was somewhat relieved when they said my father was alright.”

The road to Congress was an impressive one for the elder Hand. Born in Cape May on July 7, 1902, he attended school there and advanced his education at the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa. Upon earning his diploma he set up a law practice in Cape May and served as clerk to the Board of Freeholders from 1924 to 1928 and followed that with five years as county prosecutor and then as mayor of Cape May from 1937 to 1944.

Along the way the elder Hand was to become owner and publisher of the Cape May Star and Wave from 1940 until his premature and sudden death the day after Christmas in 1956. His son was to take over as publisher and owner until his retirement in 1990.

The elder Hand’s record in municipal and county government earned him the nomination as the Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District and he was successful in the initial and reelection bids, serving from January 1945 until 1956. He would have served in 1957 and 1958 too after the voters returned him to office were it not for his death in late 1956 in the study of his Cold Spring home at the age of 54.

Hand had been mentioned prominently as a possible Republican opponent to Democratic Governor Robert Meyner in Meyner’s reelection bid. His name removed after his death, the nod went instead to millionaire Malcolm Forbes. Forbes was beaten handily by the charismatic Meyner, who was said to have romantic intentions for Margaret Truman and actress Grace Kelly.

Less than a month after ZAND’S Hand’s andHhhhhdeath, members of the 85th Congress in which he would have served held a memorial service for him. There were 31 speakers, some of whom were famous nationally. Among them were New Jersey’s Congressmen Peter W. Rodino Jr., Hugh J. Adonizzio, Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., and Florence P, Dwyer; Massachusetts’ Joseph Martin, the Speaker of the House at the time of the assault; shooting victim Benjamin F. Jensen of Iowa and Indiana’s Charles A. Halleck.

Rodino cited Hand’s philosophy in government in an excerpt from a speech he said Hand made in Wildwood on February 28, 1955.

“You and all of us must continue to guard our inalienable rights, remembering that to secure them is the highest purpose of government.”

The shootings did not go unnoticed, albeit in a facetious manner, during a tribute from Gordon Canfield, the congressman from Passaic County.

“Millet Hand had a warm, outgoing personality and a sparkling sense of humor,” Canfield said. “His was that rare quality of being able to laugh at oneself and I shall never forget how this admirable trait helped to ease the tensions of that awful day when a handful of zealous fanatics raked the House floor with a burst of pistol fire. Questioned by the press after the shooting as to his actions at the time, Hand made no pretense at heroism or bravery but freely admitted, ‘I dived under the seat.’ Then he added, ‘But I couldn’t get under. Canfield was there first.’”

“Actually Hand was as brave as any man on the floor that day and he lost no time in seeing what he could do to aid those who were injured.”

Hand is buried at the Cold Spring Presbyterian Cemetery.

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the county library in Cape May Court House.)


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