By John Philip Wyllie
Despite the fact that World War II ended 58 years ago, books on the topic continue to appear on the bestseller’s list as interest in the subject remains high. One aspect of the war rarely mentioned in the thousands of accounts that have since been published, is the story of El Escuadron 201 or the Mexican Expeditionary Force 201st Fighter Squadron. El Escuadron 201 or the Aztec Eagles as they were also know, was a group of 300 Mexican pilots and support personnel that served in the Philippines and participated in combat missions against the Japanese Imperial Army. Only seven of the original 35 pilots remain and one of them, Captain Reynaldo Gallardo was in San Diego for the Wings Over Gillespie Airshow last weekend to tell his little known story.
Gallardo, the son of Mexican general, enlisted in the Mexican cavalry in 1939 at the tender age of 14. By the time Mexico officially entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1942, he was already an experienced pilot.
“I was crazy about flying from the time I first heard about airplanes,” said Gallardo, who is fast approaching his 80th birthday. “We were eager to get even with the Japanese and I think we did. I’m glad we had the opportunity to do it.”
After receiving some preliminary training in Mexico, Gallardo and his unit were shipped off to the United States where they learned to pilot the P-47 Thunderbolt. Attached to the 58th American Fighter Group in the Philippines, they received additional, more intensive training before they were sent into combat.
“When we first went to into action, we were serving with three U.S. squadrons (and taking orders from American officers). The Americans looked down on us at least a little bit,” Gallardo recalled. “They didn’t say so, but I noticed it. We made up our minds that we wouldn’t say anything, but instead would show these people what we had. Not long after that I had my first incident.”
On a combined U.S - Mexican sortie, Gallardo’s mission was to disrupt the flow of Japanese troops and vehicles along a frequently used road.
“We strafed a column of Japanese vehicles and after I made my pass, I got a little crazy and maneuvered my plane into a (celebratory) roll,” he recalled. “One of the U.S. pilots chastised Gallardo over the on board intercom saying, “look at that crazy Mexican!” Gallardo was offended by the comment. Their ensuing in-flight communication led to a challenge to settle the argument behind the hangar once they landed. Gallardo had no idea which of the Americans he would soon be fighting.
“When we met, I realized that he was about 3 times as big and 4 times as heavy as I was,” Gallardo recalled. “He looked at me, grinned and asked if I still wanted to fight. I said, “I’ll fight you, you son of a gun.” Fortunately, for Gallardo, the fight turned out to be only a minor tussle. Afterward, the two pilots shook hands and impressed by Gallardo’s spunk in a situation where he was hopelessly over-matched, the two became friends. In fact, the incident broke the ice and reduced the tension between the two groups. From then on, the Americans and Mexican directed their wrath at the Japanese rather than each other.
By the time El Escuadron 201 went into action in May of 1945, the once proud Japanese airforce had been reduced to a handful of planes. With little opportunity for aerial combat, the Aztec Eagles set their sights on strategic ground objectives. These included oil depots, bridges, ground forces, ships and ports.
Wounded in action in one of these sorties over Japanese-occupied Formosa, Gallardo had to navigate his damaged aircraft to the nearest base after having sustained multiple injuries from enemy fire. He crash landed his Thunderbolt into an ambulance sitting on the airfield, but walked away from the incident with relatively minor injuries.
Gallardo, at 79 years of age, is feisty and full of life. He occasionally still flies. Having spent the majority of his life on this side of the border, he enjoys speaking about his experience at schools and to various civic groups in the Austin, Texas area.
“At this point, I am not so concerned about gratitude or recognition, but I want everyone to know not what we or I did personally, but what Mexico did in regard to the war.”