Bandito Numero Uno
Only WWI stopped Pershing’s manhunt for charismatic guerrilla Pancho Villa
He was a killer, a lover, an army general, former elected official, unlikely film star, a Robin Hood and guerrilla leader who was actually able to retire in comfort and relative obscurity — until he was assassinated.
Few figures from U.S. history are as colorful and intriguing as Francisco “Pancho” Villa. If it weren’t for the Great War, he might have made an even more lasting mark than he did.
By the time no less than Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing — and a no less hardened and seasoned 10th Cavalry Division of Buffalo Soldiers, among others — began to hunt Villa down, he was busy fighting off one would-be president after another, and splinter factions of revolutionaries galore.
Pershing had at least 5,000 troops under his command to hunt down Villa, who never commanded more than 500 or so men himself. But the self-proclaimed general, who never rose above the rank of private, was a canny and instinctive tactician, and many historians think it would have required saturation levels of tens of thousands of American troops to overcome Villa.
Villa was born the son of a sharecropper in northern Mexico. He was born in 1878, just one year after Porfirio Diaz became president of Mexico. It took decades to oust Diaz from office, but Villa played a key role.
The young Villa already had a rather elastic system of morals. When he was 16, he killed a man accused of raping a female cousin of Villa’s, forcing him to flee his home and embark on a life of crime. The hills of northern Mexico were already home to a collection of revolutionaries, dissidents and various criminal types, who found safety and sustenance from a friendly population.
Different factions were constantly vying for power in Mexico, which was still new to republican rule after centuries under the Spanish monarchy. These factions murdered each other and stole from each other regularly — and at times dropped their feuds with each other and ganged up on still other factions.
Villa became proficient at stealing cash, arms and livestock, mainly cattle, to sell to various gangs, legal and illegal. Surplus beef was handed out to villagers, giving rise to the reputation of Villa as Robin Hood. Later, as an elected official, he learned how to give “gifts” at the right times to the right people to further his aims.
Ouster of one president after another
Villa was a backer of one Francisco Madero, who was ousted as president by Gen. Victoriano Huerta in a coup. Villa then signed on with anti-Huerta fighter Venustiano Carranza, who prevailed, but fell out with him. Villa first supported Emiliano Zapata as Mexican leader, but soon vied for power with him.
At one point during the height of Villa’s power and popularity, the U.S. considered backing him for the presidency. By 1914, however, the U.S. decided to back Carranza in what was by then a civil war, and Villa was enraged.
Murder of Americans
Villa suffered losses of fighters and resources as a result of the conflict, and he badly needed to replenish supplies. In March 1916, he decided to attack a U.S. Army garrison across the border in Columbus, N.M., to seize arms, ammunition and other supplies.
Villa’s raiders made off with 100 horses and mules. Eighteen Americans and 80 guerrillas were killed.
Those whom Villa fought with from his own country did not fare as well. Villa was personally responsible for numerous executions without trial, and numerous rapes following the conquest of villages.
The U.S. retaliated against the cross-border raid by sending Pershing and 5,000 troops — which eventually swelled to nearly 100,000 — on an extensive manhunt.
The mission met resistance from native Mexicans almost immediately, who resented the “Yanqui” incursion on their lands. Carranza himself, though he was backed by the U.S. government, ordered attacks on Pershing’s troops.
The mission adopted a more diplomatic veneer, supposedly more of a police hunt for a fugitive, but Villa and his men were still a force to be reckoned with.
The guerrillas led three more attacks cross-border into Texas during this time, killing more than two dozen American soldiers and civilians.
By July 4, a truce was called so that negotiations could take place.
Interruption of the Great War
By Jan. 17, 1917, the U.S. had successfully persuaded the Carranza government to allow U.S. troops to resume their hunt for Villa.
However, that same month, the famous Zimmermann Telegram was discovered. Named after the German consul in Mexico, the offer was made to give the U.S. territory in Mexico in exchange for supporting Germany in World War I, which had been raging since 1914.
As things turned out, the mood in the U.S. was clearly for joining the fray in support of Britain, France and their allies. President Woodrow Wilson backed the isolationists, but the tide was against them. Troops — mostly National Guardsmen — who would have pursued Villa were redirected to the Great War overseas. The wily bandito was free.
Life in the fast lane
By the time Villa was made governor of the state of Chihuahua in 1920, Carranza had been executed by Huerta, who took over the presidency and made peace with his old nemesis Villa.
Villa retired to a sizeable hacienda, a wealthy man with at least two wives and numerous mistresses. Back in the States, the Mutual Company, a movie outfit that made newsreels, contracted with Villa to make a documentary on the revolution and civil war using actual fighters.
Newsmen embedded in the Mexican revolutionary ranks were nothing new. When footage of actual combat was deemed to be too dull and chaotic to edit into usable format, the fighters themselves were willing to recreate battles, and even staged new ones with their enemies to get the best results.
Villa was one of these revolutionaries. Already famous for having outwitted the Yanqui Pershing, he became a huge celebrity for his exploits.
Villa never went anywhere without at least 50 bodyguards, but for some reason, he went out with only a few to a neighboring village of Parral one day to attend a christening of the child of one of his top henchmen.
On July 20, 1923, Villa was assassinated by allies of then-President Alvaro Olbregon, who was an old pal of Villa’s nemesis Carranza. Villa had been talking publicly about running for president himself, and Carranza, who could not run again, wanted his own successor.
A group of about 7 gunmen poured lead into Villa’s car, killing him instantly on that hot July afternoon.
He went on to occupy a lasting place in Mexican history, but he never made the Hall of Heroes list of influential revolutionaries and presidents like Zapata and Benito Juarez.
Even after death, Villa remained a figure in the news. Someone stole his skull from his grave in Parral, and it was rumored to have wound up as property of the Skull and Bones Society at Yale University.
Villa fathered numerous children, the last of whom, a son, died in 2009.
Vietnam Veterans Day – On March 29 each year, we honor those who faced hardships abroad — and at home
To paraphrase the late Winston Churchill, never did two simple words mean so much to so many.
It is 50 years to the day that the last of the American troops departed from Vietnam. The long war resulted in more than 50,000 killed, tens of thousands more wounded and missing, and hundreds of thousands more bringing awareness to a new disorder, PTSD.
And yet, the more than 3 million men — and women — who served came back to a divided homeland, with many of their countrymen treating them like lepers.
It took until 2012, when a proclamation was issued naming March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day, for there finally to be a day set aside to honor them.
Special events have sprung up in recent years, like concerts and family-fun days, many acting as fundraisers to help needy Veterans and their loved ones.
Quietly, though, behind the scenes, many unsung Americans have found ways of their own to thank our Vietnam Veterans for their service,
The honor these Veterans has been long overdue. It is gratifying that even now, when they’re in their golden years, they are finally shown our thanks.
The fight against communism
Vietnam Veterans were born during the World War II and Korean War years, for the most part. They were the children of the Greatest Generation, and they were brought up to believe in the defense of our nation above all else.
Post-modernist writers, academics and pundits like to paint this belief as some kind of twisted jingoism, and that communism represented a viable, and “better,” way to self-govern.
The truth is that communism posed a very real threat around the world after the Korean War — itself fought to prevent a communist takeover.
Leaders of big and influential countries like the USSR and East Germany made no secret of their intention to turn the entire world into one vast “paradise” of total control. They began taking over nation after nation, installing puppet governments, to achieve this aim. Vulnerable countries fell with frightening frequency, threatening the freedom — once again — of the entire world.
Only the United States still had the resources and manpower to organize opposition to this threat, whether we liked it or not. Most of us saw the threat, and though we were not happy about being the “world’s policeman,” we felt it was our duty to stand up against it.
Hindsight has taught us that the task in Southeast Asia was more complex than we had anticipated, but we believed in “give me liberty or give me death.”
Battlefields and guerrillas
Americans had been embedded in Indochina from the time the French withdrew in 1954. The Viet Minh revolutionaries took over northern Vietnam, and the U.S. send advisors and military aid to the opposition in the South.
By the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam was fielding 40,000 troops against the South, and President Kennedy amped up the American advisory presence.
One of these soldier-advisers was retired Army Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, of Cocoa, who is a Medal of Honor recipient from the War (as related in past Veteran Voice articles). The highly decorated soldier continues to appear at occasional speaking engagements to share his experiences and his patriotism. For him, being an “adviser” meant being a combatant.
There were a number of significant major battles, beginning in 1965 with the Battle of La Drang, and included the Battles of Khe Sanh and Hue, which was part of the larger Tet Offensive.
For the first time, American forces had to contend not only with conventional troops, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but also an equally sizeable guerrilla force, the Viet Cong.
Our troops had to contend with motivated enemies well entrenched in their home turf, in countryside that was alien to Americans.
Historians have argued, and will continue to argue, why American troops were finally withdrawn, and why we “lost” the War. The truth is, the Vietnam War represented a sea change between the set-piece big battles of World War II and Korea to the mixture of conventional versus unconventional warfare that has changed the face of warfare itself, and our troops were at the sharp end.
The times they were a-changin’
At home, an equally seismic shift was taking place.
After World War II, the G.I. Bill meant that more Americans than ever in history began attending colleges and universities. It was a point of pride for the Greatest Generation to give their children access to the best education possible.
College campuses became hotbeds of post-modernist ideologies, which rebelled against the conformism of the 1950s and sowed the seeds of rebellion in an already rebellion-prone cohort of young adults.
The national draft became the epicenter of resentment and, along with women’s liberation and the Civil Rights movement, made a perfect storm of social upheaval. Rank-and-file troops became the target of national anger. By now, we are all aware of the treatment they received at the hands of their “brethren.”
Vietnam Veterans not only believed in defending our national interests, but believed that our national values, including the right to protest, should also be protected. They had fought bravely overseas, but were powerless to do anything against the onslaught of national fury. This, added to their wartime suffering, contributed to the emergence of PTSD as a terrible bond shared by so many of these Veterans.
Divided we (still) stand
Thankfully, though our nation is politically divided as never before, we are united in at least one thing — the belated recognition of the contributions of our Vietnam Veterans. Many are involved in this effort.
One such group, working tirelessly behind the scenes, includes the volunteers with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Together with scientists of all descriptions, hundreds of volunteers are dedicated to finding, and identifying, the remains of Vietnam (and Korean War) Veterans in Indochina.
Each year, expeditions must be carefully planned before teams go out in the field to search for remains. Today’s Vietnamese government has worked side by side with Americans in this task.
The work is hard, and the rewards few. In 2020, only 218 sets of remains were located, before being sent to labs in Hawaii for DNA analysis. Other finds proved helpful, though, such as aircraft parts, in filling in historical gaps. But the bottom line is the search will continue until the last Veteran is accounted for. For this reason, POW/MIA Day also continues to be a crucial element of honoring Vietnam and all Veterans. (For more information on the agency’s efforts, visit taskandpurpose.com/military-life/american-soldiers-missing-in-action/).
Another grassroots effort more widely known is Honor Flights. Originally begun in 2005 to ferry World War II Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorial sites, the gradual decline in those Veterans’ numbers led to including Korean War Veterans, and now Vietnam Veterans are welcomed into the honored ranks.
In the Veteran Voice readership, both Southeast Florida Honor Flight and Space Coast Honor Flight conduct up to six flights per year, averaging 70 Veterans and an equal number of guardians on a “trip of a lifetime.” There they visit memorials to World War II, Korea and of course, The Wall and the Three Servicemen statue.
On their return to Florida, crowds of well-wishers overwhelm the Veterans with cheers, handshakes, hugs and flags, leaving many in tears. Everyone is welcome to participate, and all are changed by the experience.
This year, 50th Anniversary commemorations include several national events in Washington, D.C., and around the country, including Florida. Continuing through May, many “Welcome Home” events are slated to take place.
On this Vietnam Veterans Day, the thanks may be belated, but they are deep and heartfelt. These Veterans have earned their honored place in history.
PHOTO CREDIT: National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons – A National Park Service volunteer uses paper and a graphite stick to obtain a rubbing of a name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., known as “the Wall,” on behalf of a family member unable to visit themselves.