American military aviation takes off with 1st Aero Squadron
On March 9, 1916, Mexican Revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his followers known as “Villistas,” raided the town of Columbus, N.M., triggering a chain of events that nearly caused a war between the United States and Mexico. During the raid, 18 Americans, mostly civilians, were killed, and about 70 Villistas lay dead. Pancho Villa escaped back into Mexico.
The American response was to send Brig. Gen. John Pershing on a Punitive Expedition deep into Mexico to find and capture Villa. Six days after the raid, Pershing and his troops, including the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers from Fort Huachuca, crossed the international border in pursuit, beginning a long, frustrating and ultimately unproductive quest for justice.
Among the units to join the expedition was the 1st Aero Squadron, under the command of Capt. Benjamin Foulois. Consequently, the 1st Aero Squadron claims the distinction of the first American aviation unit to engage in combat operations in U.S. history.
However, the squadron’s initial contributions to Pershing’s hunt for Pancho Villa had little to do with flying. Pershing faced a monumental task in providing logistics for his expedition over harsh and extensive terrain with inadequate roads and no access to the railroad. He decided to use another new invention — the truck — to complement his mounted cavalry units.
The Army unit that had the most experience with these new-fangled machines was, ironically, the 1st Aero Squadron. Therefore, it was the aero squadron that was called upon to manage the logistical nightmare of hauling supplies such as field wire, food for soldiers and horses, tools, ammunition, etc., deep into Mexico.
When Foulois arrived in Columbus, N.M. on March 15, 1916 to join the expedition, he arrived with eight wood, wire and fabric Curtiss JN-3 biplanes, 10 four-wheel drive motor trucks, and six motorcycles.
The aviators of the 1st Aero Squadron received the order to join the force on Sunday, March 19. They jumped into their airplanes and headed south, loaded with a single pilot, enough fuel for four hours of flying and weighed down with a variety of equipment. This included field glasses, extra goggles, a mess kit, emergency rations, a sleeping bag, army blankets, an emergency tool kit, an extra battery, engine and propeller covers, tie-down bands, and personal arms and ammunition.
The men were completely unprepared for night-time flight and would not reach their destinations in daylight hours. The terrain, altitude and weather conditions in Mexico beat up the fragile airplanes, and there were numerous crashes and missed opportunities. By the time the expedition ended less than a year later, the Army had effectively transitioned from a horse-powered to a gasoline-driven force.
The Punitive Expedition turned out to be a critical training ground for aviators and aviation in combat. Pershing was frustrated with their problems, but realized it was primarily a situation of old, underpowered equipment.
Meanwhile, in Europe a world war was raging, and airplanes were being designed specifically for observation and reconnaissance, leading to the development of smaller, faster pursuit airplanes and airborne bombers.
American military aviation was woefully behind, but when Pershing went to France as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, only two months after the long march out of Mexico, he did so with valuable experience regarding the importance of this new technology and its combat effectiveness for the future.
To read more about the 1st Aero Squadron, check out the Air Force History and Museums Program booklet, “A Preliminary to War: The 1st Aero Squadron and the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916” (2003) by Roger G. Miller, available online.