Little is known about Laurence Brown – even his name is in question. He was an American and just 17 years old when he flew his bi-plane over the border and joined Calles’ Army to fight Pancho Villa in May of 1915. He was paid $500 a month.
On his first mission, Brown flew east from Agua Prieta to Naco, Sonora. The town had been declared a neutral port of entry in late 1914, and only a small contingent of soldiers remained there. American soldiers were camped right across the border, and in the town itself, buildings, streets and the few remaining citizens bore the scars of battle.
Maintaining an altitude of 3,500 feet, which kept his plane out of rifle range, Brown made a wide arc so his military passenger could view the town and see across the border as far as Bisbee some miles distant. He then turned south to follow the Naco-Cananea railroad.
He flew about 70 miles that day and observed the enemy soldiers of General Maytorena and the troop trains and fortifications surrounding Cananea before flying back to Agua Prieta.
He was popular with General Calles and his officers, sharing the general’s mess tent and receiving payment in gold, but his quick acceptance was resented by many of the regular troops. A ride in the aircraft, however, usually brought the troops around and gave them a respect for his skills and derring-do.
Brown flew missions that spring and throughout the summer. The Bisbee Review reported: “A Carranza aeroplane is making flights every day, dropping bombs in the camps of the enemy. (The bombs) are made of galvanized iron, pear-shaped, and contain about twenty-five pounds of explosive . . . . The caps for the bombs are not attached to the head of the bomb until just before it is dropped. However, Major Navarro, the official bomb dropper, claims that a cap is not necessary as long as aviator Laurence Brown continues to fly at such a high altitude.”
Brown’s aircraft became the subject of an official protest to the United States government, when he flew over Douglas and violated U.S. airspace while trying to gain altitude out of Agua Prieta. No action was taken against him, however, because the U.S. government supported Carranza and found it politically expedient to ignore the incident.
The accumulated stress of flying combat missions without relief took its toll on Brown and his airplane. Wind-blown sand fouled the engine, the sun weakened wing fabric, parts took a long time arriving and mechanics had to improvise repairs. The last day of August, Brown crashed south of Agua Prieta. Although unhurt, his confidence was shaken.
He finally called it quits in late October. By then Pancho Villa’s army was moving toward Agua Prieta from the south and a huge battle was expected.
The Bisbee Review reported on Oct. 22, 1915: “Arthur (sic) Brown, the 17-year-old aviator for General Calles, has deserted the Mexican army to come to the United States. He was getting a salary of $500 a month which he always drew in advance. It is reported that he had just been paid off for the month in this manner when he started across the international boundary.”
Brown didn’t stop for press interviews, but boarded a train in Douglas and disappeared.
Photo courtesy Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum; research by Tom Vaughn. ©Arizona Capitol Times.