Wednesday, November 11, 2020

aztec warriors for freedom

It is Armistice Day. Or Remembrance Day. Or Veterans' Day.

The day has gone by several monikers in different countries at different times. Initially, the day was set aside to honor those who had fallen in The Great Imperial War of 1914-1918 as a reminder that nothing so horrid should ever happen again.

But it did happen again. Over and over in the Twentieth Century, and the day, by the sheer weight of thankfulness, expanded to honor the veterans who battled the forces of totalitarianism.

That is why we still set aside the day the armistice went into effect with two minutes of silence. On the almost-talismanic 11th day of the 11th month at 11:00 AM. 

Under normal circumstances, I would be gathering with a group of Canadians, Americans, Europeans, and Mexicans at Rooster's to mark the day with the obligatory two minutes of silence, tales of heroic relatives, reading of "In Flanders Fields," and singing the Mexican national anthem. But the virus has claimed another of our civil rites.

During the First World War, Germany did its best to drag Mexico into the war on its side (an affair to remember). But Mexico maintained its foreign policy of neutral non-intervention. Mexico was far too busy trying to settle its own Revolution to worry about how the European imperial powers were going to carve up Europe.

The Second World War was a different story -- as the result of several serendipitous factors that coincided in the early 1940s. Mexico's relations with the United States and the other European allies were strained following Mexico's Revolution. They worsened when President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated foreign oil holdings to create Pemex. Therefore, when Manuel Ávila Camacho, a close ally, was elected president in 1940, no one expected Mexico's foreign policy to change. But it did.

Initially, President Camacho wanted only to improve relations with the United States. President Roosevelt was open to the overtures and offered infrastructure aid to Mexico, as well as a reduction of the onerous debt Mexico had acquired through its years of internal turmoil. In turn, the United States purchased strategic resources from Mexico: copper, zinc, mercury, cadmium, graphite and lead. That assistance, along with other factors, tripled Mexico's annual income from 1940 to 1946.

And that is where matters may have remained had not German submarines pushed Mexico into the camp of the Allies. Immediately after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mexico severed diplomatic relations with Japan, Germany, and Italy. But Mexico withheld its hand from declaring war.

Six months later, Germany responded to that political generosity by sinking two Mexican oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. Germany refused to apologize. On 1 June 1942, Mexico declared war on all of the Axis powers.

President Camacho attempted to limit Mexican participation in the war to logistical support. Mexican citizens decided they were not going to be restricted to that role. At least 15,000 young Mexican men went north to enlist in the American armed forces. President Camacho eventually saw the wisdom in deeper involvement; it would provide Mexico with a strengthened diplomatic position following the war. And it did.

The Japanese gave President Camacho the cultural hook it needed to increase its participation in the war. Mexico has strong connections with The Philippines. Between the mid-1600s and 1821, Mexico had been the hub in the Spanish Galleon trade between The Philippines and Spain, and the same Viceroy who ruled Mexico on the king's behalf, also ruled The Philippines. Some Mexicans had settled in The Philippines as part of the Spanish Empire, and Filipinos had settled in Mexico as part of the importation of the coconut plantation culture. (I understand there is still a Filipino community in Colima.)

When the Japanese invaded The Philippines, President Camacho could (and did) exhort Mexicans to help "liberate our brothers."

And so they did. Mexico organized an air squadron (Squadron 201, also known as the Aztec Eagles) and sent the squadron north to the United States for training in at Laredo in 1944. They were called the best and brightest Mexico had to offer the war effort. When I underwent my Air Force pilot training at Laredo almost 30 years later, the squadron was still honored on the walls of the headquarters and training facilities.

By the time their training was complete and they were shipped to The Philippines in April 1945, there was still a lot of war to be fought in the Pacific. The squadron (consisting of 300 volunteers: 30 pilots and 270 ground crew) did just that in their P-47D aircraft. Between May and August, they flew 90 missions including infantry ground support, and bombing raids on Formosa and Luzon to dislodge Japanese defenders. They were credited with putting 30,000 Japanese troops out of operation.

Upon their return to Mexico City on 18 November 1945, they were feted with a parade of honor. 

But, as is true with all tales of military heroes, not everyone returned for that parade. Of the 300 volunteers that left Mexico, 34 pilots and ground crew were casualties of the war.

For the 15,000 Mexicans who fought as part of the American armed forces and for the 300 volunteer members of the Aztec Eagles, we celebrate you this Veterans Day. Even though the day is not a holiday in Mexico, the service you provided helped the Allies win a war against the terror of totalitarianism.

We thank you, as we thank those who served. On this hallowed day.

And because there will be no public celebration today at Rooster's today, I offer this anthem. The same anthem that we would have sung together had we met.


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