We are upon another “exact” date in military history, or will be tomorrow.
We are upon another "exact" date in military history, or will be tomorrow. On March 14, 1916, 97 years ago, U.S. troops were ordered into northern Mexico in an operation known on the VFW calendar and other sources as the Mexican Expedition, and in other sources as the Mexican Punitive Expedition.
Even the Army's official history book does not say how many troops were involved in what some called an invasion of a friendly neighbor, but men were killed. And reputations were made.
Troubles had begun early in the new 20th century when, after more than a half century of relative political stability, Mexico began experiencing a time of revolutionary turmoil and internal strife.
President William Howard Taft had ordered a strengthening of the border with military patrols and the establishment of a maneuver division at San Antonio, commanded by former CGSC commandant Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston.
Most of the Mexican generals and politicians' names are not familiar to Americans today, but one is. An ally of the head of the radical movement was Francisco "Pancho" Villa, whose forces assumed control of most of northern Mexico.
Taft was succeeded by Woodrow Wilson, who began to support factions Taft had not supported. A U.S. Navy ship docked at the port of Tampico and some sailors were arrested by Mexican authorities. After a U.S. protest they were released, but tensions continued to reach the boiling point.
The flash point came on March 9, 1916, when between 500 and 1,000 of Villa's troops attacked Columbus, N.M., and killed "a substantial number of Americans" according to the Army official history book.
That did it. Wilson ordered a force into Mexico in "hot pursuit" of Villa, to the disenchantment of the Mexican government whose leaders did not want our intervention.
Two unknown U.S. Army officers became household names during the brief expedition into Mexico: the leader, Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, and his aide, Capt. George S. Patton. Patton was totally unknown at the time, until he engaged in a pistol shootout with some bandits, killed two, and tied them to the hood of his staff car and took them to American lines.
Several sources say that as The Great War, known later as WW I, raged in Europe, Funston had been selected to lead U.S. forces should we enter the war. He died of a heart attack prior to our involvement, and Pershing was picked as the leader based largely on the reputation he built in Mexico.
There was one local tie I'm aware of on the expedition. The late Judge Arthur J. Stanley, Jr., was a sergeant in the 7th Cavalry Regiment and was a messenger during the action. He brought back a Mexican saber, which is now in the Frontier Army Museum.
Another veteran of the conflict in the museum is a "Jenny," a pre-WW I aircraft that flew reconnaissance missions for Pershing's troops. Not many aircraft were used due to logistical and other challenges, but a real one is at the fort for visitors to see. Even the National WW I Museum in Kansas City does not have a U.S. aircraft of the WW I period.
Villa was never caught, but historians say several valuable lessons were learned from the operation. Villa's troops were dispersed from northern Mexico, eliminating further threat to U.S. cities, and the intensive training in the field by both Regular Army and National Guard troops that served stood the Army in good stead when a much larger call-up and intensive training had to be done when the U.S. did enter The Great War a year later.
It was a valuable dress rehearsal.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.