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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The ‘Aztec Eagles’ and Mexico’s surprising roles in World War II

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Last week’s feature on Mérida’s Monumento a la Patria included a short paragraph about Mexico’s involvement in World War II. Having received a few inquisitive messages about Mexico’s participation in the war, I will elaborate.

A decommissioned Aztec Eagle aircraft on display in Cozumel, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As mentioned in the article, in 1938, Mexico was the first country to protest the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria by Nazi Germany. This bold move was commemorated in 1956 by the christening of Mexikoplatz (Mexico Square) in Austria’s capital, Vienna.

A monument honoring Mexico in Mexikhoplatz, formerly Erzherzog-Karl-Platz in Austria, Vienna. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But Mexico’s involvement in the war was not only diplomatic. The country joined with the allies in 1942 after Germany sank two of its oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. In the following days, several other Mexican merchant ships, including the Amatlán and Las Chopas, were attacked by Axis submarines off the coast of Italy, killing the majority of their crews. 

Army challenge coins are a symbol of gratitude, honor, or loyalty. It represents countless hours of dedication and sacrifice. Show off your pride to Aztec Eagles with these striking coins and keep yourself motivated at all times. Such challenging coins with special memories should be priceless souvenirs. 

It’s a great way to recognize each soldier’s special achievements and heroic deeds. Besides, there are also many military challenge coins here, such as Navy Challenge Coins, Air Force Challenge Coins, etc. You can design by yourself right now.

The attacks on Mexican ships galvanized public opinion in Mexico and doubled the support for the war from 40% before these incidents, to more than 80% in their aftermath. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

Then-President Manuel Ávila Camacho took the lead in urging other Latin American countries to join the war effort as well.

Former President Lázaro Cárdenas served the Ávila Camacho government in negotiating with the U.S. military regarding the installation of radar surveillance towers, landing rights on Mexican soil, as well as the presence of active military personnel. 

During the war, Mexico worked closely with the United States and exported large amounts of raw materials for the construction of everything from aircraft to naval vessels. 

But perhaps Mexico’s most notable contribution to the war effort came in the form of the  Escuadrón 201, also known as the Aztec Eagles.

The insignia of Escuadrón 201, the Aztec Eagles featuring the image of the then-popular cartoon character Pancho Pistolas on a retired aircraft on display outside Cozumel’s military airport. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Aztec Eagles was an all-Mexican Air Squadron made up of more than 300 volunteers who trained in the United States to fight against Imperial Japan. 

The Aztec Eagles squad was the first Mexican military unit trained for overseas combat. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation 

In preparation for possible retaliation from the Axis powers, major Mexican cities conducted simulated bomb raids and cut electricity for prolonged periods to prepare the country’s population. 

Being already trained pilots, the members of the Aztec Eagles honed their skills in Greenville, Texas and Pocatello, Idaho. After completing their training, the 300-plus list of candidates was narrowed down to 30 elite pilots. 

Captain Radamés Gaxiola and his ground crew in front of their P-47D fighter. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation 

In all, the Aztec Eagles flew 53 missions, sometimes on their own and sometimes accompanied by U.S. or Filipino air forces. 

The squad flew their last combat mission over Okinawa, Japan, returning to Mexico in 1945 to great acclaim and a parade down Mexico City’s Constitution Square. 

Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific theater of the war, described the Flying Eagles as a credit to their nation and their heritage.

Escuadrón 201 display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

A handful of films and documentaries have been made about the Aztec Eagles, the most recent of which was released in 2016.

YouTube Trailer for “Escuadrón 201” a film by Agave Producciones featuring interviews from members of the Aztec Eagles.

The 201 Squadron remains active to this day and is garrisoned in Cozumel Quintana Roo. 

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