Mexico in WW2: An Overlooked Contribution
Mexico before WW2:
At the start of WW2, Mexico was a broken land. The Mexican Revolution had decimated an entire generation, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Fighting continued in the form of the Cristero War which lasted until 1929, just in time for the Great Depression to further batter this struggling nation.
This was a time of increased tension between Mexico and the United States. It had been just under a century since the Mexican-American War, where Mexico lost over half of its territory (the present-day states of Nevada, Utah, California, as well as much of Arizona, and parts of Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado). Many Mexicans still felt anger at the bitter loss.
In addition, in 1938 right before the start of WW2, Mexico was in the process of nationalizing its gasoline—which angered big oil and other American corporate interests. Needless to say, relations between the United States and Mexico could be characterized as frosty.
Mexico at the Start of WW2:
When WW2 broke out in 1939, Mexico remained neutral. This was in part because of the polarized climate. Mexico’s sizeable Italian community—feeling a kinship with their home country—fell in line with the Axis powers. Mexico’s robust communist population initially supported the Germans, however, when Germany invaded Russia, the Axis lost the support of this community. Nevertheless, many Mexicans who had grown wary of fascism and authoritarianism supported the Allied effort.
European trade routes that had been crucial in providing specialized goods to Mexico became threatened. Trade ships were torpedoed by German U-boats, making Latin American countries increasingly dependent on the United States for trade. This helped to ease the tense climate of the 1930s.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Mexico was one of the first countries to pledge support and aid. Mexico cut diplomatic ties with Japan two days later. Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mexico severed all diplomatic ties with Italy and Germany as well. It closed all its ports to Germany, which allowed for a secure Gulf of Mexico on the American southern border.
The following month, between January 15th – 18th, a Conference of Foreign Ministers was held in Rio de Janeiro where the Mexican Delegation argued passionately that Latin American countries had to cooperate to ensure their mutual defense.
In May of 1942, German U-boats had sunk two Mexican vessels. One was the SS Potrero del Llano which had been sent from Tampico to deliver petroleum to New York. It was torpedoed off the coast of Florida on May 14th, 1942. The second was a boat that had successfully survived the entirety of WW1. Renamed SS Faja de Oro, this ship had delivered cargo to the United States and was returning from Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to Tampico when it was bombed off the coast of Key West on May 21st, 1942—only a week later.
To make matters worse, the SS Faja de Oro had been chased by another U-boat in the same vicinity, really driving home the fact that the routes between Mexico and the US were being heavily patrolled by Germany. Mexico demanded a formal apology and compensation for the two destroyed vessels. When Germany refused, Mexico declared war on the Axis powers on June 1st, 1942.
Mexico in WW2:
Culturally, it was easy for Mexicans to support their involvement in the Second World War. They saw it in terms of a continuation of the Mexican Revolution—where their fathers had fought and died in a war to overthrow the authoritarian rule of the Mexican aristocracy only two decades prior. This sentiment translated well toward developing a collective effort in defeating the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.
Once Mexico had entered WW2, they were in a position to enact a series of laws set to openly help out the war effort—some of which had lasting effects on the cultural landscape of both Mexico and the United States.
By the time Mexico had entered WW2, many of the issues between the two nations had been resolved through diplomatic legislation. A reciprocal trade treaty was drafted, and the agrarian claim issues that had plagued Mexican and American relations were settled. The Mexican peso was supported with regular silver purchases at world market prices in order to stabilize the ratio of the MXN peso to the US dollar. Also, the United States promised a series of loans to bolster Mexico’s economy. In addition, the United States promised to modernize the Mexican military—including providing military aid.
The Bracero Program:
One of the most successful cooperative programs between the United State and the Mexican government that followed the declaration of war was the Bracero Program (”bracero” literally meaning “one who works with his arms” in Spanish). This allowed migrant farmers and railroad men to work in the United States, filling a labor gap left behind by American workers who were either off fighting or had been hired on jobs that demanded a higher skill set. The Bracero Program was instrumental in feeding the American population during the war.
The Bracero Program guaranteed Mexicans a minimum wage of ȼ30 an hour, as well as decent food, water, shelter, and sanitation. It also guaranteed that there would be no segregated areas for migrant Mexican workers.
In some areas, the Mexican laborers were treated poorly, and because of the specified conditions of the contract, the program had to be suspended. In Texas, the Bracero Program was suspended for several years by the Mexican government. Though the Texan governor at the time, Coke Stevenson, repeatedly pleaded for the Mexican government to lift the ban, no Mexican workers were allowed to work in Texas—which hurt the Texan economy.
During the six years of WW2, 300,000 Mexicans would answer the call. The Bracero Program was so successful that it would last for two decades after the ending of the war—eventually employing 5 million Mexican workers during its 22-year run. Though the program would end, it would create a symbiotic system between farmers and migrant workers from Mexico which exists to this day.
Soldiers Born in Mexico in WW2:
Many history aficionados know that Mexico did not send ground troops into WW2. Mexican President Avila Camacho was adamantly against sending in ground troops—like those sent by the other great Latin American power at the time: Brazil. However, Mexico did allow the United States to recruit Mexicans for the American army in exchange for a chance at American citizenship. (Even though some were granted American citizenship, but instead, they returned home to Mexico).
6,500 Mexicans would sign up between 1940 – 1943 alone. So many applied that the US Embassy in Mexico had to turn away individuals. Some estimates say that up to 15,000 Mexican-born soldiers fought in WW2. Of these, 1,492 were injured, perished, imprisoned, or disappeared altogether. Several Mexican soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in both the Pacific and European campaigns.
*Some notable Mexican-born soldiers:
- Carlos Faustino, pilot from Esquadron 201, received commendation
- Louie Dominguez, a Mexican-American who, at the age of 18, died fighting against German troops in the last weeks of the war. He posthumously received six medals, including the bronze star, the Purple Heart, and the combat infantry badge
- Silvestre Herrera, European battlegrounds, recipient of the Medal of Honor
- José Valdes, US Army, recipient of the Medal of Honor
- Joe Martinez, US Army, recipient of the Medal of Honor
- Alejandro Renteria, US Army, recipient of the Medal of Honor.
- Agustin Ramos Calero, Sgt.1st class, fought in France after D-Day, awarded the Silver Star Medal
The Aztec Eagles Squadron From Mexico in WW2:
Though Mexican President Camacho held steadfast in his decision to withhold troops from Mexico in WW2, he did eventually authorize a fighter squadron to engage in open combat. The 201st Fighter Squadron—also called the Aztec Eagles—was hand-selected by President Camacho to serve as the representatives of Mexico in WW2.
Composed of over 33 pilots and 270 ground crew such as radiomen, mechanics, and electricians, the 201st Squadron was one of the most distinguished military units in Mexican history.
After their formation, they were sent to train in Idaho and Texas for a three-month program where they learned advanced combat tactics and were tested in their proficiency. Upon graduating, they were attached to the 58th Fighter Group of the Fifth Airforce and shipped out to help in the effort to liberate the Philippines. Using borrowed aircraft displaying both the USAAF and Mexican Airforce insignia, the Aztec Eagles began combat operations in June of 1945. They flew more than 90 combat missions and logged almost 2,000 hours of flight time. They only lost 5 pilots in actual warfare (1 shot down, 1 in a crash, and 3 ran out of fuel presumably drowning in the Pacific Ocean), which is a testament to their capability and efficacy on the battlefield.
Unfortunately, because no provisions for replacement pilots had been made, the 201st Fighter Squadron began to lose its efficacy. The Mexican Airforce rushed pilots through training in an attempt to replace the fallen pilots, and three pilots died in training exercises on American soil.
The 201st Fighter Squadron encountered some of the roughest combat in the war. They helped in the retaking of the islands of Formosa and Luzon. They also laid air support for the 25th Infantry Division and the Filipino troops accompanying them in the Cagayan Valley on Luzon.
Not only did the pilots see combat, but amazingly enough the ground crew also encountered and engaged the enemy. During the ensuing firefight, they managed to even capture some prisoners of war. Overall, the Aztec Eagles were credited with putting 30,000 Japanese soldiers out of action.
At the time, the 201st Fighter Squadron was recognized by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific: General Douglas MacArthur. Then, the Aztec Eagles arrived in Mexico City to a hero’s welcome and a military parade in Plaza de la Constitucion.
Since then, their efforts have continued to be recognized. They were awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor in 2004 by then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In 2015, President Peña Nieto and his Secretary of Foreign Affairs Claudia Ruiz Massieu visited the monument to the 201st Fighter Squadron in Manila, Philippines.
*By my research, four of the five pilots who fell in combat over the Philippines were awarded street names throughout Mexico. I could not find a street named after the fifth pilot with the curious name of Mamerto Albarrán Nágera.
*To find Calle Fausto Vega Santander, click here.
*To find Calle José Espinoza Fuentes, click here.
*To find Calle Héctor Ezpinoza Galván, click here.
*To find Calle Mario López Portillo, click here.
The Contribution of Mexico in WW2:
Despite all of the aforementioned service that Mexico provided the war effort, perhaps the greatest contribution of Mexico in WW2 was the raw materials that the country provided. After the Rio Conference, Mexico pledged to offer preferential treatment to the Allied Forces concerning their strategic raw materials. Mexico supplied more strategic raw materials than any other Latin American nation, including zinc, mercury, copper, graphite, cadmium, and lead. It is estimated that 40% of all the raw materials that built the American war machine were provided by Mexico. In addition, Mexican oil was instrumental in running the war efforts.
The Lasting Legacy of Mexico in WW2:
The lasting legacy of Mexico in WW2 was the swift modernization of the country. Dubbed “The Mexican Miracle”, WW2 helped to industrialize Mexico and lift it out of its slump and bring it into the 20th Century. Modern industrial techniques were necessary to mine the ore which built the American war machine, and after the war, this infrastructure remained ready to supply privatized industry.
Between 1940 and 1946, Mexico’s economy tripled, and it continued to grow at an average rate of 6% every year after until 1970. Though the war did seem to increase corruption and income inequality—in effect, creating the landscape that we find in Mexico today—overall, Mexico benefitted greatly from its efforts in WW2.
It laid the foundation for the cooperation between the United States and Mexico which has helped both countries over the last century. In addition, all aspects of Mexican infrastructure improved. Agriculture, transportation, military, industry, education, and medicine all emerged for the better after the involvement of Mexico in WW2. For example, immense hydraulic projects were undertaken to provide electricity and flood control to the rural countryside.
Due to the heavy rations on goods for the war effort, Mexico also had to develop light industry, which was powered by Mexican capital, in order to supply goods that had traditionally been imported from Europe. Overall, WW2 left Mexico one of the richest nations in Latin America, and it strengthened the bonds between the United States and Mexico which has only served to benefit both countries in the ensuing decades.
*For more information on post-war Mexico, click here.
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