The latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, remembers the Aztec Eagles, a Mexican fighter squadron that trained in the United States and fought the Japanese alongside Allied troops in the Pacific Theater.
In the waning days of May 1945, a squadron of P-47 Thunderbolt pilots roared down on a Japanese military convoy. Above them, American pilots harbored doubts about these greenhorns, new to the liberation of the Philippines and, to boot, Mexicans.
In his burly and fast P-47 Thunderbolt, Lt. Reynaldo Perez Gallardo swooped down on the convoy, pouring .50-caliber rounds into the Japanese trucks in a low-level strafing pass. Then, the vehicles bursting into flames, Gallardo pulled his fighter up into the Pacific sky, snapping into a victory roll, exposing himself to enemy fire. Over the radio an American voice crackled: “Look at that crazy Mexican!”
Crazy or not, this new bunch of fighter jocks — roughly 30 pilots of the 300-strong 201st Fighter Squadron of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force, nicknamed the Aztec Eagles — was now in the fight to free the Filipino people.
The 201st didn’t have a major effect on the overall outcome of the giant Pacific war 75 years ago. But by the end of the conflict, these men were hailed as valiant and deadly in their machines, beloved for their ferocity by the Filipinos and Americans alike. And their participation alongside the Americans helped improve relations between Mexico and the United States after the war, Gustavo Vázquez-Lozano argues in his 2017 book, “201st Squadron: The History of the Mexican Pilots Who Fought in World War II.”
Other than Brazil, which sent troops to fight in Italy, Mexico was the only Latin American nation to actively fight the Axis, namely the Japanese Empire, a decision carefully made by President Manuel Ávila Camacho of Mexico, an old soldier himself.
Early on, there was a swirling sympathy for Nazi Germany among Mexican intellectuals. And Camacho was reluctant to side with the United States, his nation’s perpetual enemy, with its repeated invasions and incursions. After all, Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself participated in the brief U.S. seizure of the port of Veracruz in 1914.
But on May 14, 1942, a Mexican oil tanker off the coast of Florida was intercepted by a German submarine, which torpedoed the vessel, spilling 6,000 tons of oil and killing at least 13 of the 35 crew members. A week later, the Germans struck another tanker, killing at least seven Mexican sailors.
Enough was enough. On May 28, 1942, Mexicans listened to the radio as “the grave, emotionless voice of Camacho declared war on the Axis powers,” Vázquez-Lozano writes. “The conflagration was coming to them.”
Secretly, though, Mexico City was convinced that its deadliest enemy lay not in the heart of Europe but across the Pacific Ocean: Japan. The Mexican Army intercepted a Japanese plan to invade the United States via the Sea of Cortez on the Pacific Coast. Troops would land in the state of Sonora, in northwestern Mexico, and drive north into the vulnerable American Southwest.
The Mexican government forced much of the country’s large Japanese population to relocate to designated areas, and some were even detained in camps. Mexicans turned up at army bases across the country to volunteer, but Camacho was well ahead of them: He had already organized the 201st and sent it to the United States for training, even before he publicly announced the force.
The men, all volunteers, came from a cross section of Mexico. The commander, Col. Antonio Cárdenas Rodríguez, was a combat veteran who had flown with the U.S. Army Air Forces in North Africa; even so, some Americans did not feel that Rodriguez was pro-American enough, and they tried unsuccessfully to have him replaced. Gallardo, a lieutenant when he signed up, was the scion of a powerful Mexican family who had transferred from the cavalry.
On their way to war, the men of the 201st stopped first in San Antonio, where they were trained by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. They were then shipped to North Texas and then to Idaho to train on the plane that would take them to war: the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Designed as a fighter, the aircraft was also a flying tank, capable of close air support, dropping 500-pound bombs and unloading its .50-caliber guns with ferocious generosity. Reinforced armor underneath also made the plane able to take damage as much as it could dish it out.
Gallardo loved pushing his great big fighter plane. When the squadron went to Greenville in North Texas, he dropped out of formation in his Thunderbolt and buzzed the town — flying right down the main street. On landing, he got busted to a desk job. “I was very sad,” he said later in a University of Texas at Austin oral history. “But I knew that I would fly again one day, and I did.” He was shortly reinstated, in time to conclude his training in Texas and go on to advanced training with the rest of the unit.
Now far from home, the Mexicans experienced something they had never known at home: discrimination during training in a restaurant whose owner refused to serve them, despite their uniforms, because they were Mexicans. Many in the squadron suspected that the Americans doubted their abilities as fighting men.
The American counteroffensive, meanwhile, began to pay dividends, though at staggering human cost. The Battle of the Coral Sea hampered the Japanese navy; the Battle of Midway destroyed its prized aircraft carriers. U.S. Army and Marine amphibious invasions prevented an invasion of Australia and then slowly peeled back Japanese control of islands extending southeast from the Philippines even as thousands of lives were lost in grinding battles like Guadalcanal.
Finally, the prize was in sight: the Philippines and outlying islands like Guam and Tinian. From here, the Allies would once more be within range to bomb the Japanese main islands — and even invade. So MacArthur made his return, and the main American invasion force landed on the Philippine island Luzon on Jan. 9, 1945, engaging in pitched fighting with the Japanese.
Arriving in the Philippines aboard the U.S.S. Fairisle on April 30, 1945, the 201st was assigned to the U.S. Fifth Air Force. The 201st went into action on its own near Vigan, where the Japanese were dug in, and the only way to get them out was to fly close against the mountain range, executing dangerous dive-bombing runs. The Mexicans got the job done, to the amazement of the Americans, who nicknamed the Mexicans the “white noses” for the paint on their cowlings. The pilots had to fly so close to the Japanese that one of the first aircraft took “two blows to the wings,” according to Vázquez-Lozano.
On June 1, 1945, the 201st planned an attack on a Japanese ammunition depot. Because of three high cliffs and antiaircraft batteries, they would have to dive-bomb from high altitudes and then try to pull their heavy planes up and out. The Americans considered it suicide; the Mexicans had never dived-bombed in combat.
Four pilots took off. Carlos Garduño Nuñez explained later: “Fausto was coming up behind me, right on my tail. First I dropped my bombs and I got out straight away, grazing the sea.” Rising fast, he recalled, “my blackout happened, and when I got my vision back, my plane was ascending. I turned around to see if Fausto was behind me … but it was another plane.”
“They got Cachito!” the radio crackled. “Cachito” was the nickname of the squadron’s youngest pilot, Second Lt. Fausto Vega Santander of Veracruz, who was just 22. Various accounts described him having been hit by Japanese fire or losing control. His powerful P-47 lurched twice to the right and then spun into the Pacific at 350 miles per hour.
The 201st continued to attack Japanese positions day after day into June. As the soggy rainy season set in, the 201st flew into combat to hit remaining Japanese infantry and antiaircraft guns in Northern Luzon and the Marikina Valley, east of Manila. The losses of the squadron’s pilots mounted into July.
MacArthur ordered his air forces to turn their attention northward to the Japanese territory known as Formosa, now Taiwan. The battle for the Philippines was largely over at a cost of 13,000 Allied lives — and over 300,000 Japanese. Now the fight would be taken directly to the enemy.
The remaining Mexicans flew dangerous, six-hour wave-top missions over nothing but open ocean to hit the Japanese in Formosa with half-ton bombs. “We saw more frequent airplanes from Japan on that 650-mile trip than ever before,” Miguel Moreno Arreola said in a 2003 interview. “But they didn’t want to have combat with us, because they knew our P-47s were better than their Mitsubishis. We could fly higher and faster.” So grueling were these missions that when they returned, pilots had to be pried out of their cockpits and helped off the tarmac.
From nearby Guam, the big American bombers roared off to fire-bomb Japan. Despite losses, no replacements came, and with 14 aircraft wrecked, the 201st was becoming ineffective for combat. So many of its pilots were killed and aircraft destroyed that the 201st was left in the Philippines when the U.S. fighters relocated to Okinawa.
Then one night in August, the men gathered in a tent at Clark Field. They learned the United States had dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and the enemy was finally offering to surrender.
The war was over, and the men returned home to parades and flowers. “I can vividly remember our welcome home to Mexico,” Capt. Luis Pratt told a U.S. Air Force interviewer in 2003. “As we traveled through the towns toward Mexico City, we were greeted by cheering crowds and confetti and marching bands.”
Because of its contributions to the war effort, Mexico received one of the first rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council, alongside the permanent members, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and China.
Relations between the United States and Mexico thawed. The Mexican military received financial aid from the United States; the Central Intelligence Agency covertly established the largest office for U.S. intelligence in the Western Hemisphere in Mexico City during the Cold War. Ultimately, Mexico received military aid and training from the United States, which continues to this day. Mexican marines, for instance, train at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Free trade would not have been possible without a more relaxed atmosphere between the two North American neighbors, for better and for worse.
Gen. Henry Harley Arnold said in 1945 that the 201st squadron put 30,000 Japanese troops out of combat. Logging 2,000 hours of combat sorties, the unit dropped 1,457 bombs on the Japanese.
The unit was commemorated at a monument in Mexico City on Feb. 9, just as it is every year. “Sadly there are not that many people who remember,” said Martín del Campo Alfredo, a member of the association’s board, whose grandfather was a Mexican Air Force pioneer. The military and families still care, however, he said. “Even though there are fewer and fewer men, we will remain dedicated to their memory.” Just 10 Mexican veterans of the war remain alive, and one is a pilot: Carlos Garduño, who recently turned 100.
Richard Parker is a journalist who writes about the American Southwest, the U.S.-Mexico border and is the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.”