In Pursuit of Pancho Villa

Sept. 5, 2008

With a force of more than 1,000 mounted Mexican gunmen, Francisco “Pancho” Villa on March 9, 1916, raided Columbus, N. M., and other US settlements on the international border. Sixteen Americans died. US cavalry chased Villa across the border but could not apprehend him.

In Washington, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker immediately ordered Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, then stationed in El Paso, to pursue and capture Villa.

The Army Signal Corps First Aero Squadron, based at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., and under command of Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois, was assigned to Pershing’s “punitive expedition.” The squadron had eight old, low-powered Curtiss IN-3 Jennies, unsuitable for flying more than fifty miles from base.

Ground equipment consisted of ten trucks, an automobile, and a few spare parts. In addition to Captain Foulois, there were nine pilots, eighty-two enlisted men, a civilian mechanic, and two enlisted medical corpsmen.

Captain Foulois’s unit reached Columbus on March 15. The next day, Capt. Townsend F. Dodd and Captain Foulois made a first reconnaissance flight into Mexico. On March 19, the squadron was ordered to proceed to Casas Grandes, Mexico, 125 miles south of the border. High winds, lack of navigational equipment, poor maps, inadequate maintenance, and mountainous terrain took their toll. Planes were scattered across the area. It took a week to round up all pilots and planes. Two planes were destroyed, but their four airmen survived with only minor injuries.

Captain Foulois and Captain Dodd made another flight, this one intended to establish communications with US troops. Over the next three weeks, the squadron was unable even to get a glimpse of Villa or his revolutionaries. The pilots couldn’t coax the Jennies high enough to reconnoiter the mountain areas where Villa’s troops were hiding.

The dry climate warped the planes’ propellers. Blowing sand wrought havoc with the engines. By the end of the first month of operations, the squadron found its remaining six aircraft in questionable condition to conduct military operations.

Pleading for New Planes

Several missions could not be completed due to poor weather, maintenance problems, or the planes’ inadequacies. In a memorandum to General Pershing, Captain Foulois said the Jennies “were not capable of meeting the present military service conditions” and pleaded for “at least ten of the highest-powered, highest-climbing, and best weight-carrying aeroplanes” that the government could provide.

“I knew I was optimistic in thinking I would get the planes I wanted,” Captain Foulois said in his memoirs, “but I was duty-bound to ask for them. In the meantime, we would do what we could within the limitations of our equipment. “

Captain Foulois had only one course of action: to use the remaining planes to carry mail and dispatches between various US ground units until the planes were no longer flyable. A number of reconnaissance, photo, and mail flights were made from several locations.

One frustrating condition of the Mexican campaign was the refusal of the government of Gen. Venustiano Carranza to let the US troops use Mexico’s railroads for transport of men and supplies. On top of that, Carranza’s forces, whom the Americans thought they were helping by chasing Villa, were openly hostile.

“When the supply shortage began to get critical,” Captain Foulois recalled, “I was asked to fly to the city of Chihuahua to contact the American consul there to see what could be done about getting critically needed medicine and food items. The town was held by the allegedly friendly forces of Carranza, but I was suspicious. The reports I had seen from the various commanders trying to locate Villa did not indicate any friendship, because they had been fired upon by Carranzistas.”

Captain Foulois decided to send two planes with pilots and observers and duplicate messages. One plane was to land north of the city and the other on the south side. The observers were to walk into the city from opposite directions while the pilots would protect their machines and, if necessary, fly them out to prevent damage or capture.

On April 7, Captain Foulois and Lt. Herbert A. Dargue took off from San Geronimo in one plane, while Captain Dodd and Lt. Joe Carberry departed in another. Captain Dodd and Lieutenant Carberry landed without incident on the north side. Captain Dodd commandeered a carriage and drove directly to the consulate. The consul, Marion H. Letcher, contacted a few merchants. Supplies were purchased, and arrangements were made to have them shipped by train later that day.

Captain Foulois was not so lucky. “A number of townspeople had seen us circling south of the city and came running toward the field we selected,” Captain Foulois said. “Four Mexican rurales waved rifles at us excitedly when we landed. When Lieutenant Dargue got the plane stopped, I got out and yelled to him to take off immediately to join Lieutenant Carberry north of town and that I would meet him there later.”

Facing Winchester Rifles

“I immediately started walking briskly toward the city and tried to ignore the group shouting and shaking their fists at the departing plane. Four shots were fired but Lieutenant Dargue got away. I shouted at the crowd to divert their attention. The rurales wheeled and leveled their rifles at me. I was defenseless except for a Colt .45, which was no match for four Winchester rifles. There was nothing I could do but put my hands up-and pray. I did both.”

Captain Foulois was shoved and prodded toward the city jail. As the crowd pushed him along, he heard a voice shout in English: “Do you need any help, Captain?”

Captain Foulois replied, “Yes! Go get the American consul!”

“When we arrived at the jail,” Captain Foulois recalled, “I was thrust through the doorway and into a cell. An iron door clanged shut behind me, and I became the first American aviator ever to become a prisoner of war.”

Captain Dodd was having no such difficulties. While the supplies were being loaded on a train, Mr. Letcher took him to see the governor of Chihuahua, who turned out to be a former classmate of Dodd’s from the University of Illinois.

Meanwhile, Captain Foulois was trying to negotiate for his release with the jail warden, who finally agreed to send a messenger to General Gutierrez, the military governor.

“A Colonel Miranda, the general’s chief of staff, showed up, took me in custody, and we marched several blocks to the headquarters,” recalled Foulois. “General Gutierrez was affable and agreed that I should not be detained any longer. I told him about the two planes north of the city and asked for guards to keep them from being harmed. Again he was agreeable. I asked if I might visit the planes to reassure my men, and we were soon on our way.”

When Captain Foulois arrived at the field north of the city, only Lieutenant Dargue was there. He had joined Lieutenant Carberry, but his arrival had drawn a large crowd of Carranzistas who crowded menacingly around both machines. With cigarettes, they burned holes in the fabric. When Lieutenants Dargue and Carberry tried to stop them, the mob slashed at the cloth with knives and machetes. Boys began to swarm all over the planes, loosening nuts and turnbuckles.

The two pilots felt their only defense was to make a strategic retreat. They started their engines and taxied to take off. Lieutenant Carberry got off all right, but he dusted the mob so thoroughly with his propeller blast that the angry crowd chased after Lieutenant Dargue’s plane, throwing rocks.

Lieutenant Dargue was just lifting off when the entire top section of the fuselage behind the cockpit flew off and struck the vertical stabilizer. He chopped the throttle and landed straight ahead.

When Captain Foulois arrived with the guards, Lieutenant Dargue was doing his best to hold off the angry mob with his wits, bare fists, and a loud voice. The guards took over and quieted the crowd. Lieutenant Carberry landed at a smelting company about six miles away and returned later that afternoon. The four pilots stayed overnight at the US consulate, where they experienced no further difficulties. Next morning, after making rudimentary repairs, they took off.

Military Theater of the Absurd

This encounter with the Carranzistas was typical of the ridiculous position in which the American forces found themselves, despite the fact that both sides supposedly were trying to capture Villa.

The deeper into Mexico the Americans penetrated, the more hostility they encountered from both Villa sympathizers and Carranzistas. On April 12, 1916, a small US cavalry unit fought a pitched battle with a band of Carranzistas, killing forty of the Mexican troops. Two Americans died, and six suffered wounds.

By April 14, after flying as many missions as possible, only two US planes remained airworthy. It appeared that the First Aero Squadron would go out of business, at least in Mexico.

In the interim, however, the bad news about the aviation situation had reached Washington. Secretary Baker appealed to Congress for a special, $500,000 appropriation to buy twelve new Curtiss R-2 planes. They were to be equipped with Lewis guns, automatic cameras, bombs, and radios. On April 20, the First Aero Squadron was ordered to return to Columbus to await these new planes. Captain Foulois put a match to the two tired Jennies so that no one could order him to take them aloft.

Instead of new R-2s, however, the squadron received four Curtiss N-8s, which were nothing more than copies of JN-4s built for overseas delivery. Captain Foulois flew all four of them and declared them unfit for service.

Eventually, the R-2s did arrive, but for the next three months, said Foulois, “we had constant engine and construction troubles.

“Every plane required alterations and replacement of vital parts. The biggest problem turned out to be propellers, which had been manufactured all over the States and sent to us for testing. Practically all were defective because of the climate. As a result we never again were able to perform useful field service with the Pershing forces.

“However, we did manage to get a half-dozen planes in the air on August 22, 1916, and give General Pershing the first aerial review ever held by a United States air unit.”

Risk to Life and Limb

Captain Foulois, who later rose to the rank of major general and in 1931 became Chief of the US Army Air Corps, made a summary report of the first American attempt to use airplanes in active field service. In pertinent part, it stated:

“Due to lack of aeroplanes with greater carrying capacity, all flying officers were continually called upon to take risks in every reconnaissance flight made while on duty in Mexico. All officers thoroughly appreciated the fact that the failure of their aeroplane motors, while flying through mountainous canyons and over rugged mountains, would invariably result in death.”

Captain Foulois noted that the pilots also suffered physically. “Due to inadequate weight-carrying capacity of all aeroplanes,” he wrote, “it was impossible even to carry sufficient food, water, or clothing on many of the reconnaissance flights. Pilots were frequently caught in snow, rain, and hail storms. . . . In several instances, pilots were compelled to make forced landings in desert and hostile country, fifty to seventy miles from the nearest troops.

“In nearly every case, the aeroplanes were abandoned or destroyed and the pilots, after experiencing all possible suffering due to lack of food and water, would finally work their way on foot, through alkali deserts and mountains, to friendly troops, usually arriving thoroughly exhausted as a result of these hardships.”

Mexican bandits continued to conduct border raids against US targets, but the Carranza government insisted it could control Villa without US intervention. In January 1917, the US force was ordered out of Mexico, and the last American soldier crossed the border on February 5.

It had had no success finding Villa. To Captain Foulois, however, the plight of his eight-plane “air force” was a turning point in the development of American military aviation. “The machines were inadequate for the task assigned,” he said. “Not only were they inadequate, they were downright dangerous to fly because of their age. Yet we did a great amount of scouting over country in which cavalry and infantry could not operate.”

Despite all the difficulties, the First Aero Squadron chalked up 346 hours of flying time on 540 flights, covering more than 19,533 miles while performing aerial reconnaissance and photography and transporting mail and official dispatches. More important for the nation was the ultimate realization that the airplane was no longer an experiment or an oddity.

C. V. Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer and the author of many books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “The Cargo Cults,” appeared in the January 1991 issue.