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Hunting the Insurgent Leader: The U.S. Army’s Search for Pancho Villa

Details differed, but the basic facts were the same. Shortly after the turn of the century, towns and American troops garrisoned near the border were attacked by insurgents in surprise raids. People were killed, weapons seized, and banks robbed. Before a counter force could be sent, the insurgents had retreated across the border and had vanished into the rugged mountains that were their refuge. To find and eliminate them, and risking enormous diplomatic consequences, American troops would have to cross the border, violating the sovereignty of a nation with a weak, faction-ridden government.

“They will be in hostile country surrounded by enemies, and they will do as soldiers in the circumstances must do.”

This situation did not occur in the 21st century along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, nor were the attackers al Qaeda or the Taliban. It happened after the turn of the 20th century along the United States/Mexico border, and the insurgents were Mexican strongman Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his men. The mission of capturing and/or killing Villa, and stopping further attacks by his men was given to Brig. Gen. John Pershing in the Mexican Border Campaign, or “Punitive Expedition.”

Brig. Gen. John Pershing

Brig. Gen. John Pershing at his headquarters during the “Punitive Expedition.” Pershing was tasked with the ultimately unsuccessful task of hunting down “Pancho” Villa. Pershing went on to lead the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. National Archives photo

In an observation reflective of what troops today face in Iraq and Afghanistan, in March 1916, Army deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Tasker Bliss wrote that once the campaign commenced, Pershing and his men “will soon be beyond assured communication with their home government. They will be in hostile country surrounded by enemies, and they will do as soldiers in the circumstances must do. If they think that Villa and his band are in a certain town and refuse to surrender they must attack that town. If Villa retreats they must follow him; if he breaks up into small bands our people must more or less scatter in order to follow him.” Regarding their odds for success, one officer commanding troops along the Rio Grande said that Pershing “had as much chance to get Villa as to find a needle in a haystack.”

As if that weren’t problem enough, the diplomatic situation was more perilous. After decades of revolution and counter-revolution, Mexico finally had, compared to previous ones, a stable government under Gen. Venustiano Carranza. But Carranza’s government was weak and faction-ridden, and he had no control over regional leaders like Villa whom he had outmaneuvered in his grab for power. Included in Pershing’s orders was the phrase “scrupulous regard for sovereignty of Mexico.” Behind this “mind your manners while tramping around uninvited” injunction was a larger danger. World War I was in its third year and Imperial Germany was wooing Mexico. Because U.S. President Woodrow Wilson didn’t ask, but told Carranza what he was doing, any mistake by Pershing or his men risked causing neutral Mexico to ally itself with Germany. At a time when the United States was debating whether or not to join the Allies, the last thing it needed was a hostile nation on its southern border.

Pershing “had as much chance to get Villa as to find a needle in a haystack.”

Pershing and his 4,800-strong force crossed the border on March 15, 1916. For the next eleven months, Pershing and his men experienced hunger, thirst, exhaustion, boredom, and mounting frustration.

Within days, the rickety logistics system broke down. Trainloads of supplies, most without bills of lading, piled up in base camps along the border. Weeks passed before truck convoys (carrying repair mechanics as well as supplies) were driving south over dirt trails as rugged as the landscape.

Punitive Expedition

A motorized convoy makes its way down a rutted road during the “Punitive Expedition.” Long supply lines over rough roads led to hunger and thirst. Mexican Border Service photo

Communications fared little better. The new field radios had a radius of only twenty-five miles; hastily laid telegraph lines often broke.

Another new technology used in the expedition was aircraft. The U.S. Army Aviation Section of the Signal Corps deployed the 1st Aero Squadron, operating eight Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” aircraft in support of Pershing’s ground forces. The aircraft proved invaluable in carrying dispatches, but never found any sign of the enemy. Worse, their delicate construction, a lack of spare parts, and the inevitable crashes in appalling weather conditions meant that after only 30 days, only two were left. One interesting side note is that the Jennies carried the first-ever insignia painted on a U.S. aircraft: a red star on the tail.

The Jennies carried the first-ever insignia painted on a U.S. aircraft: a red star on the tail.

Battles were so few that they could be counted on the fingers of one hand – with fingers to spare. The most successful action was the killing of top Villa lieutenant Julio Cárdenas and another Villista by then-Lt. George S. Patton. But Villa remained elusive. In January of 1917, Pershing received orders to return. By Feb. 7, the last American troops had left Mexico, and Pancho Villa remained at large.

Though Villa was not captured, the mission cannot be regarded as a complete failure. It provided invaluable experience for a number of junior officers who had stellar careers in World War II. In addition to Patton, the list included Courtney Hodges, William Simpson, Lesley McNair, Brehon Somervell, and Carl Spaatz.

1st Aero Squadron

A Curtiss JN-3 “Jennys” assigned to the 1st Aero Squadron during the “Punitive Expedition,” May 13, 1916. Mexican Border Service photo

Most importantly, the campaign served as a dress rehearsal, exposing many flaws in the Army. Army high command quickly went to work applying the lessons learned and was well into overhauling the Army when, on April 6, 1917, Congress declared war against the Central Powers. Though for the most part America fought World War I using weapons supplied by its Allies, if it had not been for Pancho Villa, the United States would have been even less prepared for war.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...