Saturday, March 8, 2014

Invasion By Streetcar

This has been an interesting week to teach military history.  By a cruel ironic twist, this was the week when I lectured about the events leading up to the Second World War.  If you had replaced all the references to Austria and Hitler with Crimea and Putin, the lecture would have still made sense. 

There were two lines in the lecture that were prophetically eerie.  Which one of the following sentences from my lecture notes bother you the most?  "For a decade, there were countries willing to use force to upset the status quo, but there were no countries willing to use force to preserve it."   Or, "The definition of peace is not the absence of fighting, it is the presence of justice."

All of this got me to thinking about the times throughout history when one country has invaded a neighbor.  My favorite is not exactly a significant chapter in the annals of military history.

Back in 1912, the Mexican Revolution was roaring along the Texas/Mexico border.  President Porfirio Diaz had just fled the country and was taking up residence in Paris.  The new President, Francisco Madero, had forced Diaz out by, in part, seizing the border town of Juárez.  Bandits and rustlers--or the victorious army (depending on who was temporarily in power)--were crawling back and forth across the border.  A few herds of cattle were stolen, sold, and resold so many times, it would have been easier to put the livestock on wheels.

Needless to say, both sides of the border had stationed their armies on the border in a futile attempt to keep the peace.  In El Paso, one young lieutenant brought both countries to the brink of war.

Lt. Ben W. Fields had only been at Fort Bliss for three days when he was ordered to take a detachment of 19 soldiers down to one of the two bridges across the Rio Grande that linked Mexico and the US.  After studying a map for a while, he found that he could take his detail to the bridge by using the local street car.

There are two things that need to be explained here.  First, there is nothing in the world more dangerous than a Lieutenant with a map.  Second, El Paso and Juárez shared a streetcar line.  The train went from El Paso across the south bridge into Juárez, looped around the Mexican town, then crossed back into the US by the north bridge.  If you look in the bottom right corner of the photo, you can see the streetcar crossing into Mexico on the south bridge and the north bridge off in the distance.

There was only one flaw in Lt. Fields' plan--he was ordered to guard the northern bridge.  The only transport  there, required that 20 well-armed US soldiers would be riding through Mexico in an open electric streetcar.  This is the kind of thing that people notice

That streetcar made it about 100 yards into Mexican territory before some startled Mexican customs agents managed to stop the car.  Almost immediately, Juárez Mayor Mestas arrived waving a large pistol and leading an angry armed mob willing and eager to defend their country from the pendejo gringos.  (That's Spanish for "nice guys".)

Lt. Fields did not speak Spanish, yet somehow was able to convince the authorities that it was a case of stupidity rather than conquest.  He and his men were released.  Unfortunately, authorities in the US had already panicked. 

Mayor Kelley of El Paso had already wired the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, demanding that more troops be sent to guard the border.  Texas Governor Colquitt sent a message to President Taft demanding a preemptive invasion of Mexico to accomplish a "friendly occupation."  Adjutant General Hutchings, who happened to be visiting Fort Bliss, activated the local unit of the Texas National Guard and ordered them to the border.

Naturally, all of this provoked a reaction from the Mexican side of the border.  While the Mexican authorities only sent a few more guards to the border, American tourists fled the gambling halls, restaurants, and assorted bars and ran for the border.  To give you an idea of the seriousness, Juárez shut down the horse race track--for a whole day--something they hadn't even bothered to do when President Madero's army had attacked the town the previous year. 

As quickly as the trouble had started, the whole business was quickly put to rest.  Taft ignored Governor Colquitt, who had a room temperature I.Q. on a cold day with the windows opened wide.  Secretary of War Stimson sent a few more troops to Fort Bliss, but otherwise ignored the El Paso mayor.

Lt. Fields was arrested, court-martialed and eventually returned to duty.  In his defense, he explained that he had heard the border was a river, and where he was from, that meant it had water in it.

The Lieutenant further explained that he "had heard that the Rio Grande was a large river and not the small one that it was."

The next day, the tourists were back at the bars, gambling dens, and other assorted playgrounds of Juárez.  The racetrack reopened and the two towns continued to share that streetcar for over sixty years.   The US went on to really invade Mexico several more times over the next few years, but that is a story for another time.

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