SOLDIER OF FORTUNE -- ADVENTURING IN LATIN AMERICA AND MEXICO WITH EMIL LEWIS HOLMDAHL
Chapter 10: Trial and Redemption
As the Villa-Carranza split grew into open warfare, Holmdahl was commissioned by General Hill to spy out the location and strength of Villa's forces remaining in the north. How much military information was exchanged in the Sheldon Hotel Bar between the mercenary "friendly enemies" is not known. One suspects there was considerable cooperation and exchanges of information between the U.S. soldiers-of-fortune, whichever side they were on. Information leaks were constant, a fact that Holmdahl was to learn to his sorrow.
In October 1914, Holmdahl was ordered to organize a small army to operate behind Villa's lines in Chihuahua. He formed an alliance with Jorge U. Orozco, a Carranza diplomat who was formerly the Mexican Consul in El Paso. Also involved were Jose Orozco, a former colonel in the "Colorados" and a cousin of General Pascual Orozco, now in hiding somewhere in the United States, and Victor L. Ochoa, a Carranza agent.
Ochoa slipped back and forth across the border engaged in plots and counterplots. Unfortunately for Holmdahl, Ochoa was not very good at plotting. During the 1890s, he served three years in an American prison after he was convicted of organizing a revolution against Diaz while on U.S. soil.
In 1911, involved in another plot against the dictator, he was caught, tried, and, convicted in a federal court. After serving eighteen months in jail, Ochoa was released at Carranza 's request. After the revolution ended, on September 20, 1921, he was indicted for selling narcotics to an agent. To Holmdahl's later sorrow, he was up to his neck in the current plan. 
The Holmdahl junta contacted former Mexican army officers living in the United States who had previously fought with Diaz, Madero, Orozco, or Huerta. It really didn't matter. They and other volunteers, along with a boxcar loaded with military supplies, were to go by railway from El Paso, sixty-five miles to the west, and unload at the small cattle town of Columbus, New Mexico.
There they would dig up a secret arms cache in the desert that had been buried the previous year by the "Colorados." After picking up more local recruits, they' planned to cross the border and rendezvous with Carranza troops in the area. The combined force would then capture the Villa garrison at Palomas, just across the border from Columbus. This action would cut Villa off from the west, while a force under General Hill attacked Juarez from the east.
Holmdahl, attempting to recruit a man named Frank Heath, stated, "I am organizing an army of 20,000 men to invade Mexico and take Juarez."  According to Heath's later testimony, Holmdahl said he held a commission as colonel in Carranza's army. If the invasion succeeded, Holmdahl said, it would be the death blow to Villa. Pancho relied on the Juarez-El Paso connection to sell the cattle, silver, cotton, and copper his "government" had appropriated to buy arms and ammunition for use against the growing strength of Carranza. Unfortunately for the Junta, Heath was an undercover agent for the U.S. Immigration Department.
On October 15, Holmdahl received a telegram from an arms dealer in Galveston, Texas, stating:
We have option we believe on only stock thirty soft point Winchester cartridges in Texas option expires tomorrow do you care make us an offer on the entire lot of seventy five thousand we understand will be no further shipments this cartridge until after first year. -- O.R. Seagraves MGT 
Whether or not Holmdahl purchased the ammunition is unknown, but he probably did because the .30-.30-caliber carbine was a popular weapon used by many armies during the revolution. Soft point bullets, however, had been outlawed under international law following the Geneva Convention of 1906. Soft points were forbidden because unlike steel-jacketed bullets, they expanded on impact and broke into pieces or tumbled through a soldier's body, creating a horrendous wound. During the Mexican revolution, how- ever, when enemy wounded and prisoners were routinely shot with- out trial, the use of soft-point bullets was not a matter of concern to many people.
While there was much top-secret planning and many oaths sworn to maintain security, the plot, like most of its kind, was porous. One of the recruits later testified he was afraid of being killed by either side, so he spilled the plot to Hector Ramos, head of the Villista secret service in El Paso. Ramos tipped off U.S. officials who stood ready to pounce.
On the night of October 31, 1914, several dozen hard-faced men were lounging about El Paso's Union Station. Victor Ochoa casually strolled among them passing out tickets for the El Paso and Southwestern train en route to Columbus, New Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona. Unknown to them, other eyes were watching. As the conductor bawled, "all aboard," the silent men filed onto the train, but the train did not start. Instead, burly men with guns drawn and badges pinned to their coats, shouldered their way through the passenger cars, arresting the volunteers. The men were agents of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation and customs agents.
The volunteers were herded into the railroad office and questioned. Most admitted they had signed up to fight for Carranza, more for his money than for his cause. Except for Ochoa, they were all released, for the American officers were after bigger game than a few penniless vaqueros hoping to join any army that would pay and feed them.
Meanwhile, Holmdahl was riding on a train carrying both passengers and freight, including a boxcar filled with military equipment labeled as agricultural supplies. For some reason, he received word not to unload at Columbus, but to proceed on to Douglas, Arizona, where he was to unload the merchandise, rendezvous with his troops, and cross the border near Agua Prieta.
As the train pulled into the Douglas depot, Bureau of Investigation officers arrested Holmdahl, routed his boxcar to a siding, and opened the crates. Inside they' found 100 saddles, bridles and horse blankets, 75 cases of .30-.30 rounds, 50 cases of 7-mm carbine ammunition, 400 canteens, 160 .30-.40 caliber rifles, and nineteen boxes of other rifles. A box of bugles was also found.
Holmdahl, Ochoa, and several other plotters were taken before the federal district court in El Paso and charged with violations of the 1911 Federal Neutrality Laws, which forbade raising troops for foreign armies on U.S. soil. They were also charged with attempting to smuggle arms and ammunition across the border. Their penalty, if convicted, could be three years in a federal penitentiary and a fine of $10,000. After arraignment the men were released on bond pending a trial date. 
While out on bail, Holmdahl, with his usual boldness, continued his gun-running operations, as evidenced in a series of telegrams received from an arms dealer on December 12, 1914:
Major E.L. Holmdahl
Can offer you salvage millimeters at thirty five per thousand under terms suggested by Brennan we have Just turned down a cash offer of this amount giving Constitutionist (i.e. Carranza forces) preference can you use heavy pieces Gatling guns thirty forty Kraig [sic.] cartridges etc wire at our expense if you want us to write fully at Naco [a railroad depot on the Arizona- Sonora border] shortly will have best stock of war munitions in the south and it would be of mutual interest to keep in touch with us you ought to be able to use some of our army aeroplanes with experienced airmen furnished by us.
Pierce Forwarding Co. 10:50 am 
Presumably responding to an answer by Holmdahl, the company replied by Telegraph:
Major E.L. Holmdahl
Will only sell the millimeters subject to condition as comes from boat cannot guarantee salvage goods the market is good better wire acceptance immediately and arrange with your people for financial details as we can sell five times over at these figures.
Pierce Forwarding Co. Galveston. 1:58 pm 
Apparently the deal was settled as M. Brennan, a Holmdahl agent, telegraphed:
As a favor got Pierce to let us have millimeters at same price as other offer they have opportunity to receive cash today if possible accept without guarantee and have (General Benjamin) Hill wire immediately guarantee of draft or COD.
M. Brennan Galveston 2:23 pm 
On January 10, 1915 Brennan telegraphed Holmdahl offering another deal:
Pearce Forwarding Co. Have fifteen hundred thirty rifles and carbines thirteen one hundred thousand forty five seventy Springfield cartridges forty fifteen hundred forty five seventy Springfield rifles ten. M. Brennan 
Since this rather blatant negotiating was done over open telegraph lines, the parties either knew government agents were not monitoring telegraphic traffic or they were extremely careless. In February 1915, Holmdahl was in Vera Cruz, probably illegally, since he was at this time out on bail and not allowed to leave the country. During 1915, U.S. mercenaries and Mexican revolutionaries regularly changed sides. It often resembled the western dance known as the "Paul Jones," where women formed a inner circle and men formed an outer. While the music played, men moved counter clockwise, women clockwise. When the music stopped, your partner for the next dance was the person in front of you. It didn't matter who it was so long as you continued to dance.
A prime example was a letter written by a Carranza brigadier general named Hernandez who on February 23, 1915, wrote El Paso Mayor Tom Lea:
Dear Friend and Brother:
The bearer Major E.L. Holmdall, is leaving (Vera Cruz) for your city to await trial by the U.S. Federal Court, accused of violating neutrality laws, the charges against him were made by Hector Ramos, chief of Villa Secret Service, who has personal ill feeling towards the Major who was at one time connected with Villa as Chief of Artillery, leaving them to join our cause.
The Major is a personal friend of mine, and I would greatly appreciate anything that you may do for him in receiving justice in pending trial. Wishing you every success in your new undertaking. Very Respectfully. J.H. Hernandez Brigadier General 
Interestingly, if Mayor Lea was an ally in February, he had changed sides by December and was backing the junta of Pascual Orozco, Victoriano Huerta, and Inez Salazar, all formerly enemies. Now allies, they were planning an invasion from across the U.S, border.
According to statements made from a Federal jail in El Paso by six former Huerta officers, Tom Lea was in on the plot against Carranza. The officers stated they were part of a group of 200 recruits that had rendezvoused at Lea's El Paso ranch, where they were to be issued guns and ammunition and then would be joined by Inez Salazar. Salazar had been incarcerated in a New Mexico prison, but he broke out of jail and was riding to El Paso with fifty mounted and armed men who would lead the revolt.
The rendezvous at the Lea ranch was broken up when a troop of U.S. cavalry descended on the plotters. A score of volunteers were arrested, while the rest scattered and ran either into the desert and the surrounding Franklin Mountains or dived into the Rio Grande and swam to Mexico. It is not improbable that Holmdahl, who had an informant in the "Red Flaggers" camp, was the man who tipped off the cavalry as to the time and location of the meeting. The six officers told U.S. officials that they' made their statements because the Junta failed to provide their families with funds, did not get them lawyers, and left them to rot in jail. 
The year of 1915 was also "The year of definition of the civil war with the defeat of the Villista and Zapatista armies."  It was also a year of hunger for many Mexicans. Amparo F. de Valencia who was ten years old that year recalled the suffering of her family:
During the revolution I saw hunger. Sometimes one ate and some- times one didn't ... There was no wheat because there was no harvest ... Thus there was tremendous hunger all over ... A big bakery had a big stack of sacks full of old hard bread that was sent to Sinaloa for feeding pigs ... I bought a sack and dragged it home. The bread was full of ants and other things, but we felt happy. 
Disease, she said, was another problem, "The victim would die, because there was no medical assistance." 
During most of 1915, Holmdahl's activities were shrouded in mystery. While awaiting trial, he continued working for Carranza as a spy, arms agent, and smuggler. He was not to surface again until October 14, 1915, when he and other plotters went to trial in El Paso's federal district court. It was a brief affair with little grounds for defense. Former Mexican revolutionary officers testified they were recruited and paid to cross the border and invade Mexican soil. Various arms salesmen testified that Holmdahl had bought and paid for weapons. A variety of American agents testified they had been approached by Holmdahl, Ochoa, or one of the Orozcos to join the "filibusters."
After a short time, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty against Holmdahl, Ochoa, and Jose Orozco. Jorge Orozco was found not guilty. It was the first case the government successfully prosecuted recruiters and gun-runners under the Neutrality laws. Because of that, or perhaps because rumor had it that many of the prominent businessmen in El Paso were involved in bankrolling the plot, Judge Thomas S. Maxely showed leniency. The three were sentenced to eighteen months in a federal penitentiary and no fine was levied. After sentencing, the three were released on $7,500 bonds pending appeal. 
While out on bail, Holmdahl learned of the treachery of Tomas Urbina, an old compadre of Villa's during his bandit days. After being badly beaten by Carranza forces, "General" Urbina had become a deserter. Abandoning his shattered forces, the old bandit took his accumulated loot, said to be worth millions in gold and silver, and fled to his stronghold, Las Nieves, in Durango. Smelling betrayal, Villa took Fierro and 200 men, and rode to Urbina's fortified hacienda. Rushing the gate, they shot their way into the compound and wounded the bandit general in the leg. At first, Villa seemed moved at the sight of his old friend and chatted amicably with him, while Fierro salivated with eagerness to shoot him.
Fierro's men, meanwhile, searched the hacienda grounds and questioned, not too gently, Urbina's surviving men. They quickly located gold and silver bars that had been dumped down a well. Hauling it up, they dumped it at Urbina's feet. Villa's benevolence abruptly ended. "Shoot him," he commanded. Then he mounted his horse and led his men from the hacienda at a trot.
Fierro stayed behind. Stories had it that he shot Urbina in his good leg and in both arms before shooting him in the belly, and smoked a long cigar while. watching Urbina's face turn ashen. Loading the gold and silver in his saddlebags, he mounted and spurred his horse to catch up with Villa.
Fierro had been too eager, for there were rumors of other caches of treasure buried by the crafty old bandit. When Holmdahl heard them, he filed them away in his memory. Later, when things calmed down, perhaps he would make a little trip to Las Nieves.
If nothing else good came from Urbina's betrayal and subsequent murder, it was that Fierro, his saddlebags still loaded with bullion, attempted to cross a flooded field when his men balked. The field was full of quicksand, they feared, and it was too dangerous to cross on horseback. Calling them cowards, Fierro boldly rode out into the field and immediately plunged into quicksand. Then his horse stumbled and fell. The horse and rider began to sink, both pulled down by the heavy bags of gold and silver. Cursing, Fierro shouted, "Throw me a rope."
His men stood silent and unmoving at the edge of the field, watching Villa's butcher sink, until the quicksand sucked him all the way under. Soon, the only trace of Rudolfo Fierro was his broad-brimmed sombrero on the surface.
Meanwhile, in what might be termed another masterpiece of sangfroid, a little more than a month after his conviction, Holmdahl applied for a commission as an officer in the United States Cavalry. On December 29, 1915, he filled out a three-page government form addressed to the adjutant general of the U.S. Army. On the application he stated he held the rank of colonel of cavalry with the Carranza forces and was formerly chief of Artillery under Villa.
To endorse his application, he gave a list of references, including Tom Lea, mayo! of El Paso; Lee Hall, chief of police of El Paso and a former Texas Ranger; a banker from Morenci, Arizona; a captain in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Bliss; and to top it off, General Hugh Scott, chief of staff and commanding officer of the U.S. Army. He gave his address as a post office box in El Paso.  While the captain and the general may have appreciated Holmdahl's military experience, one might wonder if there was a connection between the mayor, the chief of police, and the banker. Whether the banker supplied money' for the filibusters, while the mayor and the chief of police looked the other way may never be known.
On March 28, 1916, the war department answered Holmdahl's application by stating that he failed to qualify for appointment as an officer of volunteers because of regulations stating that "no applicant is eligible for appointment as second lieutenant who is more than 30 years of age." Holmdahl was thirty-two years old. If the war department knew that their applicant was a convicted felon, it was not stated. 
Fate, however, intervened, when Holmdahl's old boss, Pancho Villa, galloped into Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9 with a band of 400 men, shot up an army encampment, burned the town, and killed sixteen Americans. The rage and frustration that led Villa to attack an American town lies in the complicated relationships between the two countries and the tangled loyalties of both Mexicans and Americans.
In 1915, after five years of warfare, the economy of Mexico was shattered by marauding armies which stripped and devoured anything they could steal, sell, or eat. U.S. financial and business interests had invested billions of dollars in the country under, what was to them, the benevolent rule of Porfirio Diaz. Americans owned some of the richest farm and grazing lands, had controlling interests in and operated many of the railroads, had majority interests in man)' of the mines, and with British companies, dominated the Mexican petroleum industry.
As the devastating revolutionary warfare continued, American financial and commercial interests put increasing pressure on Congress and the president of the United States to take action to stop the fighting and bring peace and stability back to Mexico. One Congressional group, led by Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico, advocated sending the U.S. army into the country to end the fighting. Fortunately, both President William Howard Taft and his successor, President Woodrow Wilson, rejected the idea.
Wilson, however, decided the United States government could aid in stabilizing the country by extending official recognition to one of the two contending parties as the legitimate government of Mexico. The United States had refused such recognition since Madero's murder in 1913, and the dilemma facing the president was who to recognize, Villa or his deadly enemy Carranza?
For years Villa had been considered a friend of the United States. He had been scrupulous in protecting American lives and property and when, in 1914, U.S. forces seized the Mexican ports of Tampico and Vera Cruz, he gave his tacit consent. He stated that the U.S. Navy was justified in its actions after American sailors had been falsely imprisoned by Mexican troops. In addition, Villa had a long standing-personal friendship with General Hugh Scott, who became the Chief of Staff of the U.S. army. He felt confident that he would be the one favored by the U.S. government. 
Carranza, on the other hand, had always been vocally anti-American. When the two Mexican ports were seized, he threatened war with the United States and also secretly gave support to the Plan of San Diego. This movement planned to conquer Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona and set up a independent government allied with Mexico. Far-fetched as the plot seemed, it was first supported by Huerta, then received help from Carranza and financing by' the German secret service. Members of the Plan carried on brutal raids across the Texas border in 1915. With World War I raging, the Germans hoped to embroil the U.S. in a war with Mexico so as to divert aid intended for the Allies.
The raiders killed a number of American ranchers and murdered a crew working on a border irrigation project. The)' ambushed a U.S. cavalry trooper, cut off his head, put it on the end of a pole, and with their gory trophy, paraded back and forth along the south bank of the Rio Grande. One night they derailed a train near Corpus Christi and stormed through the passenger cars shooting Americans. When the U.S. government complained to Carranza, who was nominally in control of the area, he replied that if only he was recognized as the legitimate head of the Mexican government, he would, with this increased prestige, be able to exert the authority to end the raids. There was the scent of blackmail in the Carranza response. 
The American business community, however, taking a second look at Villa, pointed out that the former bandit, semi-literate at best, could not possibly form a stable government that could bring peace and renewed prosperity! to Mexico. His .economic beliefs, if any, were uncertain, and he had a nasty habit of shooting people on a whim. Also, he had just lost three battles to the Carranza forces.
For all his anti-American rhetoric, Carranza, whose forces were now in control in Mexico City, understood Mexican bureaucracy. He had the support of many affluent and middle-class Mexicans and came from a family of wealthy landowners. American business interests believed they would be safe under a Carranza regime. On October 15, against the protests of General Hugh Scott, President Wilson recognized Venustiano Carranza as the head of the legitimate government of Mexico. 
Villa was not only enraged at the affront, but he was hurt financially. Betrayal by his American friends was bad enough, but he was now relegated to the status of a bandit, and all purchases across the American border were prohibited. Carranza controlled all the Mexican ports on both coasts. Land-locked in Chihuahua and Sonora, Villa had no ready source to supply his army.
In late October, Villa decided to cross tl1e Sierra Madre Mountains from his stronghold in Chihuahua into Sonora and capture the town of Agua Prieta, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. There, at the Mexican Custom House, he would take a large financial bite out of the traffic in cattle and copper ore imported into the United States at the railhead in Douglas. With the money, he planned to set up smuggling operations along the sparsely settled borderlands and thus supply his troops.
Carranza, getting wind of the attack, received permission from the U.S. Government to reinforce his garrison at Agua Prieta by using the American railroad that ran from El Paso to Douglas. From Juarez, he sent troops, machine guns, artillery, barbed wire, and three very large searchlights into El Paso. There they were loaded onto an American train, and, within a day, arrived in Agua Prieta.
Villa's army reached Agua Prieta on November 1, 1915. Surveying the town's defenses, Villa decided to launch his golpe terrifico at midnight so that in the confusion of darkness he would over- run the federal forces. As his troops galloped toward the enemy trenches, however, the three big searchlights, with current supplied by the Douglas Power and Light Company, lit up the battlefield. Villa's cavalry became easy targets for the federal machine gunners. 
The charge was shot to pieces, and Villista troops were more than decimated. At Agua Prieta, a military expert proclaimed, "Villistas learned that an assault against a position covered with barbed wire, defended by cross firing machineguns, supported by artillery firing high explosive, is doomed to failure."  Slinking back across the mountains with the survivors of his once proud army, Villa swore revenge against the Americans who he believed betrayed him and who were the cause of all his problems.
At the end of 1915, Villa had "only a few hundred followers ... left of an army that had once encompassed between 30,000 and 50,000 men ... His popularity among the civilian population in Chihuahua had reached an all-time low."  On March 9, 1916, Villa had only 450 men and was low on ammunition and food. His horses were worn down and his cause was flagging. At four o'clock that morning, his men rode into the New Mexican border town of Columbus burning and killing.
Historians have speculated for years about Villa's motives. Some say it was a desire for loot, and that he hoped to steal guns, ammunition, and fresh horses from the American garrison there. Another reason advanced was that a Columbus merchant, Sam Ravel, had taken money from Villa to purchase arms. Ravel swindled Villa, keeping the money but failing to deliver the weapons promised, and Villa hoped to capture Ravel and give him a lesson in business ethics.
Still another version had it that Villa hoped by raiding U.S. soil to force the U.S. army to invade Mexico. By fighting the gringos, Villa would again be a hero to all Mexicans. One theory has it that the raid was motivated by pure revenge and hatred of the Americans, who, he believed, had betrayed him by recognizing Carranza and causing him to lose the battle of Agua Prieta.
A wilder and more bizarre theory held that American business- men paid Villa to attack Columbus, hopefully causing the United States to attack and occupy northern Mexico to their financial advantage. Then there was the version where the German secret service, supporters of the Plan of San Diego, wanted the United States to engage in a war against Mexico. Then, the United States would use munitions from its armaments industry in that war instead of shipping them to Great Britain and France. 
Columbus, with less than 400 inhabitants, boasted a railroad depot, two small hotels, a few stores, and several scores of scattered adobe houses. It was garrisoned by 300 troopers of the U.S. 13th Calvary Regiment encamped a few hundred yards from the town. When the Villistas attacked only a few sentinels and the kitchen staff, preparing the soldiers' morning meal, were awake. Villa directed half of his men to attack the center of town and the others to hit the army camp, stealing weapons and horses. Screaming "Viva Villa" and "Muerte a los gringos" ("death to the Americans"), they stormed into the Commercial Hotel, dragged five half-asleep Americans from their beds, and shot them to death. Mrs. J. J. Moore saw her husband and her infant child torn from her arms and shot. She was raped, then shot and left for dead, but she survived.
In a vain hope of escaping the rampaging Villistas, Milton James half-carried his pregnant wife from the Hoover Hotel, but the raiders spotted them, opened fire, killing her. Other Americans ran into the desert, hiding in nearby cactus-filled arroyos and ditches, as the entire commercial block in the center of town went up in flames.
The raiders had less luck attacking the 13th Calvary. When a dozen of them burst into the cooks' shack, they were doused with boiling coffee. One was decapitated by an enraged baker swinging an axe, and the rest were assaulted by cursing cooks swinging meat cleavers and army-issue potato mashers, which could crack a skull like an eggshell. One raider was brained by a trooper on kitchen patrol swinging a baseball bat like a berserk Babe Ruth. 
Troopers grabbed rifles and quickly set up machine guns, blasting away at raiders outlined against the flames of the blazing business district. Columbus became too hot for the raiders as the sky began to lighten with the coming dawn. Grabbing anything they could carry, they scrambled to their horses and retreated across the border. As a bugler blew "Boots and Saddles," troopers, some still in their underwear, grabbed Springfields, bandoliers of ammunition, and their saddles, and rushed to the stables.
Major Frank Tompkins, bleeding from a Mauser bullet that raked his knee, led his men in a headlong pursuit of the fleeing Villistas. On fresh cavalry horses they outran many of the raiders . and shot them down during a fifteen-mile chase. Then, low on ammunition and with no water, Tompkins, called a halt and the troopers rode back to Columbus. 
Returning, they counted seventy-five Villistas lying dead on the road while the bodies of more than sixty raiders lay dead in the streets of Columbus itself. The bodies in Columbus were heaped in a pile and burned, while Villista corpses on the road were left for the buzzards. Seventeen Americans were killed: nine civilians and seven troopers of the 13th Calvary. 
The United States was quick to respond. Brigadier General John J. Pershing was named to command a U.S. army ordered to drive into Chihuahua and smash Pancho Villa. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker wired Pershing that he was authorized to employ whatever guides and interpreters were necessary. If the War Department didn't want Holmdahl's services, one "Blackjack" Pershing needed him badly.
Pershing may well have known or heard of Holmdahl, either during his Philippine campaigns or during his service along the border. An experienced soldier, Pershing graduated from West Point in 1886. He took part in the last campaign against the Apache Indians, and was cited for gallantry fighting alongside Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
Pershing taught tactics at West Point and was later assigned to the 10th Cavalry, composed of black soldiers, known as "Buffalo Soldiers." From this command he acquired his lifelong nickname of "Black Jack." In 1899, Pershing was ordered to the Philippines, where on Mindanao and Jolo he fought his first campaigns against the Moros. In 1901, as a captain, he launched four more major expeditions against the troublesome warriors. In late 1903, he married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of Francis E. Warren, a powerful U.S. Senator from Wyoming.
After distinguished service as an observer on the Manchurian front during the Russo-Japanese War, he was promoted to brigadier general by his old San Juan Hill comrade, Theodore Roosevelt, now President of the United States. After further service in the Philippines, Pershing was ordered back to the United States. When the usual malcontents carped that Pershing's promotion over the heads of many senior officers was a result of political pull, President Roosevelt reported, "To promote a man because he married a Senator's daughter would be an infamy; to refuse him promotion for the same reason would be an equal infamy." 
On January 20, 1914, Pershing was transferred to Fort Bliss near El Paso, with the responsibility for supervising U.S. units patrolling the border. His wife, three daughters, and a son were left behind in quarters at the army base at the Presidio at San Francisco. Shortly before he planned to bring his family to new quarters at Fort Bliss, on August 20, 1915, he received news that haunted him the rest of his life. A fire had broken out in his family's quarters, and his wife and three daughters were burned to death. Only his small son was survived.
An austere man, he walked ramrod-straight, and if he was overcome with grief, it was not apparent from his square-jawed, stiff-lipped expression. Pershing was a sad, lonely man after this tragedy, and often he wandered into the desert, followed by several mariachis. He sat on the rocky ground while the men played "La Paloma" ("The Dove"), his wife's favorite song, and reflected on the needs of his forces.
Most of all, he needed men who knew Mexico, its terrain, its language, and its people. Holmdahl, who had been fighting over that terrain for six years, was quickly hired as one of the civilian scouts who knew the land, the language, and the tactics of the Villista guerrillas.
As Colonel H.A. Toulmin, who rode with Pershing, wrote,
The terrain is a desolate, barren, sandy plain with rolling foothills -- blazing tropic heat to cold snows, (and) hostile winds and snowstorms. The Pershing Expedition placed its reliance on guides, cowmen of the ranges, half-breeds, ranch bosses, adventurers who had fought either against or for Villa, gunfighters, gamblers -- the remnants of the old Indian frontier. 
By the end of March, convicted felon or not, former Sergeant Emil Holmdahl was again riding with the U.S. Army.