By Lucy Guevara
As the son of a Mexican Army general and an aficionado of airplanes since childhood, Reynaldo Perez Gallardo was a perfect candidate to join Mexico's Fighter Squadron 201, the only combat unit from that country to actively participate in World War II. This little-known squadron was made up 300 Mexican volunteers, including 38 fighter pilots such as Gallardo, who fought the Japanese in the Philippines.
Gallardo was interviewed in Spanish at his North Austin home, showing scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photographs from his 38-year military career. He has lived in Austin since 1984.
Born and raised in San Luis Potosi, (his father was governor of the state of San Luis Potosi in the 1940s) in central Mexico, Gallardo enjoyed an adventurous childhood. His love for flying was obvious since the age of 14. Gallardo remembers those days vividly.
"Instead of going to school, I would go to the aviation camp of San Luis Potosi," he said. "The airplanes of that time would get dirty from the bottom, from their body. They would get dirty with oil and I would volunteer to clean them in return that at the end of the day, they would give me a small trip, a ride around the airport in one of those airplanes," he recalled.
He said that since then, he's had a desire to fly.
That passion for aviation served Gallardo well as part of the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201, which was formed by Mexican president Manuel Avila Camacho on July 10, 1944. After training in American bases such as Majors Field in Greenville, Texas, and Pocatello Army Air Base in Pocatello, Idaho, the men were ready for their war assignment as part of the 58th fighter group of the 5th U.S. Air Force stationed in the Philippines.
Also known as the "Aztec Eagles," the squadron arrived in Manila Bay on April 30, 1945. Although only in the Philippines for six months, the squadron actively participated in 59 combat missions, totaling over 1, 290 hours of flight. They successfully participated in the Allied effort to bomb Luzon and Formosa in an effort to push the Japanese out of the islands. The war came to an end with the surrender of Japan on Aug. 10, 1945. After a year of training and six months of active duty, the "Aztec Eagles" were able to return home. Mexico greeted them with a hero's welcome on November 18, 1945.
Gallardo feels extremely proud of being part of the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201. Although he was not truly aware of the politics behind the war, he felt it was his responsibility to answer his nation's call.
"I had only been an aviation instructor at the Military Aviation School in Guadalajara for about four or five months when they called for volunteers to form a squadron and participate in war, in World War II," he said. "As it was expected, I was one of the first ones to volunteer."
Gallardo, who joined the Mexican military at the age of 16, said he was influenced greatly by his father's position in the military. After joining the Cavalry unit of the Mexican military, he also received training at the prestigious Military College of Mexico in Mexico City and at the Military Aviation School in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.
MEXICO & WORLD WAR II
It was also during this time that Mexico began to play a more active role in the war. Initially, Mexico had supported the Axis powers during the first years of the war, by trading with the Axis. This support ended when Germany and Russia broke the Non -Aggression Pact of 1939. Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and Mexico now pledged support for the allies.
It was only a day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that Mexico was once again forced to re-evaluate her European trade partners. Mexico severed its relationship with Germany and Italy on December 11, 1941 and once more expressed its full support to the Allies. The Mexican government took heavy security measures and a great effort was made to protect the railways, and Gulf of Mexico.
Mexico worked hard to ensure the safe transport of war materials sent to the United States. Mexico opposition for the Axis culminated in the deportation of Italian, German, and Japanese diplomats. The United States and Mexico signed a series of agreements in 1941 and 1942, which would be essential for the war effort.
Agreements such as the Douglas-Weichers Agreement of 1941 mandated that Mexico would sell important raw materials to the United States. The Lend Lease agreement was signed on March 28, 1942. This settlement allowed the United States to ship war supplies to Mexico. These supplies would later provide equipment for the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201.
Other 1942 agreements allowed the conscription of Mexican citizens living in the United States as well as the creation of the Bracero Program on August 4, 1942. From 1943 to 1945 the Bracero Program brought over 100,000 Mexican laborers to work the fields and railways in order to alleviate America's manual labor shortage.
Mexico was finally forced to declare war on the Axis on May 22, 1942, after Germany bombed two of its oil tankers, Portero de Llano (Plain Keeper) and Faja de Oro (Golden Belt) in the Gulf of Mexico. After the first tanker, Portero de Llano, was attacked on May 13, 1942, German propaganda alleged that the United States was the party responsible for the aggression. Although extensive propaganda was launched in an effort incriminate the United States, Mexican officials demanded full compensation and an apology from Germany. Germany responded to this complaint by sinking another tanker, Faja de Oro on May 22, 1942. It was inevitable that Mexico would soon have to more actively participate in the war. The Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies made Mexico's entry into the war official on May 30, 1942.
With great encouragement from President Camacho, the Mexican government evaluated a plan to provide troops for the war. After realizing that Mexico lacked the resources to do this, President Camacho turned to the United States for help to prepare soldiers for combat. In an effort to have these men ready by 1943, President Camacho presented his proposal to President Roosevelt in a meeting held in Monterrey, Nuevo Leo, Mexico in April 1943. Although both nations evaluated the idea extensively and held numerous negotiations, Mexico accepted Roosevelt's proposal on March 14, 1944. President Roosevelt agreed to accept the participation of one or two Mexican air squadrons.
"The intention was to form a fighter group, four squadrons," he said. "But they organized the first one and that's the one I joined to receive training in the United States."
Mexico's National Defense Secretary and family members held a modest going away ceremony for the young men in Mexico City. They left Mexico by train and arrived in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on July 25. 1944. They received a warm welcome from the people of Nuevo Laredo and were cheered as they marched through the town. But across the border in Laredo, Texas, the squadron received little attention.
"On the North American side, we felt ignored," he said. "Few people attended, even if only out of curiosity."
TRAINING IN THE UNITED STATES
From registration at Randolph Field in San Antonio, they continued to Pocatello Army Air Base in Pocatello, Idaho. The first weeks of training included instruction in armament, intelligence, and communications, among other important sections. Pilots received special training in air and combat tactics. These included fighter formation, low altitude gunnery, and night flying. Pocatello was also the training site for America's Women Air Service Pilots (WASP). The men of the squadron were astonished to see this group of skilled pilots perform air tactics on the P-47. The men also received English lessons provided by the women of the WAC, the Women Army Corps. These women also provided Spanish lessons for the American instructors in charge of the Mexican squadron. Measures were taken to accommodate the Mexican soldiers in Pocatello. Pocatello Air Base theaters featured Spanish-language movies, and the men were allowed to celebrate Mexican holidays.
The men left Pocatello for Majors Field in Greenville, Texas, on November 27, 1944. Bad weather forced officials to seek a warmer place to complete training. Majors Field in Greenville, Texas, a 45-minute drive northeast of Dallas, was designated as the new training site. The Mexican Fighter Squadron 201, many accompanied by their wives, faced strong biases from the people of Greenville. Greenville, a town that had described itself as "The Blackest Land and the Whitest People" demonstrated their dislike for the squadron's presence by not renting apartments to squadron wives. Sentiments towards the men changed after Captain Miller, the officer in charge of the squadron's training, clarified that these men came from good families.
In Greenville, the men received combat aviation instruction: 120 hours that focused on formation flying combat tactics, and gunnery. The training included both low and high altitude practice runs on the P-47 fighter airplane.
Youth and an impulsive personality brought an abrupt change in Gallardo's assignment. Because he disobeyed orders and "buzzed" (flew low) over the city, Gallardo was restricted from flying and given a temporary assignment as the officer in charge of the squadron's mechanics.
"This was helpful to me because I was able to learn a lot," he said. "I was in charge of the ground services. I felt very sad, but I knew that I would one day fly again and I did."
The men left to the Philippines on March 27, 1945. "We traveled mainly during the night, they took many precautions during the day because of the submarine threat that was present in the coast of California," he said. "We spent something like 30 days at sea."
He recalled feelings of distrust towards the Mexican fighter pilots, from the men of the 58th Fighter group. But, he said, these sentiments ended after the men of the squadron began to successfully complete missions.
"I remember one, which in my opinion was of great importance," he said. "The American Air Force had decided to destroy the bridge over the Marikina River. This would stop the progress of Japanese forces across the island. So we went try to destroy it. As it was expected, the Japanese put a great effort into defending it. May be it was luck, or maybe fate that gave me the opportunity to drop a bomb over it."
The men of the squadron participated in numerous missions, slowly gaining the confidence of the American pilots. Gallardo remembered an incident.
"The North Americans used to call us the "White Noses" because our mechanics had painted the nose of our airplanes white. We became very popular. On one occasion, I was in the hospital getting treated for little things that happen to us over there when a wounded soldier that was next to me noticed that I wasn't North American. He was very injured, but got up and came to the bed where I was lying. He asked me, 'Do you fly a white nose?' and I said 'yes.' He embraced me and said, 'You can't imagine how much we love you, because you have helped us so much.'"
Gallardo distinctly remembers the end of the war.
"We were watching a movie when it was abruptly suspended by an officer. With great emotion the officer told us that the most modern bomb in existence had been dropped on the Japanese Empire for the second time today and they [the Japanese] are asking to be allowed to surrender. We couldn't believe it," he recalled.
Although the men were advised to proceed with caution, they knew that they would soon return home. Before returning to Mexico, the men of the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201 built a monument in honor of the seven members of their group killed.
November 18, 1945 marked the return of the men and a great celebration in Mexico. They paraded down Madero Avenue and met with President Camacho at the Zocalo, Mexico's national palace.
"Mexico City, all of Mexico City, which is very big, was standing along the streets," he said. "They were excited and anxious to see us. They were proud and happy to see us return. We felt very proud."
Twenty men of the Mexican Fighter Squadron 201 received U.S. Air Medals as well as the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation from the president of the Philippines in 1952. Other medals awarded were the Mexican Medal of Valor and World War II Victory Medals. Gallardo received the U.S. Air Medal as well as the Mexican Medal of Merit and one for his service in the Far East.Monuments honoring "El Escuadron 201" can be found throughout Mexico and its members are still honored and respected today.
Gallardo returned to Mexico feeling a strong sense of responsibility to share his experience and knowledge with others. After the war, he was responsible of choosing and training new aviators.
AFTER THE WAR
Gallardo married his wife Angelina in 1969; the couple had two children. He was an aviator for the government of Michoacan, Mexico, during this time. He served as director of the security department of the Mexican Social Security offices and as a Civil Aeronautics Inspector in 1975.
After a long military and civil service career in Mexico, Gallardo decided to move to the United States, making Austin, Texas, his home in 1984. He owns a business and also divides his spare time between his family and hobbies such as sailing. He lives a peaceful life and is extremely proud of his accomplishments.
Gallardo had advice for young people, based, he said either on his training or what his parents taught him.
"Maybe because of fate we are Mexican. But because we are, we should feel responsible for what we are. A soldier behaves well because that's what he was taught. A Mexican should behave well because he is Mexican. I want for Mexicans to be proud of their name, of their nationality, and want them to try to better themselves," he said. "In order for a county to progress, an individual must progress first."