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The Forgotten War

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Since September 11, 2001, much of our national news has centered around the horrific act of
terrorism in New York City, which destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and killed
thousands of innocent civilians. Many people fail to realize how many times armed
foreigners have committed acts of war within the borders of the United States of America.
Best known, of course, is the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese military
forces. This was the trigger that started World War II and is indeed “a day that shall live
in infamy” (as President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it). Somewhat distantly remembered
by history buffs is the attack by British forces during the War of 1812, when the U.S.
Capitol was burned. Motorhomers who want to see and hear more about another time that
foreign feet marched uninvited into our nation should drop into the town of Deming, New
Mexico. The invasion so many Americans forget about occurred on the morning of March 9,
1916, shortly before the United States entered World War I. That was when a Mexican
military force, led by “Pancho Villa,” a 38-year-old bandit and cattle rustler, crossed the
border into the United States. Born Doroteo Arango in 1878, he took the name of a Mexican
hero, earning a self-anointed generalship despite serious defeats in several battles.
Historians eventually decided one reason for the raid, on the small border village of
Columbus, was the recognition of a Villa adversary, Venustiano Carranza, who was designated
the “official representative of Mexico” by the United States. Apparently in retaliation for
that, Villa mounted his attack on the Mexican and American civilian population of Columbus
and the small military garrison stationed there to provide security for the railroads.
Records indicate that more than 1,000 Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande, left their horses a
mile south of town and slipped into Columbus on foot. They opened fire in the early hours
of March 9. Before the raiders withdrew, 18 villagers and military personnel had been
killed. Residents of the only hotel were attacked and robbed, and several residences were
destroyed by fire. One hundred invaders died when the U.S. Army finally formed a skirmish
line and returned fire with machine guns, driving the Mexicans from the town. One week
after the raid, President Woodrow Wilson ordered a punitive mission across the Mexican
border under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing. The retaliatory force spent
11 months riding 400 miles into Mexico, looking for the Villa raiders with limited success.
A major battle saw the U.S. 10th Cavalry suffer 40 casualties. Prisoners were taken by both
sides, with U.S. soldiers later traded for Villa troops taken in the same battle. During
the Pershing foray, airplanes were used in battle for the first time as reconnaissance
units. On February 5, 1917, Pershing and his troops returned to Columbus. Today, much of
the Columbus area has been declared a national historic site. An exquisite 45-acre
campground has been built on the site of Camp Furlong, now Pancho Villa State Park,
complete with a massive botanical garden. Among the amazing collection of desert plants are
a half-dozen species of prickly pears, an equal number of cholla plants, turk’s-head and
barrel cactus, was well as agave century plants and the towering sotol. Park managers list
more than 100 species of the spiny succulents in the surrounding desert, including more
than 30 different varieties and their close relatives established in and around the RV
sites. Several buildings at the park date from the time of Villa’s raid and are listed in
the National Register of Historic Places. Even without the historical significance of the
1916 invasion of Mexican nationals onto U.S. soil, Pancho Villa State Park offers RV
visitors a delightful opportunity to explore this section along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Columbus is 32 miles south of Deming on Interstate 10. Other campgrounds in the immediate
area include Rockhound and City of Rocks state parks. Rockhound is one of those rare sites
where visitors are encouraged to take home up to 15 pounds of the silica, quartz, agate,
opal, jasper and geodes that are part of the landscape. A word of advice to newcomers
planning an overnight or longer stay in this part of southern New Mexico: Double the amount
of film you plan to bring with you. You can expect to see things you may have trouble
describing to your friends back home.

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