Against a backdrop of revolution, border banditry, freewheeling aerial dramatics, and World War II comes this compelling look at the rise of U.S. combat aviation at an unlikely proving ground—a remote airfield in the rugged reaches of the southwestern Texas borderlands. Here, at Elmo Johnson's Big Bend ranch, hundreds of young Army Air Corps pilots demonstrated the U.S. military's reconnaissance and emergency response capabilities and, in so doing, dramatized the changing role of the airplane as an instrument of war and peace.
Kenneth Ragsdale's gripping account not only sets the United States squarely in the forefront of aerial development but also provides a reflective look at U.S.-Mexican relations of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, particularly the tense days and aftermath of the Escobar Rebellion of 1929. He paints a vivid picture of the development of the U.S. aerial strike force; the character, ideals, and expectations of the men who would one day become combat leaders; and the high esteem in which U.S. citizens held the courageous pilots.
Particularly noteworthy is Ragsdale's portrait of Elmo Johnson, the Big Bend rancher, trader, and rural sage who emerges as the dominant figure at one of the most unusual facilities in the annals of the Air Corps. Wings over the Mexican Border tells a stirring story of the American frontier juxtaposed with the new age of aerial technology.
Introduction. “flying … an exhilaration beyond description”
Prologue. “…a sentimental journey”
Scene 1. In the Beginning, Another Mexican Rebellion
1. “…Manzo and Topete were fomenting trouble in Sonora”
2. “…they stormed this office seeking refuge in this country”
3. “…he dubbed the group the Yankee Doodle Escadrille”
4. “…two more bombs have fallen just within American territory”
Scene 2. In Search of Border Security: The Airfield at Johnson’s Ranch
5. “…he fired at the bandits”
6. “…all we did was land in flat places”
7. “…my gosh, war’s broken out”
8. “…farewell to the horse”
9. “…we kept a loaded gun in every room”
Scene 3. A Brief Interlude: Fun with Elmo and Ada
10. “…this is a healthy country if you don’t talk too much”
11. “…most pilots were pretty well disciplined in the military”
12. “…order of the white scarf”
13. “…Elmo just asked us to help out and we volunteered”
Scene 4. Another War, Another World, and the End of an Era
14. “…I want airplanes—now—and lots of them”
15. “…the airplanes would return to Johnson’s Ranch”
16. “…they landed on sandbars in the Rio Grande”
17. “…I would like to say again how much we appreciated and enjoyed the Johnsons”
Epilogue. “…my love affair with airplanes was over”
Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale, an Austin-based writer and historian, holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.