COMBAT OVER TEXAS
First Combat Sortie
Took Place April 20, 1915,
Byron Q. Jones & Lt. Thomas D. Milling
Hawk, North Carolina. Dayton, Ohio. North Island Naval Station in San Diego. And
listing of the key locations in the early days of flight – particularly the development
of military air power – would be complete without a reference to the southern
Texas city of Brownsville.
It was from there that America’s first combat mission was flown, way back in 1915.
The Army had created the 1st Aero Squadron about two years earlier, but in 1915,
the terms ‘military’ and ‘air power’ were like a couple of shy kids on opposite
sides of the gym at the 8th grade dance.
Jones was at the controls of a
flight in a fragile aircraft that took off from Fort Brown on April 20, 1915,
in an effort to determine where the revolutionary forces of Francisco “Pancho”
Villa were staging in the Mexican city of Matamoros. With Jones was another aviation
pioneer, Lt. Thomas D. Milling, who was holding a map and a pencil during the
flight, in the hopes that he could sketch in where the Mexican troops were that
Q. Jones shortly after he graduated from West Point in 1912.
Thomas DeWitt Milling|
a course of instruction at the Wright Bros. Flying school in 1911, Milling helped
organize Army aviation schools at College Park, Md., and Augusta, Ga. From 1917
to 1919, Milling was in charge of air service training in Europe, and also was
chief of staff of the air service of the 1st Army with the American Expeditionary
Force. He retired in 1933, but was recalled to active duty in 1942 during World
War II. He died in 1961 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.|
1915 flight was far from the first time that Brownsville
and Fort Brown were on the front lines of combat. Several battles had been fought
in and around the area in the 1800s during the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American
War and the U.S. Civil War. (Fort Brown was the site of the controversial “Brownsville
Raid” in which it was alleged that black soldiers from the fort had raided the
town one night. As a result, 168 black soldiers were discharged from the Army
“without honor.” A subsequent Army review of the event in the 1960s – after all
but two of the 168 former soldiers were deceased – overturned that decision and
restored the “honor” of the soldiers in question.)|
In 1915, the Texas
region was under the command of Major
Gen. Frederick Funston. Already a Medal of Honor holder from actions in the
Philippines in 1899, Funston
had also won accolades and national esteem for his command of Army forces in San
Francisco when the famed 1906 earthquake rocked that city. Had it not been for
a fatal heart attack in early 1917, many at the time believed that it would have
not John J. Pershing, who would have commanded U.S. forces in World
General Frederick Funston had won the Medal of Honor for his actions while engaged
in the Philippines with the U.S. Army in 1899. In 1906, he had been in command
of the Presidio in San Francisco and essentially took command of that city after
the famous earthquake, though martial law was never declared. Funston was considered
by many to be the most likely candidate to take command of the American Expeditionary
Force, later commanded by Pershing, in World War I. Funston suffered a fatal heart
attack in January 1917, a few months before the U.S. declared war and entered
World War I. His body would lie in state at the San Francisco City Hall and he
was then buried at Arlington National Cemetery.|
ordered the 1st Aero Squadron at Brownsville
to perform reconnaissance along the Rio Grande and report back to him. After arriving
at the base, uncrating and assembling their aircraft, the men of the 1st were
On the morning of April 20, Jones flew the unit’s first mission
from Fort Brown, taking off from the west end of the Cavalry parade & training
grounds at the fort. His first mission was uneventful and after he landed, a second
mission was planned for the afternoon.
both the morning and the afternoon missions both got off the ground at all was
somewhat remarkable in itself. In those days, the Army had about a 50 percent
success rate of actually launching planes, given the fragile and unreliable nature
of the early machines.
JN-3 in Mexico with the 1st Aero Squadron. The date is unknown, as are the individuals
in the photo. The aircraft Jones and Milling were flying along the border in 1915
was a Martin body with a Curtiss engine. At that time, aircraft were not the standardized
pieces of equipment they are in today’s military.
U.S. Air Force photo |
|Jones and Milling
clearly were the right men for the job. Earlier in 1915, Jones, a West Point graduate,
had set endurance records as a solo pilot and as a pilot with passengers. Later
that year he would successfully (and intentionally) perform the first aerial loop
and become the first pilot to intentionally stall his aircraft and put the aircraft
in a tail spin – and live to tell about it. Milling was one of the most experienced
air men in the Army. He had been sent to the Wright Brothers flying school in
Dayton in 1911 and had been the first man to receive a Military Aviator Certificate
from the Army. He held the 30th pilot license issued in the world. |
and Milling climbed aboard their Martin aircraft with a Curtiss “pusher” engine
(the propeller was in the rear and “pushed” the aircraft), and the two men began
to determine the where-abouts of Villa’s forces.
Villa was a Mexican revolutionary, who eventually took over the state of Chihuahua
in Mexico. Given that Chihuahua bordered the U.S., conflict was inevitable. In
his early years, he was supported by the U.S. government, even invited to meet
with Gen. Pershing at Fort Bliss in Texas. That relationship eventually soured
and the U.S. launched an expedition into Mexico in 1916 to eliminate Villa’s army.
Many of his senior leaders were killed during the 1916 campaign and his army was
scattered. Villa survived and remained an active player in Mexico, until he was
assassinated in 1923. His legal name was José Doroteo Arango Arámbula.|
About 15 minutes
into the flight, the U.S. aircraft drew the attention of Villa’s forces, who opened
fire with at least one machine gun, as well as small arms. Jones was able to maintain
his composure under fire. He opened the throttle and nosed up, climbing to 2,600
feet to avoid the gunfire. He maneuvered away from the river and was able to return
safely to Fort Brown.
Jones’ official Army biography sums up the combat
adventure succinctly: “He was the first American pilot fired upon, flying over
the river at Brownsville,
Texas, by Mexicans using machine guns on the Mexican side of the river.” A
Texas state historical marker at Fort Brown also memorializes the event.
couple of weeks after the historic flight by Jones and Milling, the detachment
of airmen were returned to San Diego for more training. Later, during the 1916
expedition into Mexico, the 1st Aero Squadron returned to Texas
and moved into Mexico. There, still hampered by the aircraft of the day, their
primary value was in speeding communications between Pershing in the field and
his headquarters back in Colombia, N.M.
participated in the Mexican Expedition as part of the 1st, but Jones received
different orders. With the Army still trying to figure out how to get the most
out of its aviation assets, Jones was assigned to the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology as a student, where he earned a graduate certificate in aeronautics.
retired from the Army in 1933, but was recalled to active duty during World
War II. Following the war, he retired as a colonel. After his retirement,
he was retroactively promoted to the grade of brigadier general.
remained on active duty through 1944. In the late 1930s, he transferred out of
the Air Corps and back into the Cavalry branch of the Army. He retired as a colonel.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
|Book Hotel Here
Aviator: The Byron Q. Jones Story|