TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -A deadly raid on a small town in New Mexico a century ago provoked the United States into a cross-border manhunt for a Mexican desperado -- a pursuit which led to the first U.S. military air-combat operation.
During a time of war and revolution for Mexico, the First Aero Squadron was deployed in 1916 as part of a larger mission under former President Woodrow Wilson to hunt down Mexican revolutionary Gen. Francisco "Pancho" Villa -- considered a fugitive by the United States who was wanted dead or alive.
The hunt for the man who came to be known by his nickname, Pancho Villa, gave the U.S. military the opportunity to make use of a new technology, something it had been testing for years.
The First Aero Squadron, also known as the First Reconnaissance Squadron, was formed in 1913 under former President William Taft shortly before his term ended. Flight lessons were nearly nonexistent at the time and pilot fatalities were high.
The squadron would eventually be made up of two companies and eight Curtiss JN-3 biplanes. The Curtiss Aeroplane Company, the largest airplane producer in the United States at the time, won the contract from the U.S. Department of War, a predecessor to the Department of Defense. For easier transport, engineers could break down and rebuild each plane in less than two hours -- a task the First Aero Squadron would later handle itself.
Initially, the First Aero Squadron, the only flight crew in the U.S. military, was seen as a vital tool for reconnaissance and delivering messages. The idea of using U.S. aircraft for war purposes was new, but perhaps the first flying experience for former President Theodore Roosevelt cemented the concept.
When Roosevelt rode an airplane for the first time in 1910, he praised the pilot, Archibald Hoxsey, and the experience -- although Teddy hazardously leaned over a side of the precarious plane and waved at a crowd below.
"That was the bulliest experience I ever had," Roosevelt said of the experience. "I envy you your professional conquest of space."
Hoxsey told United Press International, then called United Press, that although communicating with the president was difficult aboard the plane, he picked up on a couple of words Teddy shouted.
"I didn't look at Roosevelt until I felt the machine wiggle. He was waving at the crowd. We were up about 150 feet. 'Be careful not to pull any of those strings,' I warned him. He was sitting directly underneath the valve cord of the engine and the engine would have stopped had he touched it," Hoxsey said.
"'Nothing doing,' he shouted back, showing his teeth," Hoxsey added. "The propeller made so much noise we had to shout. I heard him say 'war,' 'army,' 'aeroplane' and 'bomb,' but the noise was so great I could not hear the rest. I was very careful. I said to myself, 'If anything happens to him I'll never be able to square myself with the American people.' I was mighty glad when we landed. I never felt a greater responsibility in my life."
Like Roosevelt's experience in 1910, the risk of flight six years later was still considerable, but that did not stop the Wright brothers nor would it stop the First Aero Squadron.
Tensions were high between the United States and Mexico in the early 20th century amid the 10-year Mexican Revolution and World War I. The strained affairs and the unpredictable revolution led the Taft Administration to mobilize the military to prepare a defense against Mexico.
On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa led an invasion with hundreds of his revolutionary guerrilla members on the town of Columbus, N.M., where about 18 Americans -- mostly civilians -- where killed. About 70 of Pancho Villa's men were killed by U.S. forces and he escaped back to Mexico.
"The Mexicans advanced under cover of darkness, and set fire to the depot and neighboring buildings," said an article written by a reporter from United Press. "Troops armed with rifles and machine guns repulsed the bandits after two hours of fighting. The Thirteenth cavalry then pursued the bandits until they were driven over the border."
Pancho Villa was a key figure during the long and complex Mexican Revolution. He fought against the forces of Venustiano Carranza, who became president shortly after formally seizing control of most of Mexico when he defeated Pancho Villa at the 1915 Battle of Celaya.
Pancho Villa and Carranza were allies when they fought together in a revolution to oust Victoriano Huerta from the presidency, but once Huerta was removed the men turned against one another over control of Mexico.
After Pancho Villa's devastating defeat at Celaya at the hands of Carranza's top general Álvaro Obregón, U.S. President Wilson formally recognized the government of Carranza -- an act which embittered Pancho Villa, who felt betrayed and who was now seen as an enemy of both Mexico and the United States.
Pancho Villa, who previously had satisfactory relations with the United States, may have launched the New Mexico assault as both a strategic and retaliatory attack, after the U.S. government began supporting Carranza's troops logistically. He may also have hoped the attack would launch a border war between the United States and Mexico to destabilize Carranza's regime. Another theory suggests Pancho Villa launched the attack under orders from Carranza because the Mexican leader believed the United States perceived his Constitutionalist faction as a threat.
Wilson responded to the New Mexico attack by creating the Punitive Expedition, a U.S. military manhunt for Pancho Villa that lasted nearly a year.
The First Aero Squadron suddenly faced its first combat test.
Under the command of Brig. Gen. John Pershing, the Punitive Expedition crossed the border into Mexico six days after Pancho Villa's raid, with Carranza's reluctant approval.