Five months after the United States was pulled into World War II by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Mexican oil tanker “Potrero de Llano” was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Miami.
A week later, a second tanker was sunk, and President Manuel Avila Camacho declared war on the Axis Powers.
There were many obstacles for Mexico to join the allies in the fight. The country had few military resources and little legislative support to send soldiers off to war. The only viable option to strike back at the axis was with the help from the United States’ military, and many didn’t want Mexican soldiers to serve under the command of United States leadership. It had, after all, been less than a century since there was war between the two nations.
These issues delayed the response by two years, but ultimately, Mexico was unwilling to stay on the sidelines in this worldwide battle against tyranny. President Camacho decided in conference with President Roosevelt to send a Mexican force to the Philippines to aid in “...the liberation of people for whom it is felt a continuity of idiom, history and traditions.” It was decided that a fighter squadron under Mexican command would best serve allied needs, so a special force was selected out of the Mexican Air Force along with supporting personnel, called the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force, or Fuerza Aerea Expedicionaria Mexicana, and Mexican leadership assigned command to Col. Antonio Cardenas Rodriguez.
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The Aztec Eagles arrived in Manila along with 1,500 U.S. troops on May 1, 1945, ready to put their training to the test.
On July 26, 1944 the three dozen pilots, known as Escuadron 201 (Fighter Squadron 201), and an over 200 member ground crew of the FAEM crossed into Texas on a bus bound for San Antonio to train with the United States military for operations in the Philippines. Escuadron 201’s eight months training in the United States were not without their difficulties. Cultural and language barriers made training problematic, and while some people welcomed the allied fighting force, they also encountered racism and hate.
In addition, the dangers of 1940s aircraft led to the deaths of three young pilots in training. Nevertheless, the squadron pushed through the setbacks and came together as a unit ready to fight for the world’s freedom. They eventually came to be nicknamed the Aztec Eagles by the Mexican Press after elite Aztec warriors in Mexico’s history.
The Aztec Eagles arrived in Manila along with 1,500 U.S. troops on May 1, 1945, ready to put their training to the test. After meeting with U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Cardenas and Escuadron 201 moved to Porac Aerodrome, a forward airbase in the province of Pampanga where they set up a base of operations. Conditions were difficult in the Pacific Theater, but the Eagles faced every challenge with determination. Escuadron 201’s mission was close air support for American and Philippine ground troops. They struck at Japanese mechanized units and gun emplacements and at any concentrations of resistance that they encountered. They had many successes, but the victories were not without a cost. Several pilots paid the ultimate price in the fight to free the Philippines.
Throughout the fight after joining the war effort, the FAEM comported itself proudly and proved that Mexico and the U.S. could put the past behind them and fight together to defend the world from oppression. On Oct. 23, 1945 the Aztec Eagles boarded the Sea Marlin for the return voyage to the United States, a shorter trip without the concerns of an attack at sea. They received a warm welcome with a celebration in San Pedro, Cali., before boarding a train down to San Antonio. The celebrations continued in Texas and throughout Mexico as the only Mexican fighting force to ever go abroad made its way to the capital. President Camacho honored the FAEM with the only medal ever awarded to a Mexican military unit for valor serving abroad, the Medalla Servicio en el Lejano Oriente (Medal for Service in the Far East). Today, a memorial stands below historic Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, Monumento de las Aguilas Caidas (Monument of the Fallen Eagles) honoring the personnel of the FAEM, with special recognition for those who gave their lives during the conflict.