Monday, April 25, 2011

My Mother, Mexican Pride and Escuadrón 201

By Roy Ortega

A while back during a visit to McAllen, Texas, I made an interesting discovery near the city's convention center. The recently-built Veteran's War Memorial included a tribute to Mexico's Escuadrón 201.

Few Americans are familiar with this part of World War II history, but I first learned about this storied group of valiant Mexican Air Force pilots not from history books or news accounts, but from my own mother. I'll explain this later, but first I would like to describe how Mexico's Escuadrón 201 helped America defeat the Japanese and in the process helped boost Mexican pride and patriotism.

Escuadrón Aéreo de Pelea 201 (201st Air Fighter Squadron), known as the "Aztec Eagles," consisted of an elite group of 33 pilots recruited from all over
Mexico under the command of Colonel Antonio Cardenas Rodriguez. The entire unit included 300 support personnel and 25 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft that were organized in 1942 during the administration of President Manuel Avila Camacho. In the summer of 1944, the squadron was sent to Randolph Field near San Antonio to begin several months of training before shipping out to the war zone in support of Americans fighting the Japanese in places like the Philippine Islands and Formosa (Taiwan).

Upon arrival in the South Pacific, members of the unit quickly engaged the enemy and
eventually flew a total of 800 combat sorties alongside members of the USAAF's 310th Fighter Squadron. The unit also flew missions in support of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division fighting the Japanese onslaught around the Philippine city of Luzon. The unit became identifiable by its colorful mascot "Pancho Pistolas." During the fighting, a total of five Mexican pilots were shot down and killed.

After the war, General Douglas McArthur awarded the squadron numerous commendations and medals for heroism in support of the American victory over the Japanese.

The pilots of Escuadrón 201 returned to Mexico in November of 1945 as national heroes. During the following nine months, the surviving pilots toured dozens of
Mexican cities and towns where patriotic pride erupted everywhere. Town plazas were brightly decorated in red, white and green banners as local townsfolk gathered to catch a glimpse of the famed unit.

In the northern Mexican city of Monclova, a parade and a patriotic celebration were held in honor of the heroic pilots. Among the parade participants was my mother,
Rebecca Huerta Ramos, age 16, who proudly marched with her school's drum corps through the streets of the city. A faded photograph taken during the parade shows my mother beating her drum alongside her school mates as they marched past the Tampico Club toward the town plaza where local leaders had assembled to honor the war heroes. The photograph is the only image I have of my mother as a teenager.

Somehow, this single event made a big impression on my mother. During my childhood, she related the story several times but I never fully understood the strong sense of national pride the Mexican airmen inspired until I researched the topic in college. Clearly, the heroes of Escuadrón 201 became an important source of patriotic pride for the entire country.

It was not until much later that the unit's contributions were fully recognized by Americans. On March 3, 2010, the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, paid tribute to the Mexican Air Force for the critical role it played during World War II.

To this day, Escuadrón 201 remains as the only Mexican military unit to have ever served in a combat role on foreign soil.

Roy Ortega may be reached at