The Hunt for Pancho Villa 1916-1917 (2)
In 1916, the Signal Corps Aviation Service only had a few crude aircraft. The 1st Aero Squadron which was assigned to support Pershing was equipped with six Curtiss JN-2 “Jennies” which had a reputation of being unstable deathtraps. In addition, the airservice was handicapped by inexperienced pilots. Pershing was barely a month into the expedition when he lost all six of his aircraft. Two crashed within the first week of the expedition.
Pershing’s expedition also provided an opportunity for one of the Army more headstrong members. . . George S. Patton, then a young lieutenant. Fearing he would be left behind on mundane border patrol with his unit, Patton pleaded with Pershing to take him along as a replacement for one of his two aides that was absent when the expedition was ordered into Mexico. Pershing agreed at the last moment and took him.
Pancho Villa had a nine days headstart before Pershing’s Expedition crossed into Mexico (Map 1) at noon on March 15, 1916. By that time, Villa and his men were well hidden in the mountains. To cover the uncharted terrain, Pershing divided his force into East and West columns and proceeded methodically into the unfamiliar Mexican interior.7
Basically, the two American columns of the expedition got nowhere in their pursuit of Pancho Villa. Northern Mexico was a vast wasteland with few towns and dominated by the barren and rugged Sierra Madre Mountains with peaks averaging ten to twelve thousand feet and honeycombed with deep canyons providing excellent hiding places for Pancho Villa and his men. The few roads were little more than dirt trails, dusty in dry weather and muddy quagmires in the rain. Villa’s men were on their home ground while Pershing was moving into unfamiliar and largely unmapped territory depending on Mexican guides whose loyalty was always questionable.
Pershing’s soldiers, encountered every imaginable mishap during their eleven months in Mexico. President Carranza had promised assistance, but when, for example, Pershing’s men were on the verge of capturing Panco Villa, the “Carranzistas” attacked them. Another time, Pershing’s Indian scouts misinformed him about the location of Villa’s lair. On other occasions, the scouts brought in blood-filled boots and bullet-riddled shirts as “proof” that he had been killed.
At Colonia Dublan , Pershing established his permanent command post where he began to plan how he would snare Pancho Villa. Everywhere U.S. Troops went, men, women, and children cheerfully provided them with misinformation about his (Villa’s) whereabouts.
As in past American invasions (e.g., the Mexican War of 1846-1848), the Pershing Expedition was a financial “boon” to Mexico. The American soldiers’ wants were catered to and satisfied everywhere they went. Prices skyrocketed. If they so desired, soldiers could submerge themselves in Mexican beer. Cantinas were open all night. In many restaurants soldiers devoured “deer” meat that once ran in the streets barking. Life was hard only when the Americans marched or rode along the dirt roads and were eating their dry ration crackers and looking for water. Dublan was transformed into an enormous military encampment complete with a railhead where tons of supplies were unloaded by a thousand civilian workers. The soldiers and civilians worked by day and brawled by night in the saloons and bordellos that had sprung up in the once sleepy town.
Pancho Villa’s men mingled with the populace at will by simply removing the cartridge belts they normally strapped across their chests. They even mixed with the Americans and attended Western “cowboy” movies with Pershing’s officers.
In May, 1916, Lieutenant Patton saw combat for the first time. Based on information about the location of Julio Cardenas, one of Pancho Villa’s most trusted subordinates and commander of his personal bodyguard; Patton, accompanied by ten soldiers from the 6th Infantry Regiment, and two civilian guides traveling in three Dodge open top touring automobiles, conducted a surprise raid on a ranch house at San Miguelito (Map 2) near Rubio. During the ensuing fire-fight, Patton and his men killed three men. One was identified as Cardenas. The other two dead Mexicans were an unnamed Villista captain and a private. Patton’s men tied the bodies to the hoods of the cars, while Patton put Cardenas’ silver-studded saddle and sword into his vehicle. The spectacle of the three cars with the bodies tied on the hoods caused a great commotion along the road, but Patton and his party sped through the countryside to their headquarters at Dublan without incident.
At around 4 p.m., Patton arrived at Dublan with the three bloody corpses strapped across the blistering-hot hoods of the automobiles. War correspondents crowded around to get a first hand account of his adventure. The stories they filed made Patton a national hero for several weeks. His photograph appeared in newspapers around the United States. Pershing was pleased that someone had enlivened the hunt for Villa and actually taken out a key member of his band. He even permitted Patton to keep Cardenas’ sword and silver saddle as trophies of his first fight.12
In June, Pershing was informed that Pancho Villa could be taken at the small village of Carrizal, northwest of his command center at Dublan. (Map 2). When the Pershing’s troops assaulted the village on June 21, they quickly realized they had been hoodwinked for they found themselves fighting “Carranzistas,” not Villistas. Scores of “Carranzitas” were killed or wounded. Pancho Villa was reported to have watched with much delight — from a safe distance — as his two enemies battled each other in total confusion.
The unfortunate American attack on Mexican government troops became known as the “Carrizal Affair” and created a such a rowe that war with Mexico seemed possible. The situation led President Wilson to call 75,000 National Guardsmen into Federal service to help police the U.S. - Mexico border. In fact, hostilities with Mexico probably would have erupted then and there, but for the bitter war raging in Europe. Wilson, anxious not to become involved in Mexico at a time when relations with Germany were deteriorating, agreed to submit Mexican complaints arising out of the punitive expedition to a joint commission for settlement. Some time later the commission ruled that, among other things, that the debacle at Carrizal was the fault of the American unit commander.
For the remainder of 1916, the intensity of the hunt for Pancho Villa waned and replaced by the tedious routine of life in a temporary bivouac. Boredom spawned drunken shoot-outs between troops and local Mexicans. In an attempt to keep his men busy, Pershing initiated a tough new training program that included cavalry maneuvers. It was clear by this time, however, that given President Wilson’s restrictive orders and the growing intransigence of the Carranza regime that the Pershing led Mexican incursion was doomed to failure.
Company H, 3rd Separate Infantry Battalion and 2nd Company, Coast Artillery were mustered into Federal service on August 10 and September 26 respectively, but remained at home station and were not sent to Texas.
The aggregate strength of the Georgia units that were sent to Camp Cotton, Texas was 3,892. The units were mobilized on June 18, 1916 and mustered into Federal service, most between July 2-31 and one as late as September 26. After some mobilization training at Camp Harris, they departed for duty on the U.S. - Mexico border.
An example of the service of one of the Georgia National Guard units deployed to the border is revealed in the reports of the 2nd Squadron Cavalry. The unit departed Camp Harris at Macon, Georgia on October 25, 1916 and arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas (Map 2) on November 1, 1916. At Fort Bliss, they underwent a month of mounted training until Then, the squadron left on December 1, 1916 for field duty at Fabens , Texas (Map 2) with three officers and 70 men, 79 horses, 2 transport wagons, and eight mules. The group marched 32 miles to Fabens finally reaching there at 1:40 p.m. on December 2, 1916. They performed border patrol with the 1st Kentucky Infantry and from December 16 on with the 2nd Kentucky Infantry. The squadron left Fort Bliss, Texas at 1a.m. on March 22, 1917 with three officers and 77 men, two wagons and full equipment. They arrived at home station, Atlanta, Georgia at 1p.m., March 27, 1917. The distance traveled was 1,700 miles.
In January, 1917, the ill-fated attempt to capture Pancho Villa ended with the recall of the Punitive Expedition from Mexico. On January 27, the first of 10,690 men and 9,307 horses embarked for Columbus. It took over a week to assemble the full expeditionary force back at Fort Bliss, where, on February 7, 1917, with General Pershing at the head, they marched into El Paso to the acclaim of cheering crowds. That officially ended Pershing’s campaign. The expedition had gone as far south as Parral, but Pershing had not captured Pancho Villa. Therefore, the expedition was only notable as the last U.S. Cavalry expedition in U.S. military history. Although Villa had once been nicked in the knee cap by a Carranzistas bullet, he was now completely mended and feeling well. However, many of his best men had either died or deserted him. But, with the gringos gone, he was now free to continue his struggle with his arch foe Venustiano Carranza.18
Unabashed by his failure to capture Pancho Villa, General Pershing claimed the expedition was successful as a learning experience. However, in the minds of Mexicans, Pancho Villa was the clear winner. He had emerged triumphant from battle with the United States led by the great General Pershing. No doubt, in the eyes of the Mexican people, Pershing’s withdrawal from Mexico added to Pancho Villa’s myth of invincibility.
But, a few years later, on Friday, July 20, 1923, Pancho Villa’s luck ran out. Accompanied by his entourage of Dorades (“Golden Ones”), which was what he called his bodyguards, Pancho Villa frequently made trips to Parral for banking and other errands. This day, Pancho Villa had picked up a consignment of gold with which to pay his Canutillo ranch staff and was driving through the city in his black 1919 Dodge roadster when a group of seven riflemen fired 150 shots in just two minutes into his car. In the fusillade of shots, 16 bullets lodged in his body and four more in his head. Pancho Villa was reported to have killed one of the assassins before he died. Truly, Pancho Villa had lived by the gun and died by the gun.
It was never determined who ordered the killing. However, the assassins were given light prison terms leading to general speculation that someone in the Mexican government must have given the order simply because Villa had become an embarrassment to post-revolutionary Mexico.
But even in death, Pancho Villa was not at rest and still stirred controversy. Three years after he was buried in the Cemeterio Municipal at Parral, it was alleged that an ex-Villista officer, Captain Emil L. Holmdahl, had opened the tomb and removed Villa’s head to sell to an eccentric Chicago millionaire who collected the skulls of historic figures. Despite the rumors of a headless Villa, his sons prevented examination of the remains to see if the head was still attached. Three years later, the Federal government ordered Villa’s body, reported to be headless, moved to Mexico City to be interred in the Tomb of Illustrious Men.