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SOLDIER OF FORTUNE -- ADVENTURING IN LATIN AMERICA AND MEXICO WITH EMIL LEWIS HOLMDAHL

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Chapter 8:  The Orozco Rebellion

Here are your wrappings.
Send me more tamales.
-- General Pascual Orozco

In March 1912, a serious revolt against Madero's government broke out when Pascual Orozco, the tough mule skinner from Chihuahua who had been the leading guerrilla and fighting chief in the battles against Diaz, threw down the gauntlet. A heavy-shouldered six-footer with a saturnine scowl, Orozco once ambushed a Diaz troop train in Canon de Mal Paso. After killing the federal soldiers to a man, Orozco had them stripped, bundled up their uniforms, and sent them to Diaz with a note, "Here are your wrappings. Send me some more tamales." [1] This was a man to be reckoned with. It was he who, disobeying Madero's orders, attacked and captured Juarez, and brought about the collapse of the Diaz dictatorship.

It was then, according to Colonel Francisco Gallegos, that Madero made a fatal error. Gallegos, who fought under Madero and later under Villa, in later years, wrote, "When Madero took power he made the mistake of dismissing the majority of the revolutionary leaders and leaving in their same political position many of Diaz's former officials." [2] Among those most alienated was Orozco for after victory was complete, Madero reinstated most of the Diaz officers back into the regular army. He "rewarded the vital military contribution of Orozco with the post of commander of the rural guards of Chihuahua," a post that paid a salary of eight pesos per day.  [3]

Holding the dwarfish Madero in contempt and perhaps bought off by money from Luis Terrazas, the richest man in Chihuahua, Orozco claimed the little reformer betrayed the revolution. He launched proposed reforms under his Plan de Empacadora. It was one of the many political "Plans" offered by revolutionaries, promising heaven and usually delivering nothing except more hell for the suffering Mexican people.

Orozco endorsed "political and economic reform, including a shorter workday, better working conditions, employment of Mexicans on the railroads, and the return to the villages of lands illegally seized." [4] To many his financing by Terrazas money and promulgating liberal reforms was paradoxical if not deceptive.

It has been rumored that Pancho Villa, who gave much lip service to his "love for little Madero," offered to join the rebellion. But the harsh-tongued Orozco rebuffed him saying, "No common bandits will be accepted into this movement." [5] Another version, how- ever, has it that Orozco urged Villa to join his junta but the former bandit refused and pledged his loyalty to Madero. [6] Villa then recaptured his temporarily lost love for Madero and, along with other former revolutionaries, took the field against Orozco's "Colorados" or "Red Flaggers." They were named from the reddish flags they carried, often emblazoned with the slogan "pan y tierra"-- bread and land.

Most of the battles between the two forces were fought over control of the Mexican railway' system. Practically all of the fighting in the central plateau of northern Mexico was confined to a zone twenty miles wide with the railroad at the center. There were two reasons for the railroad's strategic importance; first, travel over the northern desert country of Chihuahua and Sonora was difficult for cavalry and impossible for infantry. Secondly, the railways trans- ported petroleum, cotton, and copper ore exported to American markets, which in turn supplied vital foreign currency needed to buy military supplies.

Tactically, the contending armies destroyed the railway tracks and bridges as they retreated and rebuilt the road as they advanced. Gregory Mason, a war correspondent during 1914, described the procedure,

The usual method is to rip up the rails with a strong iron hoop passed under both of them and attached to an engine by a heavy chain. The engine backs, the rails hold an instant, then come up with a groaning of twisted steel and a rattling shower of spikes sounding like a boiler factory, the anvil chorus, and a dozen machine guns in simultaneous operation.

Frequently an engine will tear up an eighth of a mile of rails at one rush before it is obliged to stop by a broken hoop or a snapped chain. When the rails, twisted like grotesque corkscrews, have been accounted for in this fashion, the ties are piled and burned. Dynamite does for the bridges. [7]

At first Orozco's revolution prospered. He captured Juarez, routed Pancho Villa's troops outside Chihuahua City, and won additional battles at Santa Rosalia and Jimenez. A major setback, how ever, which was to prove fatal to the Orozco cause, was a policy announced by the United States government banning arms sales to any of the battling Mexican factions. Since the "Colorados" controlled only the borderlands of Chihuahua, cutting off the flow of arms from Texas and New Mexico did them grievous harm. The federals, however, imported massive supplies of guns and ammunition from Europe through the Mexican ports of Tampico and Vera Cruz.

As Orozco's army became starved of supplies, troops loyal to Madero, commanded by Huerta and Villa, grew fat with modern arms. Soon, Villa's well-armed cavalry rode to the front on the Mexican railways, horses in the boxcars, men on the roof, singing their theme song "La Cucaracha" ("The Cockroach").

Oh the cockroach, Oh the cockroach, Will not move, the old slow poke; Because he hasn't, Because he hasn't, Any marijuana to smoke.

As fighting continued, ideals became corroded with bitterness, and the hatred between Villa and Orozco led both sides to new barbarism. When Villa captured enemy soldiers, he always executed the officers, but gave the common soldiers the chance to save their lives by joining his ranks. Not so with "Colorados" who were all shot on the spot. The "Red Flaggers" responded in kind.

As things began to go badly, Orozco drew down the wrath of the United States, when he allowed one of his generals, Inez Salazar, to execute an American machine-gunner. The American, Thomas Fountain, was captured after a Villa retreat from Hidalgo del Parral. That execution, undoubtedly, gave pause to mercenaries on both sides. The Mexican Revolution, they realized, was not a romantic game -- it was a bloody fight to the death.

In March 1912, the Madero government, determined to crush Orozco, moved a large force under the command of General Gonzalez Salas along the railroad from Mexico City north to the rebel stronghold at Hidalgo del Parral. On March 24, the two forces, each with about 8,000 men, clashed. An effective bombardment by federal artillery drove the rebels back from their positions. Retreating rapidly, they fell back along the railway past Jimenez into a mountainous area north of the small town of Rellano.

Sensing victory, Salas ordered a quick advance along the railroad tracks, ordering three troop trains still jammed full of field guns, infantry, and ammunition to move up to the front lines. There they would disembark, and with a quick attack, smash the enemy defenses. It was not a bad tactic, but he failed to reckon with the mad antics of Sam Dreben and Tracy Richardson. These two buddies of the Banana Wars had been recruited by Orozco, who was paying top dollar for anyone who could operate and maintain the new-fangled machine guns.

The rebel army dug in across the foothills bordering the railroad tracks where they dug rifle pits and erected rock walls to provide cover. Believing they were heavily outnumbered, they awaited the federal attack with considerable apprehension, believing their future looked bleak. From a vantage point in the hills, Dreben and Richardson observed the federal deployment.

As sweating troops started manhandling field guns and ammunition from the boxcars, Dreben pointed out that the railroad track ran straight through the middle of the federal position. There was nothing blocking the tracks between the two armies. "After they unload those field guns," he said, "they'll shell hell out of us and then the infantry will go right up the middle." Then both men got a wild idea. "Suppose," they pondered, "we get one of our railroad engines, load it up with explosives and drive it right into the Federal trains. It could blow up half their army." They agreed it was just crazy enough to work.

They got an engine, strapped 800 pounds of dynamite to the cowcatcher, and plugged in a dozen detonating caps. With Richardson at the controls and Dreben working like a demon shoveling coal into the boiler, they got up steam and drove down the tracks toward the federal trains. When they got within 100 yards, Richardson said, "I threw the throttle wide open, we leaped out of the cab, and let the engine run wild down the track." [8]

The engine roared into the federal trains with a terrible crash, followed by a series of explosions which set off the ammunition still loaded aboard the trains. Cannon, pieces of boxcars, and parts of soldiers rained down upon the stunned Madero troops. Tracy wrote, "smoke and earth spouted up like a giant geyser." Completely rattled, the surviving federals, dazed, spilled out of the trains, while the troops already in the front line panicked and began to run to the rear.

Slashing with their sabers, federal officers opened fire on their retreating men and shot many in the back before the retreat was stopped. Rallying the infantry, they drove them into line and attacked the entrenched rebels. Dreben and Richardson, meanwhile, dashed back to their own lines and took position with their machine guns.  Richardson wrote,

Sam Dreben and I ... could work a crossfire from our machine guns. Those poor Federal soldiers were marched up against us in close formation Rank after rank, Sam and I mowed them down until it sickened us. [9]

As the federals fell back in confusion, Orozco's cavalry charged, making shambles of the retreat as hundreds of frightened soldiers leaped aboard the still operating third train. The frightened engineer backed the train down the tracks and didn't stop until he deposited the disorderly mob at Hidalgo del Parral.

Madero's broken army abandoned all their artillery, machine guns, hundreds of rifles, and a large store of ammunition that had not blown up. Richardson said later they counted 1,200 dead near the scene of the explosion. "Our losses" he reported, "were only 20 killed, 100 wounded." [10]

The remaining federal train, with troops crowded into boxcars and some hanging perilously from the roofs, fled more than 100 miles south to Torreon. There, General Salas, overcome with grief and shame, put a revolver to his temple and blew out his brains. President Madero became badly frightened by' Orozco's early successes, and in an action he would later regret, he gave the sinister General Huerta overall command of his forces in the North. In the reorganization that followed, in April 1912, Holmdahl was ordered to report to General Geronimo Trevino in command of the Third Military District, headquartered in Monterrey. There he was assigned as commander of the 5th Regiment of Cavalry. General Trevino, once a confidant and ally of Diaz, was now a rich landowner. In the 1870s he had cooperated with American cavalry forces during campaigns against Apache Indians and Mexican bandits. Later, he married the daughter of the U.S. General E.O.C. Ord. By a curious twist of Mexican politics, he now supported Madero against Orozco.

Holmdahl described Trevino as "one of Mexico's oldest and best generals but too old to take the field." He characterized Orozco as a man who "betrayed every confidence placed in him ... and one of the biggest four-flushers that the war produced." Holmdahl, for all his cynicism, was probably ideologically devoted to Madero's cause.

Serving under Trevino, Holmdahl later wrote that his "Carbineros were a fine bunch of young men and were anxious to get to the front." For about a month the regiment skirmished with "Red Flaggers" in northern Mexico. [11]

In May 1912, Holmdahl was assigned to the artillery section of Huerta's army in command of a Maxim machine-gun company. It may well have been Fountain's old outfit, and that mercenary's fate might have crossed Holmdah1's mind. [12] The assignment must have been a welcome one, because Maxim guns were the first easily trans ported, reliable machine guns. The old Civil War-era multi-barreled Gatling guns, a few of which were still used by the insurgents, were heavy, ungainly, and could shoot only as fast as they could be cranked. They often jammed. Most other early machine guns suffered from one or more similar disadvantages.

The inventor Hiram Maxim designed a single barrel, recoil- operated, water-cooled machine gun that was light, fired simply by holding down the trigger, could spray out 650 rounds per minute, and rarely jammed. First used by the British army, it enabled their small forces to overcome native armies three or four times their number.

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1912, in a series of battles, Huerta's well-supplied and effectively-led troops began to wear down Orozco's dwindling forces. On May 23, General Trevino summoned Holmdahl to his headquarters and asked him to volunteer for a dangerous mission. [13] Following the disaster at Rellino, Captain Lorenzo Aguilar, first cousin of President Madero, and two other officers were reported missing after a bitter fight at the small village of Pedricen.

Madero was worried about the fate of his favorite cousin and Holmdahl's mission was to travel through enemy lines, locate Aguilar dead or alive, and bring him or his body back to Madero-controlled territory. With false papers identifying him as a correspondent for the Monterrey Daily Mexican-American, Holmdahl boarded a train bound for the headquarters of his friend, General Aureliano Blanquet, located a few miles south of Torreon.

When Blanquet learned of the mission, he refused to let Holmdahl cross into enemy territory controlled by the Orozco General Emilio Campa. Campa, a former medical student at an American university, hated Americans. A mean drunk and psychopath, Campa had recently trumped up charges against Sam Dreben and Tracy Richardson. He arrested the pair and planned to shoot them, in order to "rid Mexico of all gringos." [14] Probably, he was jealous of their reputation for heroism (as a result of their coup at Rellano). After a hairbreadth escape from jail, the two Americans rode for their lives until they reached Orozco's headquarters and safety.

Blanquet feared that, regardless of Holmdahl's papers, he might become a candidate for Campa's firing squad. There was additional danger in the fact that Campa knew Holmdahl as an old comrade in the campaigns against Diaz. Appreciating Blanquet's concern, Holmdahl, nevertheless, bought a horse and slipped out of camp, riding thirty-five miles north, and reaching Hacienda Refugio. There, unfortunately, he encountered a "Red Flagger" patrol and was taken before General Campa.

Campa greeted him like an old friend, but then questioned him, asking if he were still in the service of Madero. Holmdahl denied this and presented his newspaper correspondent's papers. The mercurial Campa smiled, then called him a liar and a spy, and announced he would shoot him. Again, Holmdahl's ability as a con artist probably saved his life. Talking fast, he "half convinced" Campa of his bona fides. Campa smiled and treated Holmdahl to a delicious meal at his officers' mess. In the morning, however, he refused to let the "correspondent" pass through his lines.

Disappointed, but lucky to be alive, Holmdahl left the camp, skirted the rebel patrols, got close to Pedricena and was picked up by another scouting party. Arrested, he was brought before another rebel general, and again he talked his way past him and finally' reached Pedricena.

There he found an old rurale, who recounted a sad story. During the fighting on May 14, Aguilar searching for ammunition for his beleaguered men, ran into "Red Flaggers" disguised in federal uniforms. When he approached them they shouted, "Viva Madero," but when he got up close they leveled their rifles, shouted "Viva Orozco" and took him prisoner. Two other officers and several dozen men were captured when they ran out of ammunition.

Another witness, Senora Maria Pena, told Holmdahl that on May 15, about 5:30 in the morning, she heard loud voices in a field behind her house. Going outside she saw six federal officers lined up in the field surrounded by "Red Flaggers." She said an Orozco officer told the men if they shouted "Viva Orozco," their lives would be spared, but defiantly, the prisoners shouted, "Viva Madero." They were promptly shot and their bodies dragged to a nearby ditch and dumped in with the rest of the casualties of the battle.

Holmdahl purchased a shove] and a mule, and that night he went to the mass graveyard where his witnesses said Aguilar was buried. There he started digging and by lantern light examined each body he dug up. The sixteenth corpse he exhumed was the young captain.

Recovering Aguilar's body, he strapped him on the mule, and then he rode ninety miles through enemy lines until they got back to territory under Federal control. [15] He returned the body to Monterrey, and there Holmdahl, General Trevino, the mayor of the city, and other high ranking officials posed for pictures around the flower-draped casket of the unfortunate young captain. [16] On August 9, 1912, Holmdahl wrote again to the U.S. Army Adjutant General in Washington D.C. This time the letter was mailed from the Montezuma Hotel, in the border city of Nogales, Arizona. From there he reported, "Things are looking worse every day down here." Again offering his services, he pointed out he had commanded 5,000 soldiers of all army branches at the beginning of the revolution:

Am thoroughly acquainted with their country, climatic conditions, water holes, mountain trails, their mode of fighting and supply stations and will gladly give you any information you wish, as I believe that am better posted than any other American as I have fought with them for two years ... I am on my way to report to the general in command of the First Military Zone in Sonora.

He signed the letter: E.H. Holmdahl, Capitan Primero Caballeria. [17]

By September 1912, Orozco's "Colorado" movement was smashed by Huerta and Villa, and the mule-skinner general fled to the safety of the United States. After harrowing escapes, Tracy Richardson and Sam Dreben also made the border safely. For the rest of the year, Holmdahl and his machine guns did mop-up duty in minor campaigns, fighting under Colonel Guillermo Rubio Navarrete in Chihuahua, General Aureliano Blanquet in Durango and Zacatecas, and with General Geronimo Trevino in Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. [18] In Mexico, during 1912, machine gunning was a growth industry.

By October, Holmdahl was once again restless. Perhaps he became bored with machine gunning and longed for a cavalry command with the hardened rurales he had led against Zapata. On October 24, 1912, he received a letter from his sometimes mentor and sometimes foe, Emilio Kosterlitzky, the tough Cossack who commanded all the rurales in northern Mexico.

It was in reply to a Holmdahl request for a transfer back to the rurales. After complaining about a drunken lieutenant in his command, the old "Iron Fist of Porfirio Dlaz," now working for Madero, wrote, "Believe me I deeply regret not to be able to have you with me for the present, but hope an early opportunity to notify you of having a place for you. With warm personal regards ..." [19] If Kosterlitzky was sincere, and he probably was, it indicated he no longer had the free hand he once enjoyed under Diaz. Madero probably kept him under a short leash for trust was not overly abundant in revolutionary Mexico. For good reason.

But, if the unrestrained license of a rurale was unavailable, Holmdahl must have again turned to espionage to succor his thirst for adventure. In late 1912 he entered the shadowy underworld of El Paso, Texas. El Paso was separated from the Mexican city of Juirez by only a short bridge across the Rio Grande. The twin cities were a crossroads for trade between northern Mexico and the U.S. southwest with railroads linking major markets in both countries. El Paso was also a hub of activity for gunrunners, smugglers, war correspondents, and spies. It was a haven for dissident Mexican politicians on the run from a government that plotted new revolts in the coffee houses and cantinas in its crowded south side called "Chihuahuita" ("Little Chihuahua"). [20]

A report in Holmdahl's handwriting among his personal papers written in English indicates that in December 1912, he was working undercover in El Paso. [21] The long report, dated December 28, 1912, states that one Jesus Cesneros [sic], the proprietor of a barber shop in the 500 block of South El Paso Street, had a secret back room. It was used, Holmdahl said, as a headquarters for renegade "Red Flaggers" who were smuggling guns and ammunition across the border and plotting another revolt.

In the report, Holmdahl lists the names of a half-dozen former Orozco officers. He describes how they subverted the Madero garrison in Juarez by offering the poorly paid soldiers large sums of money in return for turning over their ammunition to one of their spies. The spy, after accumulating fifty rounds of ammunition, would give it to a young woman Simone Acosta, who would smuggle it across the border under her voluminous skirts. The ammunition was stored in a secret cache under the floor of the barber shop. Then it was smuggled back across the border to the rebel army.

Holmdahl obviously had penetrated the "Red Flag" cabal and had his own Spy at their meetings. In his report he gave details about a cattle-rustling scheme, the proceeds of which would go to support the rebels. Topics of discussion among the plotters included movements of troops under the command of General Trucy Aubert, still loyal to Madero. The plotters also discussed way's the soldiers could be subverted into joining the Orozco ranks.

The mastermind of the operation was General Inez Salazar. Salazar, a giant of a man, was the chameleon of the Mexican revolution. It was said he could change sides faster than a lizard could change colors, although during the revolution that was not necessarily a unique characteristic among Mexican generals. Salazar had at various times both served under and fought against Madero, Orozco, Huerta, and Villa, and was as quixotically cruel as he was politically unstable. It was he who further aggravated relations between Orozco and the U.S. government when he decided on a whim to shoot the captured American mercenary, Thomas Fountain. At this time he was still plotting with Orozco, but that would soon change.

Holmdahl's report was probably written for General Aubert, but there is circumstantial evidence that he was also providing information to the U.S. Bureau of Investigation. The bureau was the fore runner of the FBI, and was keeping an eye on illegal activities along the Texas-Mexican border. There is a letter dated November 4, 1913, in the Bancroft Library files from an agent in the Douglas, Arizona, office of the Bureau to an agent presumably in El Paso responding to a request for information about Holmdahl's whereabouts. In it, the Douglas agent reports,

I saw Holmdahl in Douglas about Oct. 25 ... He stated to me that he had been quite seriously wounded ... he was thin and pale, but was wearing good clothes and appeared to be cheerful ... I do not believe he was suffering for the want of any necessaries ... If such had been the case I surly [sic.) would have offered him assistance ... [22]

Holmdahl must have been up to his neck in espionage at various times since he first entered Mexico in 1909. There is a cryptic note, dated September 9, 1911, in his papers which states, "Meet me on [undecipherable word] when No. 12 gets to Hermosillo-Opr. Nogales can give you time." The note was signed, H.J. Temple. A later addition to the note, in Holmdahl's handwriting, states, "Temple was general manager SP.RR of Mexico. Shot himself when confronted by U.S.  Agents making arrest for selling information to Germans." There is no date on Holmdahl's addition. [23]

In several letters to the U.S. War Department, Holmdahl had given information about conditions in Mexico and offered to be a conduit for further information. He was at least intermittently acting as an agent for the U.S. government. There was no ambiguity' in his reporting both to General Aubert and to U.S. officials, since the American government supported Madero as the legitimate head of Mexico and considered Orozco a bandit or rebel, at best. Finally, whatever else Holmdahl was, he was a loyal American who was always ready to put his life on the line for his country.

General Huerta, meanwhile, returned to Mexico City as a hero, and after being appointed commander-in-chief of the Mexican armies, he began to plot against his president. While Zapata on the left felt betrayed, the old Diaz rightwing, led by Huerta, viewed Madero as a usurper "with the common aim of toppling the Mexican president." [24] On February 19, 1913, the "Decena Trigica," the tragic ten days, a phony war was staged in Mexico City between conservative forces and federal troops under Huerta. During the intense fighting, innocent civilians were killed until the farce ended. [25] During that time, U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson acted as a go-between for the contending forces as Wilson, opposed to Madero, supported the coup led by Huerta.

On the night of February 17, Huerta had Madero arrested on trumped-up charges, and on February 22 had him assassinated. [26] Huerta seized power and Mexico again was held in the grip of a ruthless dictator, but Huerta had unleashed a hornet's nest of opposition. "The Maderistas had no intention of allowing the Huertistas to savor their ill-gotten laurels." [27] Venustiano Carranza, the governor of Coahuila, refused to recognize the Huerta regime. With the backing of Pancho Villa in Chihuahua and Alvaro Obregon, a bean planter in Sonora, Carranza went to war against the murderer of "The Apostle of the Mexican Revolution." [28]

While many of the old revolutionaries took up arms against Huerta, a new ally was his recently defeated foe, Pascual Orozco. The Mexican scorecard was by now almost unfathomable. Pancho Villa, after shedding public tears for his "beloved little president," crossed from his refuge in El Paso and started recruiting a new army.

On December 24, 1913, Holmdahl, writing the adjutant general from El Paso, stated he deserted the federal forces in Juarez on February 18, 1913. His reason for doing so was the assassination of Madero. Holmdahl escaped to Sonora and joined the constitutionalist forces, where he was commissioned a first captain of Artillery. [29] After learning of Madero's murder, and probably suspecting that his old boss General Aureliano Blanquet was involved, Holmdahl decided to desert and return to the United States. Whatever other inducements may have been offered, Holmdahl was always loyal to Madero, and if a cold-blooded soldier of fortune had any passion for a cause, Madero's selfless passion to free Mexico from dictator- ship resonated deeply within him.

On that cold night in February, Holmdahl swam his horse across the Rio Grande and dismounted, but while drying himself an American patrol approached, spotted him, and let out a shout. Not wishing to be hauled in as a border jumper, Holmdahl leaped into the frigid Rio Grande. The river was high, and a swift current carried him downstream, washing him up on the Mexican bank. His luck failed, and a patrol of troops loyal to the rebel General Inez Salazar took him prisoner.

By this time, Holmdahl was well known on both sides of the border, and when he was brought before the general, Salazar laughed and said Holmdahl would be shot in the morning. He was promptly thrown into a local prison, but lady luck had not completely turned against him, and he managed to bribe a guard, escaping in the early morning darkness. He now had cheated a firing squad twice; it was not to be the last time.

Holmdahl gave up thoughts about leaving Mexico; perhaps he wanted a crack at Salazar, who was now allied with Huerta in establishing a dictatorship as evil as that of Diaz. Holmdahl traveled to Hermosillo, Sonora, where he joined the army of General Benjamin J. Hill, in rebellion against Huerta. The Yaquis were rebelling again on the west coast of Sonora, and on General Hill's orders Holmdahl again campaigned against them.

After the Yaquis had been subdued, Holmdahl wrote that he was sent to help put down Huerta loyalists in Sonora and Sinaloa. When a number of Yaqu1 tribesmen changed sides and became allies, he joined with his old foes and returned to Chihuahua. There he was assigned to the Francisco Villa Brigade under the command of General Juan M. Medina.

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