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Strike of the Aztec Eagles!

The only Mexican military unit ever to serve overseas
fought to liberate the Philippines during World War II

By Sig Unander, Jr.
846 South Ginger
Cornelius, OR 97113
503-359-0424
E-mail: airart@aracnet.com
www.airartnw.com
© Copyright 2008
 

Nearly a century after a bitter defeat by the United States in the war of 1847 that resulted in a loss of considerable territory and prestige, a remarkable turn of events took place. Mexico sent a special military force to join the U.S. as an ally in fighting a common enemy and combating a global threat. It was the first time in history that Mexico would send combat personnel abroad and the first time both nations would battle a common enemy together. The unique and elite unit that had this distinctive honor was the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force and its flight operations component, Fighter Squadron 201. Its pilots provided air support in the liberation of the Philippines and flew long-range sorties over Formosa in World War II. Their actions earned praise from Allied Theater Commander General Douglas MacArthur, President Harry Truman and decorations from the United States, Mexican and Philippine governments. The story of how Mexico sent a special tactical aviation unit to fight alongside its historical enemy to help liberate a former sister colony is a fascinating, unusual story. This is how it happened.

In the late 1930's, as the world endured the worst economic depression in history, political and military developments were brewing in Europe and Asia that would engulf the world in flames. American and Mexican leaders saw a possible global conflict evolving and knew that hemispheric defense could soon become a vital issue for both countries.

The threat came at a difficult time; both countries were focused on economic recovery. Binational relations, never smooth in the best of times, were worsened by the Mexican nationalization of Anglo-American oil properties in 1938. There was also fear by Mexican leaders of American intervention should Mexico appear unable to defend herself against an attack by Axis powers. Relations between two the nations' militaries, however, were less strained than those between their politicians. Mexican Air Force Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM) senior officers maintained a dialogue with their counterparts in the United States, sent pilots north of the border for flight training and made efforts to acquire combat aircraft from the Americans.

Like the U.S. Army Air Corps of the 1930's, the FAM was a small, underfunded arm of the Mexican Army. Its missions included reconnaissance, airmail and mapmaking; it also periodically supported the Army in suppressing regional uprisings that threatened the central government in Mexico City. It had tactical units, but no modern pursuit or fighter planes. With no indigenous aircraft industry, any planes capable of stopping an offshore attack would likely have to come from the U.S.

On May 13, 1942, just a few months after the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor triggered America's entry into World War II, the Mexican oil tanker Potrero de Llano was torpedoed by a Nazi U-Boat off the coast of Florida, killing 13 crewmen. A protest filed by the Mexican government was answered with the sinking of a second tanker. When Germany refused to apologize or indemnify Mexico, President Manuel Avila Camacho declared that a state of war existed between Mexico and the Axis powers.

Though prompted by a tragedy, Mexican entry into the war was in some ways beneficial. The population united behind the war effort and the government sent farm labor and shipped goods and strategic minerals to America. The FAM received a variety of new military aircraft from the U.S. under the Lend-Lease Act. While Mexico appreciated the planes, the idea of sending military units to fight abroad appeared unrealistic, running against the grain of tradition and politics. A more pressing priority was coastal defense against the real possibility of an attack by German or Japanese forces: additional Air Force units were activated and coastal patrol and tanker escort missions were quickly stepped up. On July 5, 1942, Major Luis Noriega Medrano, flying a North American AT-6 "Texan", spotted and attacked German submarine U-129 in the Gulf of Mexico, damaging it.

In April, 1943, President Roosevelt met with Avila Camacho in an historic summit conference at the northern industrial city of Monterrey where he encouraged Mexico's participation in the war. The Mexican president was noncommittal but would soon decide that Mexico should fight with the Allies. On November 13, 1943 he declared publicly that Mexico was willing to fight, conditioned on personnel serving in a defined sector under Mexican command. The Constitution of 1917 mandated that the President obtain permission from the Senate to send troops overseas, which would require public support. A former general, he knew the Army was unprepared for modern warfare but that an effective tactical air unit could be readied quickly if necessary.

To sell the idea to the public, Avila Camacho ordered the FAM to stage an air show with its hottest pilots. It took place in Mexico City on March 5, 1944. Over 100,000 capitalinos watched as AT-6s and A-24B dive bombers blasted a simulated "enemy" base with live ordnance. The show was a stunning success; glowing press reports convinced the chief executive that the public would support an expeditionary air force. Shortly thereafter at a luncheon for senior FAM officers, he declared that Mexico should fight and that there was no better arm than the FAM to carry a battle flag to war.

A special "Training Group" was soon formed in Mexico City, staffed with expert airmen and aviation specialists chosen in a competitive recruiting process. The Group consisted of 300 men from all military branches, including 38 of the best pilots. Command was assigned to Colonel Antonio Cardenas Rodriguez, known for his goodwill flights over Latin America. Colonel Cardenas had flown combat missions over North Africa and Italy with the U.S. Army Air Force's 97th Bomb Group and was well-connected with senior American air commanders including General Jimmy Doolittle.

Group personnel were as diverse as their specialties. Historian William Tudor recounts, "Members selected...came from all regions…from the Rio Grande to the Guatamalan border. Corporal Ramiro Bastarrochia Gamboa came from the state of Yucatan, and from Baja California First Sergeant Pedro Martinez de la Concho, a mechanic. Second Sergeant Daniel Grajeda Gomez worked as a reporter...Miguel Alcantar Torres, a paratrooper with combat drops in Casablanca, Bizerte and Sicily, asked for and received an honorable discharge from the. U.S. Army to join.." Lt. Joaqin Ramirez Vilchis, a pilot and scion of a prominent Mexico City family, had commanded a cavalry unit fighting rebels in Jalisco; over age, he falsified his birth records to join the new unit.

On July 20, 1944, at Balbuena Military Camp near the capital, the new unit passed in review before the President. He told them they were going to the U.S. for combat training. He reminded them that their "brothers from the Republic of Brazil" were fighting in Italy and that if necessary they would go there. Concluding his remarks, he invited "... all personnel....to address me with whatever problem you have or petition me with what you desire". He was undoubtedly surprised when, according to historian Dennis Cavagnaro, "...a soldier in the rear ranks took two steps forward, smartly saluted and said, in a loud, clear voice, 'Mi Presidente, I am Angel Cabo Bocanegra del Castillo, and Sir, I request that a school be built in my home town of Tepoztlan, Morelos' ". It was built, and still stands in that beautiful mountain village in central Mexico.

After the review and ceremonies at Balbuena, all unit personnel went to the Buenavista Station in Mexico City and boarded a special train that would take them to the United States. Amid tears and the singing of the traditional "golondrinas", the young pilots and soldiers said farewell to their girlfriends, wives, parents and children, a farewell that would be final for some of them.

On July 26, the men arrived at Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border. The town turned out to cheer the first unit in history to leave the country on a fighting mission. Newsreel cameras captured the ceremonies as the men crossed into Laredo, Texas, and were greeted by Mexican congressmen and U.S. military and civil authorities. There they entrained to Randolph Army Air Base at San Antonio. Personnel were separated by specialty and sent to other bases for training; pilots went to Victoria to transition to Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk" fighter aircraft.

Their next posting was at an Army airbase near the small Northwest town of Pocatello, Idaho. There, in October, pilots were reunited with ground personnel and began training together as a unit. Pilots transitioned to Republic P-47D "Thunderbolt" fighters with little difficulty. The mechanics took a liking to the big radial-engined fighters, nicknaming them "Peh-Cuas", short for "P-47" in Spanish.

A special unit, "Section I", charged with training the Mexicans was activated, commanded by Captain Paul Miller, a competent, dedicated officer raised in Peru and fluent in Spanish. Just 24 years old, he had been Assistant Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. His priority was the safety and preparation for combat of the pilots. He passionately wanted them to succeed and enforced the tight discipline he believed necessary.

As fall turned to winter, bad weather and below-zero temperatures – conditions difficult for personnel unaccustomed to snow and ice – began to limit flying and retard training and aircraft maintenance. A change of station was requested by Colonel Cardenas. On November 27, the unit left by train for the small town of Greenville, Texas, northeast of Dallas.

There, at Majors Field, a large U.S. Army Air Force training base, the pilots flew an intensive schedule based on a standard combat training curriculum that incorporated ground attack, air combat, advanced acrobatics, instrument flying, navigation and formation and high altitude flight. The P-47s were state of the art: with their twin turbosuperchargers they could top 40,000 feet; in a dive they could approach the sound barrier. It was heady stuff for new fighter pilots – and dangerous.

A young Second Lieutenant, Cristoforo Salido Grijalva, attempted a takeoff after a rainstorm from a muddy taxiway that he apparently mistook for an active runway. Warnings from the tower were unheeded: Lt. Salido hit his brakes and crashed before becoming airborne. His P-47 ended up inverted; the popular young officer drowned in the mud that jammed the cockpit before the crash crew could free him.

The tragedy hit hard. Passing the winter in a foreign land was difficult and Mexican personnel endured some discrimination. A sign over the town's main street read "Greenville Welcome - The Blackest Land - The Whitest People". The pilots – many of whom were from upper-class Mexican families and had never experienced discrimination – were amazed when they were refused service in a restaurant. A more serious concern was off-base housing. Mexican officers and men quickly became acquainted with Greenville's brand of southern hospitality – a de facto rental ban that also included catholics, blacks and "yankees". An international incident was averted through hasty diplomacy between base officials and civic leaders; accommodations were found and word circulated that the Mexicans were there as allies. They were received more warmly after that. Relations with the civilians in Greenville eventually improved to the extent that several pilots dated and married local girls.

The young fighter pilots' natural exuberance led to inevitable breaches of regulations as it did with their American counterparts. In a particularly notorious incident, Lt. Reynaldo Perez Gallardo brought his Thunderbolt in hot and low over Greenville one evening, intent on celebrating his wedding by giving the local Texans a beautiful buzz job. The big "Jug" thundered down Main Street at over 300 miles an hour, its wingtips skimming the buildings. Unknown to the lieutenant, inside a movie theater sat Captain Miller and his wife, enjoying a show. As Perez roared overhead, the vibrations "shook the building to its foundations." Miller, incensed, ordered Lt. Perez taken off flight status. Perez would later resume training and would serve in combat with the unit.

At year's end, Mexico prepared for the unit's deployment overseas. The time had come to make an unprecedented and courageous political move. Speaking to the Senate in a dramatic speech in December, 1944, President Avila Camacho asked, for the first time in history, for the legislators to give him, under a provision in the 1917 Mexican constitution, the authority to send troops abroad. The request was granted, and an order issued officially redesignating the training unit the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force, or Fuerza Aerea Expedicionaria Mexicana (FAEM). Its flight operations component would be Escuadron Aerea de Pelea 201 or Fighter Squadron 201. Rather than send the FAEM to join the Brazilian squadron then in Italy, Avila Camacho suggested to President Roosevelt operations in the Philippines, where the unit could aid "...the liberation of a people for whom it is felt a continuity of idiom, history and traditions." Roosevelt agreed.

On February 22, 1945, the unit was presented with special United States and Mexican battle flags in a formal ceremony at Majors Field, complete with two bands and a 21-gun salute. With the entire FAEM at attention and officials from both countries, family members and hundreds of civilians watching, Mexican Subsecretary of War General Francisco L. Urquizo, representing the President, formally presented the Mexican Battle Flag to Colonel Cardenas to carry overseas and gave a stirring speech, emphasizing that Mexico was fighting with the United Nations to support democracy and human rights, and told the pilots to represent their country with valor and honor. Urquizo recalled in his autobiography the pride he felt seeing the special Mexican flag waving in the stiff breeze that day. The pilots passed in review for the brass, then manned their planes and roared into the cold, clear sky for an hour long demonstration of combat tactics. The proceedings were broadcast live on radio in Mexico and Latin America and covered in newspapers in both countries; video clips were shown on newsreels in theaters in the U.S. to American audiences.

The pilots completed their training with air-to-air gunnery practice at Brownsville, Texas. Some of them distinguished themselves with exceptionally high scores. On the afternoon of March 10, Lt. Javier Martinez Valle was up over the gunnery range, pursuing a banner target trailing from a tow plane. Flying alone into the setting sun, Martinez encountered trouble. Somehow his aircraft went out of control, crashing on Padre Island and killing him. It is thought that his P-47 struck the target cable or counterweight.

On March 27th, the entire FAEM, after a cross-country train trip, boarded the liberty ship Fairisle at San Francisco, joining 1,500 U.S. troops bound for the Philippines. Shortly thereafter the small transport crossed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and entered the open sea. Seasickness and the fear of sub attack during the long voyage weighed on the men; the screaming sirens of battle station drills made them edgy. At New Guinea, the base commander invited the pilots to a party where they enjoyed iced beer and the new color movie "Fighting Lady". Returning to the Fairisle, the climb up the cargo net proved more than the well-lubricated Latin airmen could handle; some of them fell off the side of the ship and had to be assisted by Navy personnel.

Underway again, the Fairisle joined a convoy for the run to the Philippines. "The journey was made bearable by the happy spirit of the Squadron; in these hot nights, the sound of the guitars was heard: "La Cancion Mixteca" and other Mexican melodies, while young soldiers played cards using their life jackets as cushions." As the ships steamed west, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific, cabled Avila Camacho: "The 201st Squadron...is about to join this command. I wish to express to you, Mr. President, the inspiration and pleasure this action arouses...it is personally most gratifying because of my long and intimate friendship with your great people."

The convoy entered Manila Bay on May 1, 1945. At 10:00 hours the FAEM disembarked in the tropical heat and was received by officials including theater air commander General George Kenney, representing General MacArthur, and Honorary Mexican Consul Alfredo Carmelo, a distinguished Filipino diplomat, artist and aviator. The Mexican officers were surprised to find Carmelo's three lovely daughters waiting to greet them with smiles and kisses. One of them, Conchita, wore a traditional, gaily-colored Mexican China Poblana dress and posed with General Kenney and Colonel Cardenas with a Mexican flag for newsreel cameras while a military band played.

Colonel Cardenas went to General Macarthur's office where he was greeted warmly by the supreme commander and presented him with an eloquent personal letter from Avila Camacho that reiterated that Mexico was there to collaborate with Allied forces in the liberation of the Philippines and the defeat of Japanese imperialism. Shortly afterward the entire unit left by train for Floridablanca, where they boarded trucks for the ride to their assigned airbase at Porac town, near Clark Field in the province of Pampanga.

Porac Aerodrome was hardly a paradise. It consisted of a dirt runway hacked out of the jungle, surrounded by low green hills. By night, small arms fire was heard and by day, the boom of artillery pounding the retreating enemy in the distant mountains. A nearby POW camp had recently been liberated; the ghastly sight of American and Filipino soldiers in a state of acute starvation was sobering. Filipino guerrillas were mopping up the area and occasionally a Japanese soldier emerged from the jungle. There was a control tower in the center of the field, an encampment at one end where the 5th Air Force's 58th Fighter Group had established itself, and not much else.

The Mexican unit had to establish an operational base in a primitive area some distance from the American encampment and do it fast. Officers and men labored together in the oppressive heat, humidity and mosquitoes to meet that need. With bamboo, lumber, stones and surplus materials the Mexicans built operations offices and maintenance, supply, medical and dining facilities. In a central area surrounded by tents they raised the FAEM Battle Flag. Streets were named for famous avenues in their homeland. One humorist erected a sign with an arrow reading "To the Zocalo - 10,000 Kilometers", not realizing that the men would someday march victoriously into that hallowed plaza in Mexico City.

The airfield had previously been used by the Japanese and abandoned aircraft and other materiel littered part of the area. Three second lieutenants - Lopez, Vega and Moreno - found the wreck of a Japanese Nakajima Ki-84 fighter, removed its left wing and planted it in the ground, tip-up, at the main entrance to the encampment. Moreno, a pilot who had aspired to a career as an architect before the war, painted the popular cartoon character "Pancho Pistolas" on it. "Pancho", a happy, rowdy Mexican rooster wearing a sombrero and shooting a pair of six-guns, was borrowed from the Walt Disney movie The Three Caballeros. He proved to be an instant hit with the men and became the official squadron mascot. Images of the rambunctious bird were published in newspapers and in the official history of the unit.

The 58th Fighter Group to which General Kenney had assigned the squadron, was a seasoned outfit, a veteran of the New Guinea campaign and other actions in the Southwest Pacific. It consisted of three operational squadrons; the 201st was attached as a fourth, though it would operate under Mexican command and occupy its own area. Since the new D-30 model "bubble-canopy" P-47s hadn't yet arrived, aircraft from other groups and squadrons were loaned to the 201st. Some were older, war-weary "Razorback" models, to the chagrin of the pilots, who had flown brand new Thunderbolts in training.

On May 17, 1945, the 201st began flying combat orientation missions with its pilots assigned to other squadrons of the 58th. Shortly thereafter, the Squadron started flying missions as a unit, led by its own officers. Their primary mission was to provide badly-needed close air support for American and Philippine ground troops in combat against Japanese infantry and mechanized units. Their objectives initially were to strike buildings, vehicles, artillery, and enemy concentrations in the Marikina Watershed northeast of Manila, a heavily-forested area of rugged foothills where the U.S. 25th Infantry Division was encountering fierce resistance.

The squadron was comprised of four flights or escuadrillas of eight pilots each. Commanding flight operations was Captain Radames Gaxiola Andrade of Mexico City, a senior pilot with over 4,000 flight hours, fluent in four languages. Pilots were briefed in the evening for the first mission of the next day. In the morning, pilots would take off about 0800. Missions were of short duration, though they lengthened as the Japanese were pushed back from populated areas in southern Luzon. After the day's first mission, mechanics and armorers would refuel and rearm the aircraft. The second mission would take off about 1300. In the hot afternoons the pilots would unwind while mechanics repaired the aircraft, armorers removed and cleaned machine guns and specialists checked radios and instruments.

Casualties soon began to take their toll on the squadron. On June 1, 1945, a dive-bombing training mission was flown in which Lt. Fausto Vega Santander, the youngest pilot in the squadron, was killed on his 18th birthday. A flight of four fighters led by Lt. Carlos Garduno Nunez was making attacks on a target on an island a few miles off the west coast west of Luzon. Lt.Vega was killed when his P-47 inexplicably rolled suddenly to the right and crashed into the sea at high speed, exploding on impact, according to Lt. Moreno, who followed him over the target. His body was never recovered.

Only a few days later, another pilot, Lt. Jose Espinosa Fuentes, known to his comrades as "El Chiquito" died tragically when the P-47 he was flight testing after repairs crashed and burned at a sugar mill at nearby Floridablanca after takeoff. Lt. Espinosa reportedly made a heroic effort to steer his stricken plane away from the town before it crashed. Captain Gaxiola sent a personal letter of condolence to Lt. Espinosa's young Mexican-American wife Nelly, in Texas. Lt. Espinosa was buried with military honors in the American Cemetery in Manila.

On June 4th , Squadron 201 pilots were in the air over Route 5 – the main north-south highway on Luzon – covering troops of the U.S. Army's 37th Division who had relieved the 25th at Balete Pass and were fighting their way north from Santa Fe toward the town of Aritao. The pilots bombed and strafed Japanese antitank unit positions along the highway and in the southern part of the town blocking the American advance. The next day the Americans broke through, crossed the bridge into Aritao and liberated the town.

Throughout the month of June, 1945, the campaign to liberate Luzon continued in full force, as three divisions of the U.S. 6th Army, coordinating operations with Philippine regular and guerrilla units, fought slowly north, up into the central highlands and the Cordillera Central mountain range, where General Yamashita's 150,000-man army held out. American troops advanced through rugged mountain passes that overlooked scenic valleys sculpted with ancient rice terraces and dotted with the thatch-roofed houses of the Ifugao people. The fighting was a brutal combination of jungle and mountain warfare; close air and artillery support was critical. Japanese resistance was tenacious and often well-organized; their infantry exploited every feature of the terrain using concealed, fortified positions and interlocking fields of fire to inflict maximum casualties and slow the advance of the Fil-American troops. At crucial Balete Pass – gateway to the Cagayan Valley and northern Luzon – more than 17,000 Allied and enemy troops perished in a bitter, month-long struggle.

As the fighting moved away from the towns and deeper into the highlands and mountain passes, the 201st's missions changed from hitting visible targets to striking troop concentrations and fortified positions in very close proximity to friendly forces. These targets were often obscured by jungle overgrowth and were virtually invisible from the air. Steep mountains, stormy weather and antiaircraft fire from Japanese positions made close air support missions hazardous. The heavily-loaded fighters were hard to handle in the hot, humid mountain air that boiled with turbulence.

On a typical mission, an American forward air controller on the ground or in a liaison or observation aircraft would mark Japanese troop positions with a colored smoke shell or rocket and confirm the target location by radio with the squadron leader as the flights of four aircraft orbited the battle area. The leader would dive, make a "dry" pass over the target to verify it, then lead the first flight in "hot" for an attack. These tactics required superb piloting and gunnery skills, careful observation and split-second timing.

The pilots dived one by one, ignoring enemy tracers and flak, dropped their ordnance and pulled up hard and fast to clear hills and ridgelines, nearly blacking out from g-forces as they felt the concussions of their thousand-pounders ripping open the green jungle canopy and demolishing rice terraces. Debris were often thrown up 1,500 feet by the blasts and the air was filled with black smoke. When a controller was unable to identify the target or the frequent summer rainstorms closed in, the pilots had to abort and jettison their bombs in a safe zone. The controllers couldn't always see the effects of the bombing, but where they could, they frequently noted "very good" to "excellent" results, according to mission reports. Equally noteworthy is that no friendly military or civilian casualties were officially attributed to the 201st's operations.

When the Japanese presented a visible target, the Aztec Eagles pounced on their prey. On June 17, 1945, on a mission to Payawan in the central highlands, air controller "Bygone" directed the Squadron to attack enemy concentrations 4,000 yards northeast of that town. Lt. Amador Samano Pina remembered in his diary: "Our leader, Lt. Hector Espinosa Galvan, discovered an enemy convoy on one of the secondary roads and he ordered our seven planes to attack it: we came directly toward the target, machine-gunning, I took aim at a truck right in front of me, we got closer and I fired two bursts of machine-gun fire and almost immediately flames enveloped the truck. Quickly we pulled up to avoid the explosions after dropping our bombs. The enemy responded vigorously with light arms fire and damaged two of our airplanes. This mission lasted from 13:30 hours to 15:45 hours."

As dangerous as close air support missions were, an even riskier assignment was in the works: Very Long Range fighter sweeps across the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy, preparing to invade Japan, needed control of the sealanes south of Kyushu, an area dominated by the island of Formosa (Taiwan), an occupied military bastion. Though enemy activity had been diminished by 5th Air Force bombing, it was still a threat and, at almost 600 miles from the 201st's base, at the very limit of the range of its P-47s.

In early July, the other three 58th Fighter Group squadrons left for Okinawa to participate in the anticipated invasion of Japan. The 201st would now operate solo from Clark Field, while they brought their P-47 inventory up to strength with new D-30 models and awaited Mexican replacement pilots from the 'states. In the meantime, aircraft were fitted with auxiliary wing tanks and prepared for VLR missions.

Early on the morning of July 8, 1945, eight Mexican Thunderbolts took off from Clark with a maximum load, barely clearing the runway. Hanging over the vast expanse of the blue Pacific as they traveled north hour after hour, the blazing tropical sun beating down into the cramped cockpits, the pilots became drained and dehydrated. Adding to their discomfort was the tension of flying single-engined aircraft over hundreds of miles of water with only basic instruments. A minor navigational error, bad weather or high fuel consumption could force a "ditching" with little chance of survival. The pilots carefully adjusted their mixture controls and watched cylinder head temperatures.

Over Formosa the Mexicans encountered no challengers: the Aztec Eagles owned the air. The sweep was completed successfully and all pilots landed safely at Clark except Lt. Perez, whose P-47 developed a fuel leak on the return leg of the mission. Perez nursed his dwindling fuel supply, prayed, and was barely able to set his Jug down at Lingayan on the west coast of Luzon, out of gas. After over seven hours in the air the pilots, in full survival gear, had to be helped from their cockpits. Each downed several ounces of hard liquor before debriefing to break the tension.

The squadron's operations were covered extensively in both the American and Mexican press, but in different ways. Coverage in major newspapers in the United States emphasized the Mexican aviators' participation in combat with American forces as allies, aiding the war effort in the Far East. The reporting generally was straightforward and accurate, the tone positive but not flamboyant.

The Mexican newspapers published glowing reports (not always accurate) depicting the 201st's pilots as national heroes, representing Mexico and defending her national honor. Reports lauded the pilots' achievements with superlatives, referring to them as "Aguiluchos" (Eagle Fighters) and "Aguilas Aztecas" (Aztec Eagles), nicknames that played on the potent cultural and political symbolism of the eagle in Aztec mythology and the modern Mexican state. (The original Aztec Eagles were elite warriors of the Aztec army in prehispanic Mexico.) The public responded enthusiastically, following the coverage with great interest.

In the Far East, the squadron's operations continued. More fighter sweeps were flown in July. The pilots also practiced and refined combat tactics and ferried new P-47s from Biak Island, west of New Guinea, to Clark and war-weary "Jugs" back to Biak for disposal. It was the beginning of the typhoon season and weather conditions were unpredictable and treacherous.

On July 16, 1945, Lt. Espinosa Galvan, flying into foul weather, ran out of gas just short of Biak and ditched; his plane sank and he did not get out. Three days later, two pilots - Capt. Pablo Rivas Martinez and wingman Lt. Guillermo Garcia Ramos - flew into a thunderstorm and became separated. Garcia bailed out over a Japanese-held island and attempted to evade the enemy by paddling away from shore in his inflatable survival raft. He was saved from death or capture several days later in a risky and dramatic open sea rescue by an American bomber pilot who had spotted his emergency signal mirror from the air and an Australian PBY flying boat crew. Captain Rivas was never found.

On July 21, Lt. Mario Lopez Portillo, the cousin of a future president of Mexico, took off from Biak with an American pilot on a ferry flight back to Clark. They never made it. Approaching Luzon, they hit stormy weather and, flying on instruments, made a navigational error and slammed into a cloud-shrouded mountain on Bataan Peninsula.

In addition to the pilots who were lost, others suffered injuries ranging from minor to disabling. On one morning mission in June, Lt. Carlos Garduno Nunez checked his instruments, released the brakes of his fully-loaded P-47 and began a takeoff down the runway at Porac. Halfway down the field, with the control tower streaking past in a blur, Garduno saw that the engine was failing to maintain enough power to reach takeoff speed of 150 mph. He quickly cut power and attempted to slow the aircraft. The hurtling Jug hit a ditch at the end of the runway, shearing off its landing gear and igniting the fuel in its external wing tanks, then it slid on its belly for hundreds of feet. When it finally came to a stop, the tanks exploded. Garduno unclipped his harness, jumped from the cockpit through a wall of fire and collapsed 50 feet from the plane. An alert medic risked his life to brave the flames and dragged the dazed lieutenant, who was attempting to crawl from the inferno, to safety. As they reached an ambulance, the aircraft's internal fuel tanks exploded in a spectacular fireball, igniting the .50 caliber ammunition in the wing guns and sending a huge column of black smoke skyward. Garduno was taken to Santa Rita hospital with burns on the back of his neck. He remained there for three weeks before going back into combat.

On August 8, 1945, the Aztec Eagles returned to Formosa on a bombing mission led by Lt. Amadeo Castro Almanza, leader of Flight D. Crossing the South China Sea at altitude, they dropped to sea level as they approached the island to evade enemy radar detection. Each pilot had his hands full, balancing a 1,000-pound bomb under the right wing of his aircraft with the near-empty external fuel tank under the left. Over the target, a cluster of buildings near the port of Karenko, they pulled up and attacked. As Lt. Castro released his bomb, his P- 47 rolled violently to the left due to the changed equilibrium, slamming him around the cockpit. Recovering, the shaken Lieutenant radioed his companions to warn them to compensate. The mission was completed successfully; two pilots landed with dry tanks at alternate airfields.

Two days later, the squadron flew its final mission of the war – escorting a U.S. Navy convoy bound for Okinawa. Intelligence had concerns that Japanese suicide planes based on Formosa might attack the ships if they found them. The 201st provided air cover in shifts for a twelve-hour period until they were relieved by USAAF P-61 night fighters at dusk.

On the night of August 26th, the men were relaxing and watching a movie when Capt. Gaxiola ordered the film stopped. He announced that 5th Air Force headquarters had received a message that an atom bomb had been dropped and Japan had surrendered. Later in the evening the report was verified and the men celebrated long into the night with the traditional "grito" shout of joy and toasts. A week later, General Yamashita formally surrendered his command at Bagio, the summer capital of the Philippines.

Before they left the Philippines, personnel of the FAEM were decorated in a formal ceremony at Clark Field on September 16, 1945 by Major General Basilio J. Valdez, Secretary of Defense and Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army. On that morning the men passed in formal review, then heard the Philippine commander pay tribute to them and recall the historic links between the Philippine and Mexican peoples. As a lone Thunderbolt dove from the sky and roared fast and low over the airfield, the young Mexican officers and men stood proud and straight as General Valdez pinned the Philippine Liberation Medal to their uniforms and saluted them.

On October 23, most of the officers and men of the FAEM boarded the Sea Marlin, a transport ship in Manila Bay and began the eastward journey across the Pacific to the United States. Unlike their journey to the Philippines, which had followed a circuitous course to avoid enemy attack, the return trip was a shorter, more direct route through the northern Pacific, almost the same course that the fabled Manila galleons had taken on their return from the Philippines centuries earlier. The Mexicans' joy and anticipation was tempered by the bittersweet realization that five of their beloved pilots would not be returning with them to their homeland.

When the Sea Marlin docked at the port city of San Pedro, near Los Angeles on November 3, 1945, the men were taken by car convoy to a city park where, to their surprise, they were welcomed and honored with speeches by city officials and showered with confetti and flowers in an emotional celebration by 30,000 Mexican-Americans.

The FAEM then boarded a special train to San Antonio, Texas, where they arrived after midnight on November 13 and were greeted with an even larger celebration by the Mexican-American community there. Then they proceeded to Laredo, where they had entered the United States almost a year-and-a-half earlier. In Laredo, it seemed as if almost the entire population had turned out to see the men march into the town square, where, as a band played the Mexican national anthem, they were showered with confetti by cheering citizens and honored by government officials.

From Laredo, their train headed south into Mexico, toward the capital. In town after town at each station stop – Nuevo Laredo, San Luis Potosi, Queretaro – the handsome young airmen and soldiers in dress uniforms, some wearing their new medals, were mobbed and greeted by adoring crowds as national heroes. Children waved flags; young women blew kisses. The only Mexican military force ever to represent their country in battle in a foreign land had acquitted itself with honor and returned home in style.

More than six decades have passed now since Squadron 201 and the FAEM went to war in the Philippines, since its men returned to their nation's capital, parading victoriously from the Buenavista Train Station under showers of confetti and beneath American and Mexican flags, into Mexico City's immense Plaza de la Constitucion on a sunny day in November 1945. Yet, for the surviving veterans, the memory of that day is still vivid. There, standing at attention on hallowed and historic ground in front of the National Cathedral and the Presidential Palace, they watched as Colonel Cardenas returned their battle flag to President Avila Camacho and heard the President, speaking to the crowd and to the nation by radio, his voice echoing over a sea of a quarter-million cheering people, say: "General, chiefs, officers and troops of the Expeditionary Air Force: I receive with emotion the Flag that the country has conferred....as a symbol of her and those ideals of humanity for which we fight in a common cause....You return with glory, having complied brilliantly with your duty and, in these moments, in this historic Plaza, you receive the gratitude of our people."

Several days later, in a formal ceremony before a standing-room-only crowd at the National Stadium in Mexico City, personnel of the FAEM and the widows of the seven pilots who never returned were personally decorated by the President with a special medal made on his order – the Medalla Servicio en el Lejano Oriente (Medal for Service in the Far East) – the only decoration ever bestowed on a Mexican military unit for valor in foreign service.

Not long afterward, Avila Camacho traveled to Tepoztlan, high in the rugged mountains of the state of Morelos, south of the nation's capital. On a cool winter day, the chief executive, accompanied by former President Lazaro Cardenas and Sergeant Angel Cabo Bocanegra, carried the national flag into the spacious courtyard of the newly-built Escuela de Escuadron 201 and dedicated the school "in symbolic homage" to the Squadron.

A more solemn presidential obligation was fulfilled in early December. The remains of two pilots, Lt. Espiosa Fuentes and 2nd Lt. Lopez Portillo, were returned with a military escort from the Philippines. They were met at the Buenavista Train Station with an honor guard and taken to the Salon de las Aguilas in the Directorate of Aeronautics where, in a meaningful tribute, President Avila Camacho and General Francisco Urquizo personally stood guard over the flower-draped caskets of the fallen aviators.

The short-lived but extraordinary career of the FAEM was brought to a close by a brief directive, No. 24854, from the Secretary of Defense, stating crisply that, effective December 1st, 1945, the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force would cease to exist. And with the stroke of a pen, the only Mexican military force ever to serve outside its homeland passed into history. (The FAEM's flight operations component, Squadron 201, did not die with that order; it remains an active aviation unit in the Mexican Air Force, though it is no longer a tactical fighter unit.)

History's greatest conflict was over. After almost a decade of war, the world was at peace. In San Francisco, an international organization dedicated to maintaining that hard-won peace and bettering the human condition had been formed. Mexico, by virtue of its modest but successful participation in the war, had earned the honor of being one of the 51 founding signatory nations on the charter of the new United Nations.

The young Mexican pilots who flew and fought with their Yankee counterparts and returned with honor, are now grey-haired grandfathers, enjoying their families and retirement. The P-47s with the bright Mexican tricolor markings and U.S. star-and-bar insignia they flew so proudly have long since been scrapped. The battle flag they carried rests in a place of honor in the National History Museum. Those pilots who chose a military career achieved high rank and prestige: five of the 31 pilots who went to the Philippines became generals in the Mexican Air Force; three served as personal pilot for the President of Mexico and one, General Graco Ramirez Garrido, formed the first jet fighter squadron in the FAM and became the first Mexican jet pilot.

Other squadron pilots entered the private sector and had long and distinguished careers in commercial aviation, business and academia. Amadeo Castro Almanza, who led the bombing mission to Formosa, served as vice-president of the Airline Pilots Association and president of the College of Aviation Pilots of Mexico, logging 20,000 hours of flight time in his notable career. His son, who followed in his father's footsteps, flies for Mexicana Airlines. Most of the officers and men of the FAEM were high achievers who became role models for later generations of Mexican youth. In reminiscing, they recall satisfaction in representing their country and helping defeat a global threat. Above all, they remember their fallen comrades.

The creation and deployment of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force was one of the first successful intergovernmental projects between the United States and Mexico. Highly publicized, it had a political impact far beyond its immediate mission. It helped end Mexican isolationism and paved the way for important binational and international accords that would come after the war. From a military standpoint, it demonstrated that Mexico was capable of mounting an expeditionary force in a successful partnership, achieving good results at reasonable cost, and it helped to modernize the FAM. It also helped renew and strengthen the longstanding historical and cultural ties between Mexico and her former sister colony, the Republic of the Philippines.

Today, monuments stand in all three countries honoring the Mexican officers and men who went to the Far East to fight for freedom. In a beautiful grove of trees just below historic Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, where their Battle Flag now rests in a place of honor, is the most impressive memorial: the Monumento de las Aguilas Caidas (Momument of the Fallen Eagles), a broad, raised semicircular plaza of white marble with a high classical backdrop on which are mounted bronze plaques containing a roster of the men of the FAEM. Flanking the backdrop are eight simple blue plaques bearing gold wings and the names of the pilots who died in training and in the Pacific Theater. It is here, every year, on the anniversary of their return from the war, that Mexico honors its heroes with a formal ceremony sponsored by the Secretary of Defense, attended by surviving veterans and their families, high officials, the Philippine Ambassador to Mexico, United States Embassy representatives, the press and the public.

Another monument stands half a world away in Manila, just outside the old Spanish walled city of Intramuros. There, in Plaza Mexico Park, next to a statue of Don Miguel Hidalgo de Costilla, founder of Mexican independence, visitors can see a beautiful granite statue topped with a bronze Mexican eagle, erected at war's end by the Sociedad Amigos Filipinos de America Latina and the men of the FAEM. In a ceremony presided over by Philippine Secretary of Defense Alfredo Montelibano on September 25th, 1945, the monument was unveiled and dedicated by the Secretary and the Speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives to the Aztec Eagles who died in the liberation of their country.

As impressive as these monuments are, some of the 201st veterans seem proudest of a different kind of memorial, inspired by a promise made by the President to one man in the Expeditionary Air Force. Many of the men say that their favorite tribute is the primary school that was constructed for the children of Tepoztlan, Morelos. Every year, a dwindling number of veterans return to Tepoztlan to be honored by the townspeople, enjoy a grand fiesta in the school courtyard and toast the memory of their departed comrades, especially the humble but determined young soldier, Angel Cabo Bocanegra, who petitioned the president to build the school and who became a respected teacher there and the town's mayor after the war.

Significant as the unit's many accomplishments and tributes are, perhaps the most meaningful legacy of Squadron 201 and the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force in World War II is the improved understanding, respect and cooperation it fostered between the American and Mexican peoples, and the national and cultural pride the Aztec Eagles bought to their country. These have proved to be enduring benefits.

(© 2008, Sig Unander; all rights reserved)


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