Down a desolate road in Wharton State Forest, past a juvenile detention center, and sitting amidst the sandy dunes and scrub trees is a small memorial to a mostly-forgotten aviator. The Mt Holly Legion Post #11 has made it’s mission to keep his memory alive. His services used to draw visitors in the thousands, but now it’s dwindled to only a few hundred, mostly local residents & dignitaries from Mexico. So who is Carranza & why are we celebrating his life and death?
In the 1920’s air travel was in it’s infancy. Lt Col Doug Satterfield, said at a recent memorial service, “Today we have no appreciation of [Carranza’s undertaking]. Aircraft before the 40’s were unreliable, unpredictable and prone to falling apart without warning.” Instrumentation was limited to a compass, and a lighter to look at maps in the dark. Charles Lindbergh had just flown non-stop across the Atlantic, creating an interest in air travel that previously didn’t exist. Emilio Carranza, the grand nephew of Don Carranza, 1st Commandant of the Constitutional Army (later the 1st President of the Mexican Republic) and nephew of General Alberto Carranza, founder of the Mexican Air Force School of Aviation, he naturally had an interest in both the military & aviation.
Carranza believed in the future of air travel. He believed that long travel was possible making it possible to bridge the gap between far away places. He believed that eventually people would be able to travel around the world, opening up commerce, tourism, and dialogues between nations. His family moved to Eagle Pass, Texas where he finished high school. He later returned to Mexico and attended the Military School of Aviation, where he graduated with honors. In 1926 he acquired a Lincoln standard airplane, which, inspired by Lindbergh’s recent flight across the Atlantic, he would use to fly long distances. He planned to fly from Chicago to Mexico City via many small airports across the Midwest. Halfway to his destination, he ran out of fuel and crashed, with his brother being seriously injured.
He acquired a retired Mexican Air Force plane and planned to fly non-stop between Mexico City and Ciudad, Juarez. Note that this plane was made entirely of wood. This would be the 2nd longest flight of any Mexican pilot. He arrived safely on 9/2/1927, at about the same time Charles Lindbergh arrived in El Paso, Texas, where they both celebrated together. The two became close friends and Carranza was Lindbergh official companion while Lindbergh visited Mexico City. Lindbergh flew to Mexico City non-stop from Washington DC, making it the 2nd longest non-stop flight only to Lindbergh’s recently completed trip to Paris. This excited Mexicans everywhere, and soon a committee was formed to get a Mexican aviator from Mexico City to Washington DC non-stop. Carranza was the pilot they invited to make this trip.
The plane, a Ryan B-1, was carefully constructed to deal with both the rigors of such a long flight, as well as dealing with the thin air of Mexico City. Carranza himself was closely involved with the process. On one flight to San Diego, he crashed in the desert and boarded a train to his destination. The only witness to the crash was a 5 year old boy named Juan tapia. He was so impressed and inspired by Carranza that he declared he wanted to be as brave as Carranza. He fulfilled that goal, enrolling in the Mexican military & receiving 7 purple hearts.
Carranza flew the Ryan B-1 from San Diego to Mexico City as a test run, and over 100,00 people eagerly awaited his arrival. His safe arrival completed the longest non-stop flight by a Mexican. By June 10th, 1928 things were in full motion. Spotters along his route to New York were in place. He had a final meal with his family & he departed for America the next day. Heavy fog & darkness made navigation possible only by dead reckoning. Bad weather lay ahead, and all air travel near South Carolina had been cancelled. He finally arrived safe & sound at 4AM in Moorseville, NC. After a brief stay for rest & refueling, he left on June 12th for Washington DC where he landed at Boiling Fields.
Carranza met with world leaders, and the event was covered by press from around the globe. This was not just a trip to test the endurance of an aviator and a plane. This was meant to inspire good will among nations as well. In Mexico City, aviators dropped flowers from the sky. Carranza met with President Coolidge and the Secretary of State. He flew to Detroit with Charles Lindbergh, which further cemented him in the minds of most people as a true leader. Afterwards Carranza flew to New York, where Mayor Jimmy Walker gave him the key to the city. He reviewed the troops at West Point, an honor never given to a visiting official with the rank of just Captain. His plan was to leave on July 3rd for Mexico City, and arrive on the 4th, the American independence day.
The weather was not cooperative, and he was told not to go. Despite these warnings, he made several attempts to leave, but all were cancelled at the last minute. Frustrated, Carranza rescheduled for July 12th. The weather was almost as bad, if not worse now. A large electrical storm covered the area. Lindbergh begged him not go. He returned his plane to the hangar and returned to the hotel. At the Waldorf Astoria in mid-meal he received a telegram. It was an order to leave immediately “lest your manhood be in question.” He left for Roosevelt Field immediately. He lifted off at 7:18 PM, July 12th.
At 325 PM the next day, John Carr was picking berries in the Pine Barrens when he discovered the wing of an airplane. It belonged to Carranza’s plane. A bolt of lightning had hit his plane and sent him crashing down in the middle of what would later become Tabernacle, NJ, in the middle of Wharton State Forest, otherwise known as the Pine Barrens. Members of Mount Holly Legion Post 11 were dispatched to retrieve Carranza’s body. Hacking their way thru sandy pines, they found Carranza, still clutching a flashlight, and carrying in his pocket the telegram from the Mexican Military.
Carranza’s death made headlines around the world. A brave young man had died trying to extend the boundaries of flight. Carranza’s body was held at Buzby’s General store until the coroner made the pronouncement of death, and the body was identified. President Coolidge offered to have his body transported by warship. Two years later, children in Mexico had raised money to build the memorial that now stands in the Pine Barrens where his plane crashed. The members of Mount Holly Post 11 declared that Carranza would not go unremembered,, and every year there is a memorial service. Members of his family, as well as Mexican Dignitaries come & place a wreath at the memorial site. Mount Holly Legion 11, as well as various members of the US Military also gives speeches and pay respects to a fellow soldier who died serving his country.