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Border Duty, 1916

A soldier’s life on the Mexican border, 1916.

A soldier’s life on the Mexican border, 1916.

Pancho Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico, in the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, set in motion a huge mobilization of the U.S. Army and the National Guard.  By July 31, almost 111,000 guardsmen were on the border and an additional 40,000 awaited orders in mobilization camps around the country.

Among the first Guard units called into federal service was the First Arizona Infantry Regiment, which arrived by train at Camp Harry J. Jones, near Douglas, on May 12 and 13, 1916.  More than 1,000 well wishers had cheered the special train carrying most of the guardsmen as it passed through Tucson at 6 a.m. on May 12.

As with most National Guard units called to the border, the Arizona contingent was undermanned.  Arriving in Douglas with 49 officers and 837 enlisted men, it was 29 men short of its required peacetime strength and 1,029 short of the troops it needed to be accepted for federal service in wartime.

Upon arrival, each guardsman was required to take an oath transferring his allegiance from the state to the federal government.

The mobilization efforts revealed the special character of several of the Arizona companies.  Company F consisted of Papago, Pima, Apache and Hopi as well as Mission Indian students from the Phoenix Indian School.  Newspapers around the state proudly boasted that it was the only truly all-Indian military unit in the country.  Yuma’s Company L, meanwhile, included 15 Yuma Indians among its members.  Company E was composed exclusively of Mexican-American Guardsmen, most of them native Tucsonans.  They spoke Spanish almost exclusively while in camp.

Arizona Guard units were quickly dispersed from Camp Harry J. Jones to locations along the border to relieve detachments of the First U.S. Cavalry.

On June 21, four companies left by train for Camp Stephen A. Little outside Nogales.  Other units took up positions at John Slaughter’s Ranch east of Douglas and at the rail stop of Forrest on the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad 12 miles east of Naco.  Later deployments moved Arizona units to Fort Huachuca and to Roosevelt Dam.

In early September, the units were ordered to consolidate near Naco, and the troops began to hope they would soon cross over into Mexico to join General Pershing and his troops fighting Pancho Villa.  Better yet, they hoped to be released from federal service all together.  Instead they spent another seven months in Naco, waiting and watching.  Meanwhile, other Guard units were released from duty and returned to their home states.

The tedium of camp life was relieved by a variety of visitors — several military officers from Washington D.C., out West to assess troop preparedness, and family, friends and sweethearts came to see what the soldiering business was all about.  They peered into tents, sampled the food, experienced the heat, and a few shouldered weapons and posed for the camera.

In an effort to boost morale, the regimental staff instituted regular dances for officers and their wives, many of whom regularly visited the Naco encampment.  Other social activities included a Lincoln’s birthday party, an enlisted men’s Halloween party, a Washington’s Day parade and a masquerade ball.

National and state elections on Nov. 7 provided a brief diversion, but the holidays proved especially difficult.  To lift some of the Thanksgiving gloom, the regimental mess served a lunch of roast turkey, oyster soup, cranberry sauce, French fried potatoes, parsnips, dressing, celery, turnovers, pie, cheese and nuts, and finished with cigars, cigarettes and coffee.

In late November and early December fresh lumber arrived for framing and flooring tents.  Under other circumstances, the men might have reacted positively.  But they understood that the upgrade to their living quarters meant their stay on the border might be indefinite.

Finally in late February 1917, the troops got word they would be released from border duty on March 27.  The men, eager to return to civilian life, began to prepare almost immediately.  Military drills were suspended.  Physical examinations, inspection of records by regular army officers and a 15-day paid furlough were all prepared for the appointed day.  By the 26th, all bed sacks, stoves and company equipment were turned in.  The Arizona troops spent their last night in Naco sleeping under the stars.

The next morning as the regiment formed up for the formal mustering out, the men were greeted with a telegram from the War Department notifying them that, because of the possibility of war with Germany, all National Guard units still in federal service were being retained in place.  The staff reissued equipment and by March 29, the men were once again sleeping in tents and trudging back to the firing ranges to continue training.

That fall the regiment moved to Camp Kearny near San Diego, where the troops received additional training, absorbed new recruits from other states and acquired a new designation – the 158th Infantry Regiment.  They were deployed to Europe in August 1918.

— Research by Dave Tackenberg. Photos courtesy Arizona Historical Foundation, ASU and Arizona Historical Society.

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