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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.

July 25, 2004|Dana Calvo | Dana Calvo is a freelance writer based in Houston

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 Assn. of WWII Veterans. At 80, he still takes his position of authority seriously; on a typically hazy summer day here, he wears a starched sky blue shirt with a veterans 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 schoolchildren 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 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.

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