“Stand up if you didn’t learn anything there,” said Michael Hurst, director of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society. He was speaking at the conclusion of a talk by Chang Wei-bin (張維斌), an aviation historian and author of Formosa Air Raid (空襲福爾摩沙), a study of the allied bombardment of Taiwan during World War II.
Had there been anyone churlish enough to take Hurst’s challenge literally, it is unlikely they would have risen from their seat. Chang’s 90-minute lecture as part of the society’s program to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day, was full of surprises.
The breadth and depth of the information on offer at Taipei Film House on Saturday was mind-boggling. It included detailed images of locations island-wide that were bombed, what, if anything, was targeted and hit and what can be found in these spots now. There were also segments on supporting raids by other Allied nations. These included four night-time mining operations by the Royal Australian Airforce between March 6 and March 20, 1945 and two raids by the British Pacific Fleet the following month.
Photo courtesy of the US Air Force
“The goal assigned to them was to neutralize the Sakishima Islands,” says Chang, explaining that this was to support Operation Iceberg, the American invasion of Okinawa on April 1. “However, the Japanese launched a largescale suicidal attack on the American fleet, causing heavy damage to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock on April 7. So the British fleet was asked to attack Taiwan because the US navy thought the attack came from there. Actually, this was probably true — some came from Kyushu and some from Taiwan.”
MEXICO JOINS THE WAR
However, it was the bombshell of Mexico’s participation in the campaign that provided a truly unexpected blast from the past.
Photo courtesy of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force
Initially, Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho was hesitant to join the war. An ex-military man, Avila had joined the revolutionary army in 1914, the same year that then-Captain Douglas MacArthur had participated in the occupation of the Mexican port of Veracruz. Underscoring Avila’s reticence was sympathy among the Mexican elite for Nazi ideology.
However, the sinking of two Mexican oil tankers, killing at least 20 people, decided things. Avila declared war on the Axis powers on May 28, 1942. Privately, Japan was considered the real threat, details of a planned invasion of the US through northwestern Mexico having been intercepted by the Mexican army prior to Avila’s announcement. A contribution in the Pacific theater therefore seemed a natural option.
Nicknamed the Aztec Eagles, the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron was a 300-strong volunteer force. Following training in Texas, the 201st had a spell in Idaho, which was cut short as it proved “too cold for Mexicans,” Chang says. After another stint in Texas and then physical examinations and instructions in California, the squadron departed for the Philippines on March 27, 1945 aboard the SS Fairisle.
“They were sent to Luzon in late April and used P-47 aircraft borrowed from the Americans,” Chang says.
On one of the slides in his presentation, Chang highlights the Mexican tricolor of green, white and red, which appeared with the American star emblem in various forms on the fighter-bombers.
“Because they were quite inexperienced, in Luzon, they first received training again alongside American fighters, and it was not until a year [after they had begun training in the US] that they flew missions to Taiwan in the name of long-range reconnaissance training.”
In fact, this underplays the Mexican contribution. Before the Taiwan missions, the 201st saw plenty of action, assisting with the bombing of Luzon and ground support. Aside from the Formosa raids, they flew dozens of combat missions in the Philippines.
During their first four reconnaissance sweeps off Taiwan, which took place between July 6 and July 9, they encountered the enemy but did not “fire a single shot,” Chang says.
However, these sorties were no breeze.
“We flew some very dangerous missions from Clark Field in the Philippines to Formosa, now called Taiwan,” Captain Miguel Moreno Arreola told the American Forces Press Service (AFPS) in 2003.“We saw more frequent airplanes from Japan on that 650-mile trip than ever before,” said Arreola, who spent six months in the Pacific.
And, according to the Mexican veteran, it was the enemy that was reluctant to engage.
“They didn’t want to have combat with us, because they knew our P-47s were better than their Mitsubishis,” Arreola said. “We could fly higher and faster.”
On Aug. 8, the Aztec Eagles flew to Taiwan again, this time on a bombing mission at Hualien, then known as Karenko. Six 1,000-pound bombs were dropped, though they appear to have missed their targets.
“They carried one bomb on one wing and a fuel tank on the other because it was too heavy to carry two bombs at the same time,” says Chang. “I’m not sure what was bombed, but according to their mission report, it was not effective.”
Regardless, the 201st returned home to considerable fanfare on Nov. 18, 1945. They delivered a national flag to Avila in a parade at the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, and a movie bearing the squadron’s name was released less than two weeks after their return. A station on Mexico City Metro Line 8 is also named in their honor. In 2003, Avila himself was awarded the Republic of China’s Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon.
As of May this year, only one combat pilot from the Aztec Eagles was still alive. In the aforementioned interview with AFPS, 100-year-old Colonel Carlos Garduno recalled meeting Avila, who beseeched the squadron to remember “your pilot comrades that are not with you because they’ve passed on to the hills of Mexico.”
Thanks to the efforts of historians such as Chang Wei-bin, the feats of the Aztec Eagles have also been kept alive in Taiwan, long after they soared through its skies.
For more information on Taiwan’s POWs by the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society, visit: www.powtaiwan.org. For further information about the bombing, visit: taiwanairblog.blogspot.com.
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