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I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars.
-- T.E. Lawrence

Emil Lewis Holmdahl was the last of that fabulous breed of soldiers-of-fortune who swashbuckled their way through the wars and revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century before the romance of soldiering died in the muddy, blood-soaked trenches of World War I.

Holmdahl was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, to a farming family of Swedish immigrants on August 26,1883. [1] At an early age he thrilled to Rudyard Kipling's stories of exotic battles in the Far East and to the "dime novel" adventures of cavalrymen and lawmen in the American West. But unlike most boys, he turned his childhood dreams of martial glory into an exciting, if dangerous, reality. [2]

Escaping his rustic origins, from age fifteen to eighty, he swaggered his way across a score of battlefields. He soldiered in the mountains and jungles of Asia, through the swamps and crumbling ancient cities of Latin America, in the ferocious battles of the Mexican Revolution, and in the hell of World War I trenches. He fought Filipino insurgents under the Stars and Stripes, overturned Central American dictators, battled alongside Pancho Villa, then fought against Villa, and probably was the man who cut off Villa's head.

Holmdahl was condemned to a U.S. federal prison for gunrunning until paroled to serve General John J. Pershing during the 1916 punitive expedition into Mexico. There, he guided a green Second Lieutenant George Patton across the Chihuahuan desert to his first bloody gunfight. After a pardon granted by President Woodrow Wilson, Holmdahl fought as a commissioned officer alongside American and British soldiers in France in World War I. There he helped smash the last German offensive in 1918. As an aged senior citizen, he was investigated by the Secret Service for smuggling gold bars out of Mexico.

Although he had the hard-edged roughness of the professional soldier and hardly any formal education, Holmdahl held the respect and affection of generals and political leaders on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. In some of his more introspective writings he showed a touch of the poet. Surprisingly, for all his "rake-hell" adventures, this tough and complex man managed to live to a ripe old age.

It was through a few very fleeting mentions of his name in El Paso newspapers during the years of the Mexican revolution that I first came upon the Holmdahl story. Intrigued, I searched through many histories, memoirs, and newspaper accounts of the revolution and found only a few tantalizing tidbits of information. A thorough mining of El Paso newspapers revealed little except stories of his 1915 trial for gunrunning.

His army records from his first enlistment in 1898 through World War I were destroyed by a fire in the St. Louis Federal Depository. Records of his service as a civilian scout and spy for General Pershing have disappeared -- possibly destroyed on that general's orders. Remaining are the personal letters of 2nd Lt. Patton, General Pershing, and verbal reminiscences of those who knew him. His reports to the War Department are preserved in the National Archives.

While he gave a few contemporary interviews during the Mexican Revolution to Chicago and California newspapers, for the most part he was a secretive, furtive figure. This is not surprising since he was often involved in gunrunning, spying, revolutionary plots, and secret missions along the Mexican border. Like many of the freebooters who fought in the Mexican revolution, there are numerous legends about him sung in the corridos, the folk songs of Mexican peasants. Surprisingly, many of them are true.

Fortunately, after Holmdahl's death in 1963, his nephew, Gordon R. Holmdahl, bundled up his uncle's vast array of newspaper stories, United States and Mexican government documents, and diary jottings. These, in addition to other records he held, cast much light on his uncle's sometimes flamboyant and often shadowy life- time adventures. Those records and a large number of photographs were donated to the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. My wife and I flew to Berkeley and were the first, and perhaps the only, persons to examine the material. At his home in California, Gordon Holmdahl provided other insightful material and a treasure trove of photographs.

This is the story of that fabled man, Emil Lewis Holmdahl. He was the last of the great soldiers-of-fortune who roamed the world fighting under different flags for money, adventure, sometimes for principle, but mostly just for the hell of it.

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