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Las Aguilas Aztecas: The Forgotten Mexicans

Written By J.P. Sakuragi on Monday, September 19, 2011 | Monday, September 19, 2011


"Escuadron 201
Your planes have taken flight
Joining the clouds
To play their symphony;
With your noble hearts..."

It was 1942 and the world seemed to be in a conflagration of war never before seen by mankind. The scope, cost and casualties are gargantuan as the world is engulfed by the conflict. Nazi Germany looks like on the edge of winning its war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. Japan has controlled most of the Pacific islands and is now going down under against Australia and pushing West towards India. Great Britain is teetering towards capitulation as it tries to survive the German stranglehold of the Atlantic by the vicious U-boat wolf packs. The United States is gearing towards full war economy as the devastating attack at Pearl Harbor forced the once-neutral country to total war.


In Latin America, war seemed to be a distant affair as life in the region seemed to be unaffected by the raging global crisis. Most countries in the region tried to stay neutral even though the risk of provoking the belligerents is absolutely possible! And Mexico is not different as she continued her trade relations with the belligerents even though neutral shipping is at risk from unrestricted submarine warfare by the Kriegsmarine. Mexican oil is a very important commodity, therefore it is some sort of a "contraband of war." And so oil tankers bound for either camps are considered targets.

In May 1942, a German u-boat sank a Mexican oil tanker in the coast off Miami, Florida and a week later another Mexican ship was sank. Because of these developments, President Manuel Avila Camacho was forced to join the war against Germany and his Axis allies but the country was still ill-prepared to wage a full-scale war. The country needs the help of his powerful northern neighbor -- the United States.


However, joining America's war is not a popular choice in Mexico. According to Harvard University professor John Womack, Jr., "It didn't trust the United States, but it couldn't escape. Avila Camacho needed a way to represent Mexico as a faithful ally in WWII." In reality, Mexico has very few options and that its 48,000-man army is ill-equipped to wage war. Thus, it needed the Gringos' help and so Mexico has to send its best pilots for training in the U.S.

But Mexico's pilots were a rag-tag collection of bakers, news reporters and armament clerks but nevertheless these men were eager to serve their country. Many of them were pulled from the civilian population and from the reserves. The Mexican contingent were to be sent to Texas for training using American equipment.
Maintenance work on the airplane

It was an unpopular move down south, where the nation's psyche retained a deep-rooted distrust of los Americanos dating back a century to when Mexico lost one-third of its land to the United States. Despite the deep-rooted resentment, the plan pushed through.

And on July 25, 1944, about 2 years since their government declared war, the pilots reached Laredo, Texas for their series of intensive trainings. Prior to their arrival, they were feted by a huge celebration throughout the countryside as they are about to go to war but when they entered the U.S. they were greeted by racist indignations. They were welcome with a huge sign "THE BLACKEST LAND AND THE WHITEST PEOPLE" in Greenville, Texas. Even shop owners posted signs like "No Mexicans. No dogs." Despite such hostile welcome, the men did not seemed to mind the racial storm against them.

Aside from the war their fighting against the Fascist warmongers, they are also fighting a racial and nationalist conflict with the Gringos. They endured the hard training, boredom, being away from their families and the language barrier. In the end, the men were honored with graduation ceremonies on February 20, 1945 and presented with their battle flag. This marked the first time Mexican troops were trained for overseas combat. In charge of the group was Col. Antonio Cárdenas Rodríguez, and Captain First Class Radames Gaxiola Andrade was named squadron commander.

The Escuadrón Aéreo de Pelea 201 of the Fuerza Aerea Expedicionaria Mexicana (FAM) were assigned to the 58th Fighter Group, 5th Fighter Command of the U.S. 5th Air Force. And on March 27, 1945, the men of Escuadron 201 were bound for the Philippines on the transport ship USS Fairisle. The ironic thing about their deployment is that they were not assigned to wage war against the Germans, who earlier destroyed their ships in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, but against the Japanese. Not all Filipinos know that Mexicans played a big part in the last few months of the war and more importantly in the crucial air campaigns in the Battle of Luzon leading up to the total liberation of the Philippines. I guess it was due to the fact that the Mexicans were using American planes with the distinctive U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) roundels.

Beginning in June 1945, the squadron initially flew missions with the 58th Fighter Group's 310th Fighter Squadron, often twice a day, using borrowed U.S. aircraft. It received 25 new P-47D-30-RA aircraft in July, marked with the insignia of both the USAAF and FAM. The squadron flew more than 90 combat missions, totaling more than 1,900 hours of flight time.

In the various air missions in Luzon, the Escuadron 201 played a vital role in the interdiction of Japanese planes prior to the final assault in the northern part of the island. Despite their dedication and hard training, the group lost men in combat against the veteran Japanese pilots. Héctor Espinoza Galván, José Espinoza Fuentes, Fausto Vega Santander, Mario López Portillo and Pablo Rivas Martínez were killed during combat operations in the Philippines.

Among the missions flown by the squadron was 53 ground support missions flown in support of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division together with the Philippine Commonwealth Army forces in its break-out into the Cagayan Valley on Luzon between June 4 and July 4, 1945.

During some lull moments in the operations, some of these men made friends with Filipinos because of our common cultural connections. One of the pilots said, "When we arrived in Manila, we found a Spanish Colony, where we easily made friends due to our ability to understand the same language. We inquired about a good restaurant, and we were recommended 'Ciros,' where we found high-ranking American officers and wealthy Filipino families."

A certain Señor Carmelo, who was said to be the first Filipino to learn to fly when he soloed on January 9, 1920 in a Curtiss Seagull seaplane, has accommodated some of the Mexicans. Later after the war, he was awarded an honorary Mexican Air Force wings and was made honorary member of the FAM.
The Mexican mascot Panchito looks like Woody Woodpecker with a sombrero and Yosemite Sam's pistols

According to the "Liberation of the Philippines," by Santiago A. Flores, the former 1st Lt. Amador Samano Pina was one of the few Mexican pilots to leave a written account of his wartime experiences in the Philippines. While in the Philippines, Lt. Pina was part of "C" Flight, known as "Gavilanes" (Sparrow Hawks), under the command of Lt. Hector Espinoza Galvan, who was killed in action on July 16, 1945. During his tour, Lt. Pina was credited with 20 combat missions, about 70 hours of combat time and 33 hours flying time in the theater of operations.

After the death of Fausto "Cachito" Vega Santander during a practice dive-bombing mission on June 1, 1945, Jose Espinosa Fuentes became the second pilot to die overseas. According to a witness, "The engine failed on take off. He could have saved himself, had he gone straight in, in a force landing. Without turning, as specified in the aviation manuals. But in front of him was a military camp and instead of crashing on the troops ...Espinosa turned to the right, crashing into several obstacles (The Pampanga Sugar Mill) he burned to death, near the town of Florida Blanca, Luzon on June 5, 1945."

The USAAF 58th Fighter Group commanding officer Col. Ed Roddy said that Col. Cardenas informed him that "the Mexican flag does not come down to half-mast unless some great statesman dies." But Col. Roddy told Col. Cardenas that they are going to "lower the Stars and Stripes as a tribute to our fallen comrade."

Lt. Pina said that many soldiers in his unit wanted to go into combat but being aviation specialists, their mission was to maintain the aircraft and keep the pilots in perfect conditions. They had mechanics, armorers, clerks, medics, drivers, cooks, and mail clerk orderlies for each pilot needs the support of ten to eleven men of the other services. He also said that because as a fighter squadron, they didn't fight like an infantry battalion.

When the Escuadron 201 was deployed, no provision for replacement pilots had been made and the pilot losses incurred in the Philippines hampered its effectiveness. Mexican replacement pilots were rushed through familiarization training in the United States, and two more pilots died in flight accidents in Florida. When the USAAF 58th Fighter Group left the Philippines for Okinawa on July 10, the Mexicans stayed behind. They flew their last combat mission as a full squadron on August 26, escorting a convoy north of the Philippines. The 201st returned to Mexico City in November 1945.
A Mexican Air Force plane in the Philippines

"After the war, the Mexicans didn't want to play it up," Dr. Womack says. Dr. Womack believed that such attention would feed into the common Mexican perception that it had done the U.S.' bidding in 1945. What's more, if members of Escuadron 201 were celebrated as war heroes, and one or two became popular enough to run for office, it threatened the rigid, vertical political structure in Mexico, where politicians were hand-picked by the establishment, Dr. Womack concludes.

A group of Mexican pilots helped in the liberation of the Philippines and as Filipino, I owe a great gratitude to the men who risked their lives for the restoration of the freedom of a country that is not theirs. Honoring them and building a monument for their sacrifice is the least we can do for our Mexican comrades.

In Memoriam

Carlos Garduño Núñez --- Radamés Gaxiola Andrade --- Julio Cal y Mayor Sauz
Graco Ramírez Garrido --- Amador Sámano Piña --- David Cerón Bedolla
Fernando Hernández Vega --- José Luis Pratt Ramos --- Amadeo Castro Almanza
Carlos Varela Landini --- Joaquín Ramírez Vilchis --- Justino Reyes Retana
Ángel Sánchez Rebollo --- Carlos Rodríguez Corona --- Manuel Farías Rodríguez
Miguel Moreno Arreola --- Roberto Legorreta Sicilia --- Reynaldo Pérez Gallardo
Praxedis López Ramos --- Jacobo Estrada Luna --- José Barbosa Cerda
Raúl García Mercado --- Roberto Urías Aveleyra --- Guillermo García Ramos
Miguel Uriarte Aguilar --- Jaime Zenizo Rojas --- Crisóforo Salido Grijalva
Héctor Espinoza Galván --- José Espinoza Fuentes --- Fausto Vega Santander
Mario López Portillo --- Pablo Rivas Martínez --- Javier Martínez Valle

Credits:
Mexican Squadron Sent to Second World War. Escuadron 201, by fighterapolo
Escuadron 201, Wikipedia.org
"The Saga of the Aztec Eagles", Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2004. Numerous generalization inaccuracies, but a detailed account of the 201st's formation.
Leyte Gulf: The Mexican Air Force
"Escuadron 201 Pilot Recalls Mexico’s Role in WWII", John Philip Wyllie, La Prensa San Diego, May 9, 2003. Interview with Pilot Reynaldo Gallardo.
"Liberation of the Philippines" by Santiago A. Flores
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