Great Pacific War:
Mexico at War
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When Mexico declared war on Germany, Italy and Japan in May 1942, Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho offered to send Mexican troops to fight alongside the United States wherever the North Americans wished. Given the Mexican government’s well-earned suspicion of its northern neighbor, that was an amazing turnaround, but one in keeping with a decade of Mexican foreign policy. Mexico had a proud history of anti-fascist activism during the 1930’s: the Mexican government provided arms, cash and aircraft to the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, and Vienna’s Mexikoplatz remembers that Mexico’s was one of only two foreign governments to condemn the 1938 Anschluss. Mexico also stood nearly alone in her furious protests over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Japanese actions in Manchuria.
Camacho’s offer stood unredeemed until the spring of 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt directed that a Mexican Air Force squadron be formed for overseas service. Unlike Brazil’s armed forces, Mexican Army and Navy units did not deploy to combat zones, but the Mexican offer was genuine and Mexico’s forces such as they were, stood ready to fight the fascists.
The Mexican Army had about 22,000 regulars when the Republic went to war, backed by another 60,000 reservists. Mexico had abolished divisional organizations in 1929 following an abortive revolt led by Gen. Jose Gonzalo Escobar in which soldiers plundered numerous foreign banks. The Army’s 50 small infantry battalions and 40 undersized cavalry regiments were scattered in separate garrisons throughout the country to maintain local order and had little to no training in large-scale maneuvers. Instead, Mexican troops spent most of their time building roads and laying telephone lines. While this made them ineffective against a potential foreign enemy, it also made it difficult for an ambitious general to organize a rebellion. The soldiers carried locally-made small arms – licensed Mauser rifles and Mexican-designed Mendoza light and heavy machine guns. The infantry support weapon was a licensed version of the 60mm French-designed Brandt mortar.
Mexico had a handful of light tanks: Marmon-Herrington CVTL two-man tanks purchased in 1938, and some of the slightly more capable CTMS in 1941. Mexican tanks were considered part of the cavalry, and usually stationed as far as possible from the capital – Mexican leaders quickly realized the potential use of tanks during a coup attempt. Two artillery regiments armed with the ubiquitous “French 75” light field gun, both stationed in Mexico City, completed the Mexican Army.
Ruefully recalling how American bankers had used credit to penetrate the Mexican economy, the Mexicans refused to accept American financial aid until March 1942, when Mexico finally became a recipient of Lend-Lease equipment. New American-made 75mm pack howitzers eventually replaced the French 75s, and additional rifles, mortars and machine guns also arrived. Once the United States began to build up surplus stocks of armored vehicles it supplied M3 and M5 light tanks to Mexico and, at the end of the war, a few M4 Shermans.
Mexico’s small navy had replaced its ancient gunboats with a trio of modern Spanish-built sloops in the mid-1930’s, reasonably fast destroyer-sized vessels, plus a pair of slower gunboat-transports and ten small gunboats, all from Spanish yards as well. Though the Mexicans had modern ships, none of them had any anti-submarine capability, and German submarines claimed several Mexican oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico.
No Mexican warships participated in active war zones outside the Caribbean, nor did any Mexican troops deploy there, either. But the Mexican Air Force made a contribution to the Allied war effort. Col. P.A. Antonio Cardenas Rodriguez led 300 men to the United States for training in July 1944. They were split into smaller groups for training as pilots and ground crew, with the Republic P47 selected as the squadron’s aircraft. In February 1945 they were declared combat-ready and officially designated the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron. They remain the only Mexican unit ever to see combat outside the borders of the Republic.
Captain First Class Radames Gaxiola Andrade was named squadron commander, with Rodriguez serving as Mexican Expeditionary Force commander. Lt. Col. Arthur W. Kellong led the North American advisory group attached to the squadron, and Kellong appears to have been treated as the actual commanding officer by the North Americans.
The squadron arrived in the Philippines in April 1945 and began operations in small flights attached to other squadrons of the 58th Fighter Group, flying planes loaned by those squadrons. In July, however, the Mexicans received new P47D fighters and began their own squadron operations. They flew 59 combat missions as a squadron, beginning with four fighter sweeps over the Japanese-held island of Formosa and an attack against the port of Karenko there. Most of their missions were to provide ground support for the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in the Cagayan Valley.
“I felt very proud to fly this modern fighter,” Flight Lt. Amador Samano Pina wrote of the arrival of new P-47D planes, “that our leaders had put us in this modern flight equipment, that made up for the economic hardships to support our unit, compensated by our combat missions in the campaign, with these experiences passed down to the new pilots.”
Five Mexican pilots were killed in action: one to anti-aircraft fire, one in a crash-landing and three lost at sea after running out of fuel. Flight Lieutenant Jose Espinosa Fuentes saw his engine fail on takeoff from an airstrip at Florida Blanca on Luzon. Rather than punch out and allow his plane to crash into a cluster of tents housing U.S. Army troops, he veered off but his plane smashed into a sugar mill, burning him to death in the process. When the group commander, Col. Ed Roddy, asked Rodriguez why the Mexicans did not lower their flag to half-staff as was the practice when an American squadron lost a pilot, Rodrigeuz replied that no man was greater than the Republic, and the flag would remain at full height to honor Espinosa’s sacrifice.
In the Philippines, the Mexican officers were often socially snubbed by their American counterparts, but were very popular with the Spanish-speaking upper crust of Filipino society. The Mexican squadron developed a reputation for “friendly fire” incidents after a flight of eight P47s from the squadron strafed an American infantry company on Purro Mountain and dropped 16 bombs on them. Investigation found that the Mexican formation (which included two American pilots attached to the 201st) had hit the target designated by forward air controllers. No Mexicans were disciplined, but both Americans were replaced as liaison officers.
While overeager boosters have exaggerated the squadron’s achievements, it shot down no enemy planes during its brief combat deployment. It did fly nearly 800 combat sorties, dealing out extensive damage to the Japanese and dropping nearly 1,500 bombs. A group of ground crewmen out looking for firewood also captured two Japanese soldiers after a brief firefight.
When the squadron went overseas, no replacement pilots had been sent through the American training system and after those losses the 201st could not field its full strength. Several Mexican pilots were rushed to the U.S. for familiarization with the big P47 fighter, but it would take some weeks for them to be certified and reach the Philippines. In the rush to get new pilots ready and maintain Mexico’s place in the front lines, two more pilots died in flight accidents in Florida. When the 58th Fighter Group left the Philippines for Okinawa that fall, the Mexicans stayed behind. They flew their last combat mission as a full squadron on 26 August, escorting a convoy north of the Philippines.
The squadron returned to Mexico City in November 1945. The sqaudron’s number and traditions are carried on by the 201st Counter-Insurgency Squadron stationed at Cozumel, which saw extensive service during the 1994 uprising in Chiapas.
Mexico was willing and able to make a much larger contribution to the Allied cause. To reflect greater use of Mexican manpower in Great Pacific War, add a 1-4 INF unit to the American force pool at the start of all scenarios. The Mexican unit is a division-sized unit; it can deploy anywhere and is treated exactly like a North American unit for all game purposes, however, it costs twice the usual number of BRP’s to construct (reflecting the lack of Mexican infrastructure to support an expeditionary force of ground troops without substantial North American assistance).
In Spring 1943 in all scenarios, add a one-factor Mexican TAC unit to the North American force pool. Like the INF unit, it can deploy anywhere and is treated exactly like a North American unit for all game purposes but costs twice the usual number of BRP’s to construct.
You can download the new Mexican pieces right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.