Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Sun/31109Ivets-eaglessh.html

Mexican WWII pilots honored by Pentagon
November 9, 2003
By Lisa Hoffman

They were called the "Aztec Eagles," a squadron of Mexican fighter pilots who flew side-by-side with Americans during World War II battles against the Japanese.

Once 300 strong, these volunteers made history as Mexico's first - and only - military force to serve outside the Latin American nation's borders.

Now, 59 years later, their numbers are fading fast, with just 10 of the combat pilot and ground crew veterans still alive. Last month, the U.S. Defense Department honored their long-ago service, which is little-known in America and largely forgotten in Mexico.

"We receive more attention in the United States than in our own country," said retired Mexican air force Col. Carlos Garduno, 79, at the Pentagon's Hispanic American Heritage Month observance.

Mexico was one of a handful of countries in the Western Hemisphere that contributed soldiers to the Allied effort against the Germans, Italians and Japanese.

The Mexican squadron - called El Escuadron 21 in Mexico - was created in 1944 after the Mexican government overcame still-fresh resentments over the 1847 war with the United States and America's occupation of Veracruz in 1914 during Mexico's civil war. A 1942 German U-boat attack on two Mexican oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico prodded Mexico into declaring war on the Axis.

In the summer of 1944, Garduno and the other pilots and crew were sent to several military bases in Texas and Idaho for nearly a year of training in engineering, communications, air tactics, formation flying and gunnery.

In April 1945, the squadron arrived at Clark Field in the Philippines, where it was attached to the Army's 5th Air Force, 58th Fighter Group. From there, 31 pilots flew P-47D Thunderbolt single-seat fighter aircraft in missions aimed at pushing the Japanese out of Luzon and Formosa.

In all, the squadron flew 59 combat missions during its six months at war. Five Mexican pilots were killed.