Most travelers know Cozumel as a destination resort famous for its world class scuba diving and snorkeling, beautiful beaches, the ancient Mayan ruins of San Gervasio, Chankanaab Park, a wide range of lodging and restaurant options and very friendly people. But on our vacation, I also discovered an interesting, rarely told account about a few brave men.
One afternoon, my wife and I were sightseeing and we drove by a fenced-in field that appeared to be a military base. At the entrance gate, a circa WW II fighter plane was on display.
4th. Air Military Base in Cozumel, Quintana Roo
I was intrigued, asked a few questions and a story unfolded that revealed a small slice of history, little known in the USA. There is anecdotal evidence that the Nazis “invited” the Mexican government to join their cause and attack America from across the border. Mexico declined the offer and, after Nazi submarines sunk three Mexican tankers that were delivering crude oil to the United States, the 201st. Mexican Air Fighter Squadron was established as part of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force to assist the Allies in the war effort. In 1944, the squadron left for extensive air-warfare training in Texas. At that time, its pilots nicknamed themselves Aquilas Aztecas – the Aztec Eagles.
The group included over 300 volunteer support crew for the 30 pilots. There, they flew the AT-6, Vultee BT-13/15, Curtiss P-40 fighter and the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter-bomber. Unfortunately, two pilots died in flying accidents during this period.
Curtiss P- 40 Fighter
In April, 1945, the group sailed on the SS Fairisle: destination – the Philippines. After they arrived in Manila, they were assigned to the US 5th Air Force attached to the 586th. Fighter Group based in Luzon.
While in the Pacific Theater, the Aztec Eagles participated in more than 90 combat missions, totaling more than 1,900 hours of flight time in support of U.S. and Filipino troops. They also undertook long-range missions to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). In August, they flew their last combat assignment as a full squadron, escorting a convoy north of the Philippines. By the end of their tour of duty, five more pilots had been lost; one shot down, one crashed in bad weather and three ran out of fuel and died at sea.
The 201st. earned a commendation from General Douglas MacArthur who, at that time, was the Field Marshall of the Philippine Army. The Aztec Eagles returned to Mexico City at the end of November in 1945 and were greeted as national heroes. Even now, there is a yearly celebration marking their return from the war. Squadron 201 is still on active duty, flying out of the 4th. Air Military Base in Cozumel, Quintana Roo.
So the plane that we stumbled upon while driving around beautiful Cozumel, led to a surprising history lesson relating to Mexico’s contribution to winning WW II.
Remember that on your next trip to Mexico!
Safe travels and enjoy the journey…
Thanks to the Cozumel Visitor Bureau, www.cozumel.travel, and Sr. Aldo Flores for background information, historical data and photos. Also to the Palm Springs Air Museum.
* This article featured in the August 2012 Issue of Travel World International Magazine and finalist in the 2012 North American Travel Journalists Association’s writers competition.