From Los Angeles Times Magazine
July 25, 2004

The Saga of the Aztec Eagles
When Mexico lost two oil tankers to
German bombs in WWII, it sent
pilots to train and fight alongside
U.S. forces. Today, the survivors
fight to keep their story alive.


In May of 1942, Bing Crosby began recording "White Christmas." The new Capt. Marvel Adventures #10 flew off newsstands for a dime. "Casablanca" officially became Production No. 410 at the Warner Bros. lot. Japanese Americans grabbed whatever they could carry and reported to relocation camps.

And off the coast of Miami, a German U-boat sank a Mexican oil tanker, followed one week later by another attack on a similar vessel.

Mexico was pulled into WWII and had little choice but to turn to the U.S. for help. Mexico responded by sending a squadron of fighter pilots to train and fly missions with the Americans. 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.

After the war, the pilots of Escuadron 201 were welcomed home as heroes, but Mexico returned to its semi-isolation. During the decades that followed, as America's WWII veterans became its Greatest Generation, the men of Escuadron 201 became Mexico's Forgotten Warriors. But the aging survivors refuse to let their story die.

"You won't be able to miss it -- it's the most beautiful memorial in the whole city," says Ret. Col. Carlos N. Garduno, sitting in the breakfast nook of his Mexico City home. "Right there, in the park." Garduno is referring to a memorial in Chapultepec Park dedicated to Escuadron 201, the only Mexican fighting unit ever to operate on foreign soil.

By all accounts, Garduno was the 201st's most skilled pilot, and he now serves as president of the Mexican Association of WWII Veterans. At 80, he still takes his position of authority seriously; on a typical hazy summer day here, he wears a starched sky blue shirt with a veteran's association patch sewn covering the designer logo. After three hours of talk, he proclaims that the pilots' memorial is a must-see. He can't be bothered to give precise directions, but he issues his final, nonnegotiable statement: "I'm telling you, you can't miss it."

Yet, traversing a shady stretch of the vast, 1,600-acre park, there is no sign of the memorial, and no signs leading to it. When asked for guidance, a group of fruit sellers offers mostly blank stares. "What's that?" one vendor asks in Spanish, irritated. An artist sketching a cluster of uniformed school children also shrugs at the request. Seven people, all of whom have worked in the park for years, can't provide any help.

Finally, about 100 yards past thick, luxurious trees that mute the maddening din of the capital's parade of cars, there stands the 201st's enormous, regal, cream-colored monument. Garduno had been right, in one sense. The monument is impossible to overlook -- once discovered. In the shape of a semicircle, it stretches the length of two school buses and stands at least one story high. Anchored by enormous rectangular plates engraved with the pilots' names, it looks as imposing as any monument in Washington, D.C.

There's a sad parallel in the squadron's history being little known here and their memorial being difficult to find. The pilots' near-anonymity proves that a country's wartime heroes are only as popular as the conflict in which they fought.

The bombing of the Mexican tankers killed 21 Mexican men and sent the country's 45-year-old president, Manuel Avila Camacho, into a blistering rage. A career military man born to rural farmers, the president understood his hand had been forced. Mexico could join the combat or skulk away, passively.

"Avila Camacho had to pretend that he was a real staunch guy who was for the United States, but the truth is Mexico was in a very awkward position," says John Womack Jr., a Harvard University history professor. "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."

Avila Camacho had served as minister of national defense under his predecessor, Lazaro Cardenas, and he knew that any country without a fighting interest in the conflict would be irrelevant during post-wartime negotiations. While he hadn't been looking for an excuse to enter the war, the tanker attacks were a provocation he could not ignore. The president described on Mexican radio how the crews of the Portrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro had been mowed down. "Nothing stopped the aggressors," Avila Camacho boomed to the millions of listeners gathered throughout the republic.

But logistically, he had few options. Mexico's army of more than 48,000 men was ill-equipped. Mexican officials were scrambling. There was no infrastructure and little funding to send the army into battle.

The proposal to send the country's best fighter pilots to train and fight with American forces was a Hail Mary pass, and George S. Messersmith, the well-respected U.S. ambassador to Mexico, was the one American who understood that. He had already vouched for Avila Camacho to his superiors in Washington, bestowing compliments on a man he believed to be a forward-looking leader. This time Messersmith sent a dispatch directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to endorse Avila Camacho's proposal, saying the contribution by Mexican fighter pilots was not "for the actual need or help which such air squadrons would be to us." No, he implied, their contribution was Mexico's entry into the modern world. Roosevelt agreed.

Through competitive examinations by the Mexican Air Force, a team of top guns was assembled. They had been pulled from the reserves and the civilian population. By the time the elite corps was selected, Mexico City had one less baker, newspaper reporter, and armament clerk, to name a few.

"I was 23 when I got the orders that Escuadron 201 would leave in one month," says Angel Sanchez Rebollo, a former pilot who lives in Mexico City and keeps in close contact with other members of the 201st. "We all got the orders written personally by the Secretary of Defense."

Most of the fliers, such as Garduno and, to a greater extent, Reynaldo Perez Gallardo, were from Mexico's middle- to upper-class. Gallardo had been sent to boarding school in San Antonio as a young man to learn English. And he was the son of a governor who had an impeccable military pedigree.

For the few who had managed to break through the sturdy class divisions of Mexico, the selection to participate in Escuadron 201 was complete validation. Miguel Moreno Arreola was raised by a priest and then educated in an orphanage -- a young talent too poor to pay university tuition and too lacking in old-family status to earn a scholarship. By the time he was 20, Arreola was enticed by a military school's promise of 2.5 pesos each weekend, and he enlisted. He soared in the rigid military structure, and within three years had been tapped for the 201st.

"I was a very humble boy, an orphan," Arreola says, sitting in his two-story Mexico City home, its walls covered with family photographs. "I wasn't there because I was entitled to it. I had earned it, and I wanted to help. They all came from upper class, but I was so proud of myself. I was a self-made man."

The 201st's arrangement operated like a scrappy political campaign, with basic rules of the road and a willingness to make up things along the way. The 36 pilots and the 200-member ground crew would train at U.S. military bases, using American equipment. "No U.S. insignia are to be worn by the Mexican trainees," Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Harper wrote in a memo. They would not be subject to the civil or military law of the United States, only to the codes of Mexican law, and discipline would be administered by Mexican commanders only, never by U.S. authorities.

Still, the project was launched in the absence of Avila Camacho's constitutional ability to send men into war. That order would not come from Mexican lawmakers for months, and the reality that the 201st was training for a mission that might never come loomed in their minds. On July 21, 1944, Avila Camacho addressed the 201st, which stood before him in formation. He promised that the Republic of Mexico would take care of their relatives should anything happen to them, either in the U.S. or overseas. He reminded them that they would be held to the same proficiency standards as their American counterparts. And then he wished them good luck.

Three days later the squad reported to Mexico City's Buenavista train station, accompanied by family and friends who sang the traditional despedidas ("farewells"). They boarded the line of six first-class railcars and pulled out of the station. What should have been a 10-hour journey to the border took 36 hours as the train stopped in several cities and towns so that well-wishers could see the men.

On the evening of the second day, a group of Mexican politicians, who had flown from the capital, stood cheering them at the border separating Mexico from the United States. But when the 201st crossed over the international line and entered Laredo, Texas, it was as if the men had stepped into a sound-proof chamber. "There was no one there," Sanchez recalls.

The soldiers boarded a bus bound for Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas. They were in the hands of the U.S. military now. Split along specialty lines, the squad went to train at bases in all corners of the country. The pilots were sent to Foster Field in Victoria, about 2.5 hours southeast of San Antonio.

Back in Mexico, the idea of participating in the "U.S." war seemed increasingly irrelevant. A correspondent from a Mexico City radio station occasionally broadcast dispatches of the 201st's adventures, but the men were not exactly household names. They were participants in a wartime mission that few of their countrymen knew or cared about. Following the sinking of the tankers, there had been a public outcry for some response, but not enough to support sending young men off to join the Allies.

"At the time that Mexico formally entered the war there was a lot of resistance among the populace. They were wary of becoming involved with the U.S.," says Halbert Jones, a graduate student who is writing his dissertation on the political impact of Mexico's participation in WWII.

The proposal that Avila Camacho had nurtured as a way to improve relations with its aggressive neighbor to the north began curdling. Mexico reverted to its nationalistic tendencies, and there was growing discontent at being perceived as the supplier of manpower to the U.S. -- whether it be through the bracero guest worker program or the army. "For the Mexican man on the street, the Second World War did not take place," says John Coatsworth, head of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. "It didn't involve any Mexican national interest. It was not a threat to Mexican security."

Members of the 201st were insulated from the changing winds of support back home, and they continued to make the enormous cultural, technical and language transition on the airfields of Texas. The land in Victoria was as flat as any pilot could hope for. Here, the 201st was rigorously trained to use the P-47, which was considered a hand-me-down from the Americans, some of whom were flying faster and lighter P-51 Mustangs. But the Mexicans lovingly called their bulky plane "El Jarro" (The Jug).

The 201st called themselves the Aguilas Aztecas -- Aztec Eagles. And some pilots named smaller groups within the 201st after Panchito, the gun-wielding, sombrero-wearing Walt Disney cartoon character. "We called ourselves 'Pancho Pistolas,' " Gallardo says.

Several of the men bunked together, including Jaime Cenizo Rojas, who stood all of 5-foot-1. "I used to have to sit on three cushions to see over the windshield," he says, chuckling at the memory. When Cenizo Rojas first walked across Foster Field carrying his headgear and seat cushions on top of his outstretched arms, his skinny legs were the only visible body part. Arreola told him he looked like a "pato", a duck, and the nickname stuck.

Cenizo Rojas shared quarters with the dimpled Sanchez, whose nickname was "Sapo" (frog). Another pilot, Amadeo Castro Amarillo, was called "Camaron" (shrimp), and a burly pilot with wide-set eyes was called "Pescado" (fish). Cenizo Rojas hung a sign outside their quarters that read, in Spanish, "Welcome to the Aquarium," and their barracks became the squadron's de facto hangout.

To an extent, the Aquarium was the only place they could truly relax. Most of the pilots and ground crew did not speak English. In one case, a miscommunication was believed to be responsible for a fatal crash during training. The U.S. military established a three-officer, 20-enlisted man unit, which consisted of interpreters and instructors thought to be bilingual. But most members of the group had only a passing recognition of basic Spanish, learned in high school. The Americans finally summoned a truly bilingual sergeant from the air base in Topeka, Kansas, to help out.

Language barriers aside, the 201st also had to deal with blatant racism. As they pulled into the train station at Greenville, Texas, a town near Dallas where they would train for several weeks, the men saw a white metal sign with black lettering that hung across the street, parallel to the railroad depot. "WELCOME TO GREENVILLE," it said in capital letters, "THE BLACKEST LAND AND THE WHITEST PEOPLE." A short time later, a U.S. commander had to ask one of Greenville's white shop owners to remove the sign from his shop that read "No Mexicans. No Dogs."

It was in this climate that Sanchez did the unthinkable: He met and fell in love with a 17-year-old local high school student named Nancy Hudson. Her father forbade her to see the Mexican pilot, but the young couple carried on. "It was a little bit of a scandal when we dated," Sanchez says. On March 6, 1945, they eloped to the border town of Brownsville, and for $2, a justice of the peace conducted the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Senate had given President Avila Camacho authority to send troops into battle whenever he deemed it necessary, and the news was an electrifying jolt to the pilots. The Aquarium was rocking with music and ice cold beer.

The 201st shipped out at the end of March, 1945, traveling by military transport for a month until it arrived in the torpid Philippines. Before they could fly, each of the pilots had to write their last letter home in case they were killed in action, an order that led to uncomfortable and tender moments because the correspondence had to be written in English to prevent it from getting hung up by a military censor who couldn't read Spanish. Many Mexican pilots found themselves telling their most intimate thoughts to a bilingual comrade, who dutifully translated them into English.

Thirty-one of them flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific during the summer of 1945. Five pilots were killed in battle from June 1 to July 21.

When the pilots returned to Mexico City in November of 1945, Avila Camacho threw a parade, and thousands of revelers jammed the streets. The president led the procession down Madero Avenue and on to the enormous Zocalo. Just over a year later, Avila Camacho was succeeded by a rival who, in keeping with Mexican political culture, trashed his predecessor's every success. The monument in Chapultepec Park was dedicated to them around 1947, but their exploits were soon paved over by the country's nationalistic progress.

"After the war, the Mexicans didn't want to play it up," says Harvard's Womack. One fear, according to the history professor, was 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.

Still, the men of the 201st refuse to criticize their government for failing to adequately honor their sacrifice. These ailing warriors see themselves as true patriots. Many of them went on to become professional pilots or instructors. Sanchez's career was the most glamorous; after leaving the military, he flew for four Mexican presidents.

On a mild afternoon, Rojas visits Sanchez's well-kept, spacious home. Sanchez sits across from him, the ice in his cocktail tumbler twinkling as Glenn Miller streams smoothly from the stereo. "We weren't heroes," Cenizo Rojas says. "We were pilots who fulfilled our missions."

There is a comfortable silence between the men, and when the talk turns to Nancy Hudson, they both nod out of respect. Sanchez was married to her for 43 years, and they had two children and several grandchildren before she died in 1986. Sanchez rises from his chair to retrieve his favorite picture from the war years. For a man of 84, he still moves like a lifelong athlete, and a moment later he comes down the stairs with his bourbon in one hand and a framed picture in the other. The old black and white photo has a tear in it, but it is a clear and close-up shot of him and Nancy at an ice cream shop in Texas. They had just met a few weeks earlier, and their young hands were interlaced as she leaned in to him.

"This really happened," Sanchez says. "It really happened."