'Aztec Eagles' A Dying Breed; Only 10 of 300 Still Living
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ANAHEIM, Calif., Oct. 21, 2003 The more than 300 Mexicans who volunteered to help the United States kick the Japanese out of the Pacific islands during World War II are slowing passing on. Only 10 of them are still around.
"We're very proud to have served with the Americans veterans in World War II," said Miguel Moreno Arreola, who fought with the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201, the "Aztec Eagles," during the war. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Only three of them -- two combat pilots and one ground crew member -- were well enough to travel here from Mexico to be honored for their contributions by the Defense Department on Oct. 16 and 17. They were former "Aztec Eagles" pilots, retired Mexican air force Col. Carlos Garduno and Capt. Miguel Moreno Arreola, and ground crewman former Capt. Manuel Cervantes Ramos.
"Only 10 of us are still alive," Garduno said sadly during an interview at the Hyatt Regency Orange County Hotel here during DoD's Hispanic American Heritage Month observance.
The Mexican war hero said the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201, "El Escuadron 201," was composed of more than 300 volunteers – 36 experienced pilots and the rest ground crewmen. The ground crewmen were electricians, mechanics, radiomen, and armament – "all the specialties that are required for a typical fighter squadron," the colonel said.
The Aztec Eagles were attached to the U.S. Army Air Forces 5th Air Force's 58th Fighter Group during the liberation of the main Philippine island of Luzon in the summer of 1945. The pilots flew P-47D "Thunderbolt" single-seat fighter aircraft carrying out tactical air support missions.
"We flew close air support missions for American and Filipino infantry troops on the ground, and had to hit where we saw a smoke bomb go off," Garduno said. "Otherwise, we could have hit friendly troops, because the difference in distance was about 300 yards between the enemy and the friendly troops.
"We were 31 pilots (who) went to war," said Garduno, who flew 26 combat missions and served more than 37 years in the Mexican air force. "Originally, we were 38 pilots, but two were killed in training and the others were eliminated from training. All the time we were in the war, we never got a replacement pilot. It took a long time for training, and by the time they were going to be shipped out it was too late."
The squadron left Mexico for the United States on July 24, 1944, arrived at Laredo, Texas, on July 25, and moved on to Randolph Field in San Antonio, where they received medical examinations and weapons and flight proficiency tests. They received five months of training at Majors Field in Greenville, Texas; Pocatello (Idaho) Army Air Base; Foster Field in Victoria, Texas; and Randolph. The pilots received extensive training in armament, communications or engineering as well as combat tactics, formation flying and gunnery.
This marked the first time Mexican troops were trained for overseas combat. The "Aztec Eagles" flew 59 combat missions, totaling more than 1,290 hours of flight time. They participated in the Allied effort to bomb Luzon and Formosa (now Taiwan) to push the Japanese out of those islands.
"We were trying to get three more squadrons to have a whole group of Mexican air force in the war," Garduno said. "I joined the squadron of Aztec Eagles because as a professional military man, I was dedicated to serving my country, which had declared war against the Axis. Professional men have to accept the call to duty.
"They sent me to learn dive-bombing at North Island in San Diego with the Navy for eight months," continued Garduno, who noted his English, which he started learning at age 7, helped him during his military career. "But I flew only 26 missions because I had an accident and spent three weeks in the hospital."
Garduno said he remembers Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho saying in his welcome home speech that "your pilot comrades that are not with you because they've passed on to the hills of Mexico, you live to remember them forever."
"It was like an order that each one of us never forgot," Garduno said. "So we formed an association of veterans, called "Asociacion Mexicana de Veteranos II Guerra Mundial" (Mexican Association of World War II Veterans), which is very small now only 10 members. We remember them every time one dies. Every year we have a very important celebration on Nov. 18, which is the day we came back from the war."
Garduno, the association's president and international issues representative, has printed on the back of his business card, "This card identifies those who believe in the principles of freedom, for which veterans of many countries gave their lives. Voluntary affiliation will help to preserve their memory."
He said even today, the Mexican president, secretary of defense, air force and others support the surviving Aztec Eagles when they remember their dead on Nov. 18. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as British and French veterans organizations in Mexico, always participate in the observance.
"We all get together for International Remembrance Day on Nov. 10," Garduno noted. "It's just a very important day for us."
Arreola, who finished pilot training on June 3, 1944, remembers arriving at San Antonio's Randolph Field, which, he said, at that time, was the best school for pilot training.
"Sometimes something nice happens," Arreola said with a big smile. "When I was waiting for my training, a beautiful lady arrived and said, 'Are you Arreola?' I said, 'Yes I am.' And she said, 'I'm your instructor.' "I was totally surprised because I never thought that a woman would be giving me training."
Arreola was one of 34 out of 36 pilots to pass the examinations. "We left from San Francisco on March 27, 1945, and arrived in Manila on April 30 and (were) attached to the 58th Group," said Arreola, who started out as a wingman and later became a commander. "Then they sent us about 70 miles north to one of the big islands. We arrived May 1, 1945, and raised our battle flag the second day there.
"We flew some very dangerous missions from Clark Field in the Philippines to Formosa, now called Taiwan," continued Arreola, who flew 36 missions, including two over Formosa, during his six months in the Pacific. "We saw more frequent airplanes from Japan on that 650-mile trip than ever before. But they didn't want to have combat with us, because they knew our P-47s were better than their Mitsubishis. We could fly higher and faster."
Arreola said the Aztec Eagles didn't find out until Aug. 8, 1945, that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6. "We didn't know what it destroyed, or if it destroyed anything," he said. "Then on Aug. 9 they dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki."
After the war ended, the Mexican pilots were sent to Okinawa and placed on standby.
Arreola said the Aztec Eagles dedicated a monument in Manila on Sept. 25, 1945, honoring the five pilots who were killed.
They left the Pacific and returned home triumphantly on Oct. 21, 1945. They were greeted as national heroes in Mexico City on Nov. 18 by huge crowds, including President Camacho.
"I said to the president, the mission is over," said Arreola, who got out of the air force and flew civilian airliners in Mexico for 36 years. "That's one of the best memories I have."
But today, the enormous crowds are gone and in most cases, the Aztec Eagles are all but forgotten. "Now, we receive more attention in the United States than in our own country," Arreola noted. "We have a very small pension, not like the pension veterans in American have. We have very few dollars per month.
"But we're very proud to have served with the American veterans in World War II," he said.
Garduno said the cooperation between Mexico and the United States in World War II "to go fight and help the Allied countries was very important."
"In those days," he noted, "Mexico still had a tremendous resentment toward the United States for the Mexican War of 1846 and 1847 and for the American occupation of Veracruz in 1914 during the Mexican Civil War. So about 90 percent of the population of Mexico was against cooperation with the United States during World War II."
He said Mexican President Camacho had a tremendous opposition to cooperation with the United States. "It took the sinking of two Mexican oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico by U-boats for the Mexican congress to accept a declaration of war on the Axis," Garduno noted.
"As small as Mexico's contribution was compared to the big nations, it was very significant," he said. "We're trying to convince the people that regardless of past conflicts we had with the United States, the important thing is to be together (as we were) in the Second World War. Unity, cooperation and integrity for our beliefs in freedom are the important thing. We won the war, but we still want to be winning the peace that we've had since then.
"So our sentiments were with the United States to save the freedom that we're still enjoying today," Garduno said.