Sunday, January 08, 2017

U.S. Army Air Corps first challenged in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

The U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Twenty nine years prior to that (1916), the fledgling Army Air Corps saw its first deployment and action in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

It all began in 1909, when the U.S. Army purchased its first airplane, a Wright Flyer designated Signal Corps No. 1. The history written of the 1st Aero Squadron relates that “in early 1910 1st Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois took the airplane to Fort Sam Houston, outside San Antonio, Texas, where he spent a year learning to fly and conducting experiments under practical conditions. Foulois was still at Fort Sam Houston in March 1911 when the War Department activated a Maneuver Division.”

The Maneuver Division was formed in San Antonio, Texas, in March 1911, to undertake offensive operations against Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. [Some 30,000 troops were deployed to the border in response to the restless activities south of the border.] Coincidentally, in that same month the U.S. Congress appropriated the first funds for military aviation, $125,000, which the Signal Corps used to purchase five airplanes.

Two of these and three new pilots joined Foulois, who organized them into an informal aviation “company.” When revolutionary activity cooled for a while, the Maneuver Division was withdrawn. The division was disbanded on 7 August 1911. It did serve a purpose, however. This was to demonstrate to Washington how inadequate the military force had become.

Initially the squadron, who were utilizing these primitive aircraft, was used to deliver messages. Tradegy struck the flyers on May 10, 1911 when Lt. George E. M. Kelly died in a crash.whereupon the post commander ended flying at the fort.

When renewed violence accelerated in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson order a partial mobilization, and the army formed the “Second Division” at Texas City. “ On 25 February, the Chief Signal Officer, Brig. Gen. George P. Scriven, ordered the airplanes, personnel, and equipment then at Augusta, Georgia, to Texas City; and on 5 March 1913, the army designated the small command as the 1st Aero Squadron (Provisional).

At his time the unit consisted of nine airplanes, nine officers, and fifty-one enlisted men organized into two companies, and it spent much of its time practicing cross-country flying and operating from rough terrain, skills that would be of great value in the field.” At this time the planes consisted of Burgess Model H’s and several types of Curtiss Models.

The squadron conducted observation and fire control experiments with the field artillery at Fort Sam Houston and then were transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It was on August 14, 1914 that the squadron received orders to send an airplane to the Mexican border at Brownsville, Texas.

Under the command of Lt. Joseph Morrow, the order was immediately expedited. This was quickly followed by an order to send a second plane to Brownsville. Then in October the remaining squadron was ordered to the new flying post that had been established in San Antonio. The detachment from Brownsville rejoined the squadron on December 29.

While in the Valley the planes flew reconnaissance missions along the U.S. side of the river in order to ferret out illicit activities in the making. Naturally they occasionally came under gunshot fire from the Mexico side of the border. Undoubtedly this was the first time American aviators were ever to encoun- ter unfriendly fire.

The massive military buildup along the border had commenced by the summer of 1916. Public awareness and opinion had been raised by the Pancho Villa’s ordered-attack on Columbus, New Mexico, where seventeen soldiers and civilians were killed.

On May 7, 1916, President Wilson had ordered a partial mobilization of the National Guard. Initially 5,260 men from units in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico were called up.

Soon Wilson concluded that even this number, even supplemented with all available regular Army troops, was insufficient to protect the 3,000 mile border. On June 18, he ordered the mobilization of the National Guards of all the remaining states.

By July 4, 1916, 27,160 troops from fourteen different states were on duty along the Rio Grande.

This number rose to nearly 111,000 by the end of the month. By late August the border was home to 16,000 regular Army and 184,000 guardsmen.

McAllen alone, with only 2,000 residents, became home to nearly 19,000 guardsmen.

The squadron, with planes withdrawn from the Valley, was assigned to operations in Columbus, New Mexico where General Pershing was in pursuit of Pancho Villa and his forces. It mission would be communications and observation. The squadron had only eight operable aircraft, and it was short on spare parts, fuel, and pilots.

Once here, the short-comings of the underpowered 90 hp Curtiss engines became evident as the planes were unable to climb over the 10,000 foot mountains. All in all this was not an auspicious start for what is now the greatest Air Force in the world.

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