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