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Pancho Villa, the Army Air Corps and Big Bend National Park
In honor of Veterans Day, here's a look at a mostly forgotten story from the early days of military aviation in our country.
Every NPS area, even if it wasn't created specifically to commemorate a historical event, includes some interesting tales from the past. At Big Bend National Park, one of those stories involves Pancho Villa and the Army Air Corps.
Pancho Villa's escapades along the U.S. – Mexico border in the early 1900s laid the groundwork for a unique connection between the Army Air Corps and the remote area of Texas desert, canyons and mountains now called Big Bend National Park.
One of Villa's last raids was against the town of Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. That action in 1919 prompted the U.S. Army to station eighteen DeHaviland DH-4 airplanes at Fort Bliss, Texas, and to inaugurate an aerial border patrol from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas. Aircraft based at Marfa, Texas, patrolled from El Paso to Sanderson, Texas, and into the Big Bend country.
That's a very long stretch of border, and aircraft in those days had limited range, no effective communications, and operated based on weather forecasts of questionably accuracy. Those factors all dictated the need for a network of emergency landing strips; one of those temporary landing fields was established at the cavalry outpost at Glenn Springs, which later became part of Big Bend National Park.
In 1929, events associated with the Escobar Revolution in Mexico led to the establishment of a more serviceable airfield along the Rio Grande at Johnson's Ranch. Elmo and Ada Johnson had established their ranch and trading post on the banks of the Rio Grande in 1927, sixteen miles downstream from the border settlement of Castolon. With the exception of a few neighbors on each side of the border, the Johnsons lived in almost total isolation, but their remote location didn't guarantee peace and quiet. A park publication tells the story:
On April 11, 1929, the Johnsons came face to face with the revolution as thirty Mexican bandits raided the trading post, driving away Johnson's goats and cattle. In response, the cavalry was dispatched from Ft. Davis to patrol the area. On April 24, the U.S. Army Air Corps established a landing field at Johnson’s ranch. Two weeks later, army transport planes delivered the first infantry troops from Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. Big Bend had entered the annals of military aviation.
Lt. Thad V. Foster, Eighth Corps Area assistant air officer, made the initial inspection flight of Johnson’s Ranch and quickly recommended its official authorization. Lt. Foster was the first to make an entry in the field register when he carried the official authorization to Johnson’s Ranch on July 6, 1929.
The Johnsons kept the register on the patio for the subsequent fourteen years. Notable inscriptions included Lt. Nathan F. Twining, later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Jonathan M. Wainwright, then post commander at Ft. Clark, who would later became a hero at Bataan.
Elmo Johnson’s position was unique—he owned the landing field, was personally responsible for its maintenance, and was a close personal friend of Lt. Foster. Due to his trading post and excellent relations on both sides of the border, Elmo Johnson became a prime source of information on border activity in the Big Bend.
The Johnson Ranch airfield was the first permanent installation by the Air Corps in the lower Big Bend. It was distinct from other airfields in the area in that it was neither an auxiliary nor emergency field. It was established solely due to its strategic location, where combat troops and aircraft could be deployed in case of a border emergency.
It was also unique in that the ranch house became the airfield headquarters, and Elmo Johnson—with neither rank or authority—provided a quaint civilian dominance over the field's operations.
Other accounts of the airfield at Johnson's Ranch mention the unique nature of the operation. Perhaps due to its isolated location and the fact it was a civilian-run operation, the "airfield" maintained an informal atmosphere. By common consent, military rank was reportedly ignored at the Ranch.
A stopover at Johnson’s Ranch also included lounging in the cool vine-covered patio and enjoying Ada Johnson's home cooking. The field was a popular weekend destination for pilots—a place to combine flying exercises with recreation such as hunting, fishing, exploring Indian caves, and taking burro rides into Mexico.
Whatever technical skills a young aviator might wish to develop—cross country navigation, strange field landings, or increasing his flying time—a flight to Johnson’s Ranch provided ample opportunity. Several times aircraft mobilized at Johnson’s Ranch in response to rumored border raids.
Most of us now take the technology that makes round-the-clock takeoffs and landings for granted, but things were a lot different in the early days of aviation at the ranch.
Johnson constructed two rock piles, 100' apart near the landing threshold, to help the pilots. For night landings, he carried two lanterns out to identify the landing area.
Another reminder that both military and civilian aviation have come a long way since the early days of the Johnson's Ranch is found in "Regulations for Operation of Aircraft," which were published in 1920 by the United States of America War Office. Among those rules:
• Don't take the machine into the air unless you are satisfied it will fly.
• Do not trust altitude instruments.
• Pilots should carry hankies in a handy position to wipe off goggles.
• If you see another machine near you, get out of the way.
• If an emergency occurs while flying, land as soon as possible.
• Pilots will not wear spurs while flying.
By the late 1930s the field had three graded runways, the longest measuring 4,200 feet; that was longer than some municipal airports in Texas. These improvements made Johnson’s Ranch a safe all-weather operational facility for combat aircraft, and its popularity as a training site was also connected to its relative proximity to San Antonio, the home of the Army Air Corps training center.
Activity at the Johnson's Ranch airfield peaked in 1936 and then declined as training requirements for the approach of World War II diverted activity elsewhere. The field's location was too far off the east-west traffic route, and it had poor ground communications, poor access roads, and no rail line. In 1933 the Texas Legislature had passed the bill establishing Texas Canyons State Park and the ranch was purchased in 1942 and included in the park. Big Bend National Park was established in 1944.
You can visit the site of Johnson's Ranch today, which includes one of the park's primitive, roadside campsites, but you'll need a high clearance vehicle to get there. Be sure to read the information on the park website and check at the park for current road conditions before making any trips into the park's backcountry.
If you're interested in more information on this subject, a good source is the book Wings over the Mexican Border, Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend by Kenneth Ragsdale. Published by the University of Texas Press, the book's jacket material also provides a good summary of the role of the Big Bend area and the Johnson Ranch in the history of military aviation:
Against a backdrop of revolution, border banditry, freewheeling aerial dramatics, and World War II comes this compelling look at the rise of U.S. combat aviation at an unlikely proving ground—a remote airfield in the rugged reaches of the southwestern Texas borderlands.
Here, at Elmo Johnson's Big Bend ranch, hundreds of young Army Air Corps pilots demonstrated the U.S. military's reconnaissance and emergency response capabilities and, in so doing, dramatized the changing role of the airplane as an instrument of war and peace.
Particularly noteworthy is Ragsdale's portrait of Elmo Johnson, the Big Bend rancher, trader, and rural sage who emerges as the dominant figure at one of the most unusual facilities in the annals of the Air Corps.