With names like Audie Murphy and Claire Lee Chennault associated with Hunt County, and with Majors Airport beginning operations as a training center for the U.S. Army Air Forces (ASAAF) in 1942, World War II is central to the cultural history of Hunt County in the eyes of many of its residents.
In addition to these distinctions, Majors Airport (then-Majors Field) was one of the locations where the only Mexican military force to actively serve during World War II trained — the 201st Fighter Squadron Mexican Expeditionary Air Force, otherwise known as Águilas Aztecas, or the Aztec Eagles.
“Majors Field was originally a training field and the Aztec Eagles did receive extensive training there toward the end of the war,” said Theo Hughes, a Greenville resident and aviation enthusiast.
While the 300-or-so volunteers who made up the squadron did not begin training until 1944 and were not deployed until April 1945, Mexico actually severed diplomatic relations with Japan, Germany and Italy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Also, in May 1942, German U-boats sank several oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico as they were transporting crude oil to the United States, resulting in Mexico formally declaring war against the Axis powers.
After declaration of war, President Manuel Ávila Camacho and the Mexican government negotiated with the U.S. to have a fighting force trained in Texas. They arrived in Laredo in July 1944 before beginning their training at Randolph Field in San Antonio. Out of the approximately 300 volunteers, about 30 were experienced pilots and the rest were ground crewman, such as electricians, mechanics and radiomen.
After finishing their initial training at Foster Field in Victoria, they were transferred to Majors Field in Greenville for advanced training in combat air tactics and formation flying. They went to Brownsville for final aerial gunnery practice.
Soon after graduation, the Aztec Eagles left for the Philippines, where they were assigned as part of the 5th Air Force, which was attached to the 58th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF).
In the summer of 1945, the Aztec Eagles helped work toward the liberation of the main Philippine island of Luzon from Japan, when they flew single-seat Republic P-47D-30-RA Thunderbolt aircraft in tactical air support missions.
Part of the reason why Mexico took a particular interest in the Philippines was because the islands used to be administered from New Spain, when Mexico was a Spanish colony. This led President Camacho to feel strongly about liberating people who had similar “language, history and traditions” to Mexicans.
After flying nearly 100 combat missions, the Aztec Eagles flew their last mission in August 1945, after the USAAF 58th Fighter Group left for Okinawa. On Aug. 26, they escorted a convoy north of the Philippines. In the process, they neutralized about 30,000 Japanese troops, and also destroyed several enemy-held buildings, vehicles, tanks, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition depots.
By the time Japan surrendered in September 1945, three of the Aztec Eagles’ 30 pilots had died in combat and three more died in accidents. Through their hard fighting and sacrifice, they became a source of pride for both Mexico and the United States. In November of that year, they returned to Mexico City, where they were greeted with a parade in Constitution Square.
Through the years, the Aztec Eagles have also been honored with a film “Escuadrón 201” shortly after the war. They received the Philippine Legion of Honor award from the Philippine government in 2004 and were commemorated with a monument to the “Fallen Eagles” near Chapultapec Castle in Mexico City.
More information on the Aztec Eagles can be found at the Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum in Greenville, Texas.