Flight of the Aztec Eagles: When Mexico bombed Taiwan

An abridged version of the following article appeared in yesterday’s Taipei Times: 

A 58th Fighter Group plane attacking targets in northern Luzon in May 1945. (The photo, which was first published in ‘Pacific Sweep: A Pictorial History of the Fifth Air Force Fighter Command’ a 1945 book by Australian Captain R. B Wistrand was made available via Frank Sparrow on the Fuerza Aerea Expedicionaria Mexicana, Escuadron Aereo de Pelea 201 Facebook page. From here on: courtesy of Escuadrón 201 FAEM).

“Stand up anyone who didn’t learn anything just now,” says Michael Hurst. Nobody moves from the seats they’ve been glued to for the past 90 minutes. “I certainly learned a whole lot,” says Hurst, director of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society. “But I always do whenever Wei-bin speaks.”

Hurst is referring to Chang Wei-bin (張維斌), an aviation historian and author of Formosa Air Raid a comprehensive study of the allied bombardment of Taiwan during WWII. As effusive as it is, Hurst’s praise is something of an understatement. Chang, who also runs the Taiwan Air Blog, has just delivered a lecture as part of the society’s August 15 programme to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VJ day – the end of WWII, which is among the most fascinating I have attended in almost 20 years in Taiwan.

Even for one not versed in in aerial warfare, the breadth and depth of the information and the clarity of the explanations is breathtaking. It includes detailed images of locations island-wide that were bombed, what, if anything, was targeted and hit, and what can be found in these spots now. The contemporary landmarks include Kaoshiung Exhibition Center and Songshan Cultural and Creative Park.

“The American intelligence mistook it for a repair shop,” says Chang, referring to the old tobacco factory in the latter location. Highlighting an area between Jiankang Rd and Yanshou St., a few blocks north, Chang adds, “If you go there, you can tell your friends this used to be an airstrip.”

On this slide presented at Chang Wei-bin’s presentation at Taipei Film House on August 15, an American intelligence map can be seen. It shows what is now Songshan Cultural and Creative Park and its environs. In the square toward the bottom is the old tobacco factory, which is incorrectly labelled as a repair shop, one of many mistakes the Allies made in their bombing campaign, with schools commonly bombed in error.

But it is the incredible stories of the individuals involved – sometimes just detours from the main topic – that really capture the imagination.

There is the tale of Lieutenant Charles V. August whose forced landing and capture while strafing Huwei Township (虎尾), Yunlin County, made him the only aviator known to have been a POW twice.

A slide from Chang’s presentation with details about Charles V. August, a pilot downed in Huwei, Yunlin County on January 4, 1945, making him the only known airman to have been made a POW twice.

August’s first incarceration lasted just two days after he was one of 10 airmen downed during Operation Torch, an Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. Six pilots died, with the remainder taken prisoner by the Vichy authorities who tenuously controlled French North Africa at the time. When these Nazi collaborators capitulated, the POWs were released on November 11.

Twenty-two months later in Taiwan, August suffered engine failure, landing his F6F Hellcat in Huwei airfield on January 4, 1945. Following interrogation and imprisonment, he was transferred to to Japan before being liberated from the Tokyo POW Camp at Shinjuku in September following Japan’s surrender. After being displayed at a shrine in Huwei, his plane also went to Japan “for analysis” at Yokosuka, where the Imperial Japanese Navy developed and tested its combat aircraft. At the end of the war, the remains of the plane were discovered there with Japanese markings on it, suggesting it had been repaired and re-used.

Another fascinating vignette was the account of James Roy Langiotti and Harwood S. Sharp, the radio operator and pilot of a S2BC dive bomber who were on the run for 12 days after being shot down on October 12, 1944. This was in contrast to most downed pilots who were quickly captured. Based on Japanese interrogation notes, Chang believes the pair were reported by locals in Hsinchu County where they were caught. “They first landed in the water. After they made it to land, they hid during the day and went out at night for food. Eventually someone saw them,” Chang says.

The most intriguing aspect of Chang’s talk relates to the supporting raids by other Allied nations.

The Royal Australian Airforce saw action in night-time mining operations staged from the Lingayen Gulf on northwestern Luzon in the Philippines between March 6 and March 20, 1945. Four missions were flown and one pilot was reported missing in action (MIA).

The following month, the British Pacific Fleet were involved. “The goal assigned to them was to neutralize the Sakishima Islands [located 360km off the northeast coast of Taiwan],” says Chang, explaining that this was in support of Operation Iceberg, the American invasion of Okinawa on April 1. “However, the Japanese launched a largescale suicidal attack on the American fleet, causing heavy damage to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock on the seventh [of April]. So the British fleet was asked to attack Taiwan because the US navy thought the attack came from there. Actually, this was probably true – some of them came from Kyushu and some from Taiwan.”

A slide showing the Japanese interrogation reports of 16 captured airmen. In the two columns furthest to the left, numbered 15 and 16, the details of James Roy Langiotti and Harwood S. Sharp can be seen, along with the date their aircraft was downed and the date they were captured. The radio operator and pilot of a S2BC dive bomber, the pair were on the run from 12-24 October, 1944 before being collared in Hsinchu County.

From four aircraft carriers, then allocated as Task Force 57 by the United States Navy, the British attacked Songshan (then called Matsuyama) and Keelung. Scheduled for April 11, the original raid was postponed to the following day due to inclement weather, with a further sortie flown on April 13. During the first raid, one Avenger bomber was downed, with one airman reported MIA and another two killed. Sub Lieutenant Daniel McAleese from New Zealand was captured. “He almost became a POW,” says Chang, “but unfortunately he died in the hospital.”

The participation of Mexico in the raids is a literal blast from the past that is certain to surprise even military history buffs in Taiwan.

Initially, Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho was hesitant to join the war. An ex-military man himself, Ávila had joined the revolutionary army in 1914, the same year that then-Captain Douglas MacArthur had participated in the occupation of the Mexican port of Veracruz. Underscoring Ávila’s reticence was sympathy among the Mexican elite for Nazi ideology.

However, the sinking of two Mexican oil tankers, killing at least 20 people, decided the matter. Ávila declared war on the Axis powers on May 28, 1942. Privately, Japan was considered the real threat, details of a planned invasion of the U.S. through northwestern Mexico having been intercepted by the Mexican army prior to Ávila’s announcement. A contribution in the Pacific theater seemed the best option.

President Manuel Ávila Camacho reviews the FAEM 201 Squadron contingent at the Balbuena Air Base accompanied by the Secretary of Defense General Lázaro Cárdenas del Río and Gral. Fransisco Luis Urquizo on July 20, 1944. (Photo courtesy of the Mexican Air Force).

Nicknamed the Águilas Aztecas (the Aztec Eagles), the 201st Fighter Squadron was a 300-strong volunteer force. Following training in Texas, the 201st had a spell in Idaho, which was cut short as it proved “too cold for Mexicans,” according to Chang. After another stint in Texas and then physical examinations and instructions in California, the squadron departed for the Philippines on March 27, 1945 aboard the SS Fairisle.

Once there, they were assigned to the Fifth Air Force, attached to the U.S. 58th Fighter Group, based at Clark Field on Luzon. It is interesting to note, as Chang does, that the Fifth was formed from the remnants of the Far East Air Force, which had been decimated by attacks from Formosa before being reorganised from headquarters in Brisbane. “The Fifth Airforce was formed in early 1942 with the remaining aircraft that escaped from the Luzon attacks,” says Chang, explaining that because they offered “a bigger payload” for longer distance sorties and “Formosa required constant policing,” land-based aircraft were favoured for the Taiwan raids. “So it was quite a twist of fate that the Fifth Airforce became the backbone of the forces used against Formosa, because in December ’41, the Japanese bombed Luzon from Formosa and now the Fifth bombed Formosa from Luzon,” says Chang.

Members of the 201st pose with a sign displaying the logo and nickname of the squadron. (Photo courtesy of Escuadrón 201 FAEM).

“[The Eagles] were sent to Luzon in late April and actually used P-47 aircraft borrowed from the Americans,” says Chang. On one of the slides in his presentation, Chang highlights the Mexican tricolor of green, white and red, which appeared with the American star emblem in various forms on the fighter-bombers. “Because they were quite inexperienced, in Luzon, they first received training again alongside American fighters, and it was not until a year [after they had begun training in the U.S.] that they flew missions to Taiwan in the name of long-range reconnaissance training.”

In fact, this underplays the Mexican contribution. Before the Taiwan missions, the 201st saw plenty of action, assisting with the bombing of Luzon and ground support. Aside from the Formosa raids, they flew dozens of combat missions in the Philippines.

During their first four reconnaissance sweeps off Taiwan, which took place between July 6 and July 9, they encountered the enemy but did not engage. “On those first four missions, they did not fire a single shot,” says Chang.

The boys pose for the camera in Luzon, circa summer 1945. (Photo courtesy of Escuadrón 201 FAEM).

However, these sorties were no breeze. “We flew some very dangerous missions from Clark Field in the Philippines to Formosa, now called Taiwan,” Captain Miguel Moreno Arreola told the American Forces Press Service (AFPS) in 2003.“We saw more frequent airplanes from Japan on that 650-mile trip than ever before,” said Arreola, who spent six months in the Pacific. And, according to the Mexican veteran, it was the enemy that was reluctant to engage. “They didn’t want to have combat with us, because they knew our P-47s were better than their Mitsubishis,” Arreola explained. “We could fly higher and faster.”

On August 8, the Aztec Eagles flew to Taiwan again, this time on a bombing mission at Hualien, then known as Karenko. Six 1,000-1b bombs were dropped, though they appear to have missed their targets. “They carried one bomb on one wing and a fuel tank on the other because it was too heavy to carry two bombs at the same time,” says Chang. “I’m not sure what was bombed, but according to their mission report, it was not effective.”

The operations report for the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron’s bombing mission. On the left-hand side, the main column records the size of the bomb (1,000 pounds) and the location of the attack (Karenko/Hualien) on Aug. 8, 1945. On the right, in faint handwriting, the words “building undamage(d)” can be made out.
(Photo courtesy of the Escuadrón 201 FAEM).

Regardless, the 201st returned to considerable fanfare on November 18, 1945. They delivered a national flag to Ávila in a parade at the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, and a movie bearing the squadron’s name was released less than two weeks after their return. A station on Mexico City Metro Line 8 is also named in their honor.

In 2004, then-Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo awarded the squadron the Philippine Legion of Honor 2004, Legionnaire rank, one of several awards bestowed by various Filipino adminstrations. Ávila himself was awarded the Republic of China’s Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon.

Philippine Ambassador to Mexico Eduardo Jose A. de Vega bestows the Philippine Legion of Honor unit citation award on 96-year-old Corporal Ernesto Martinez Trujillo, one of the original Aztec Eagles on May 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Republic of the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs).

Despite the initial pride in and recognition of an endeavour that to date remains the only overseas military engagement by Mexican forces, it soon became political expedient to forget about the Eagles’ exploits. “After the war, the Mexican government did not want to play up the accomplishments of the Aztec Eagles,” writes Walte Zapotoczny Jr in his book The Aztec Eagles: The Forgotten Allies of the Second World War. “One fear was that such attention would feed into the common Mexican perception that they had done Americans bidding in 1945. Moreover, if members of the 201st were celebrated as war heroes, and one or two became popular enough to run for office, it threatened the rigid, vertical, political structure in Mexico, where politicians were handpicked by the establishment.”

Yet, the veterans were not bitter, and “refused to criticize their government for failing to adequately honor their sacrice.” Many went on to forge successful careers, some remaining in aviation, others moving into business and academia.

Welcome home! (Photo courtesy of Santiago A. Flores / Escuadrón 201 FAEM).

As of May, 2020, only one combat pilot from the Aztec Eagles was  still alive. In the aforementioned interview with AFPS, 100-year-old Colonel Carlos Garduño recalled meeting Ávila, who beseeched the squadron to remember “your pilot comrades that are not with you because they’ve passed on to the hills of Mexico.”

Thanks to the efforts of historians such as Chang Wei-bin, the feats of the Aztec Eagles have also been kept alive in Taiwan, long after they soared through its skies.

The old 201st insignias.(Photo courtesy of Escuadrón 201 FAEM).

Sources (in addition to embedded links in the text):

201st Squadron’s website:


New York Times: When the Mexican Air Force Went to War Alongside America


Pacific Wrecks


Mexicans at War: Mexican Military Aviation in the Second World War 1941-1945



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