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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Chasing Villa

by Clay Coppedge

The world saw the first glimpses of what warfare in the 20th century would be like when the U.S. sent troops to Texas in pursuit of Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in 1916. Soldiers who once pursued or fled from Apaches and Comanches on the frontier now fought a series of skirmishes that included automobiles, airplanes, machine guns and movie cameras for the first time.

Future military leaders of the 20th century like Gen. George S. Patton first tasted combat in the mountains, deserts and borderlands of Mexico, chasing Villa and his band of revolutionaries. Villa had launched string of violent attacks along the Mexico-U.S. border, including a raid on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 that killed 17 Americans. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who had earlier turned down Texas Governor Jim Ferguson's request for troops to patrol the border, sent 100,000 soldier to the Big Bend in the wake of the Columbus killings.

The Mexican government balked at letting the Americans use the Mexico North Western Railway, so the Americans sent supplies to Gen John J. "Black Jack" Pershing's headquarters on trucks, the first time the U.S. ever used trucks as part of a military operation. The First Aero Squadron sent eight Curtiss JN3 airplanes to provide aerial reconnaissance, which marked the first time the U.S. military used airplanes in a military operation.

Though the pursuit of Pancho Villa survives with a frontier patina, Pershing and Villa both drove Dodge touring cars during the expedition. Major George T. Langhorne had a Cadillac. After Mexican raiders attacked the Texas border towns of Glenn Springs and Boquillas, Langhorne led a second expedition into Mexico to rescue hostages, exterminate as many banditos as possible, secure plunder and build a telephone line from Marfa to the Rio Grande if they had any time left over.

The detachment that plunged into Mexico on May 11 1916 included 100 mounted cavalry, 20 extra horses, two Fords and Langhorne's chauffeur-driven Cadillac. Two correspondents, including James Hopper of Collier's magazine, were present because the Army's only supply truck got stuck and the journalists had cars to carry weapons and equipment across a muddy crossing. A movie crew was there to film the action for the folks back home.

At one point, near Rosita, Hopper recorded for posterity one of the earliest military actions involving an automobile. Langhorne was in his Cadillac with his chauffer when they flushed a group of bandits. Langhorne ordered the chauffer to take off in pursuit while Langhorne fired away from over the dashboard. The chauffer got into the spirit of the chase by reporting to Langhorne the result of each shot.

"A foot to the right, sir!"
"A little too high!"
"You almost got him! Just an inch to the left!"

The chauffer got so involved with recording Langhorne's marksmanship that he somehow steered the Cadillac into an arroyo, perhaps the first exciting one-car accident to take place in warfare. "The entire party paraboloed through the air, and there was joy all around," Hopper wrote. The joy, we suppose, came from the fact that everybody either walked or rode away from the crash and lived to tell about it. Unfortunately, the movie cameras weren't rolling. It would've been a good scene.

Television was still a few decades away, but movie cameras were rolling during the entire expedition. In fact, Villa basically sold the revolution's movie rights to the Mutual Film Corporation of New York for $25,000 and a share of the profits. But being a movie star turned out to be hard for Villa because wars, by their very nature, are improvisational and the movie company had a schedule to keep.

Mutual decreed that Villa had to fight all his battles between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., which Villa must have thought a bit unfair because the moviemakers didn't make a similar arrangement with troops on the other side. Moviemakers canceled one attack in favor of a second take. The final cut of the movie was, by all accounts, terrible and did not survive the test of time.

Other relics survived. Villa's Dodge Roadster, riddled with bullet holes from a fatal ambush in 1922, sits now in the courtyard of his former mansion in Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico as part of a museum exhibit. Pershing's Dodge is a museum piece in West Point, N.Y. A car that Patton drove in pursuit of banditos along the border is on display in a museum at the Aberdeen, New Mexico Proving Grounds.

We don't know what happened to Langhorne's Cadillac, but we assume it went down as one of the first automotive casualties of that or any war.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 16, 2017 column

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