If you’re not looking for it, you might drive right past it. Some people riding through Wharton State Forest near Tabernacle, N.J., look for it and south of Red Lion Circle, bear of Route 206 onto Carranza Road. Keep an eye to the still miss it. About a mile right, and in a lonely clearing, you’ll find the 12-foot monument, erected in 1931 and paid for by contributions of pesos from Mexican children and pennies from local school kids. The giant stone pylon is surrounded by yucca plants—not native to New Jersey but doing well in the sandy soil.
On the face is a carving of an Aztec eagle plummeting to earth, and on the back, an arrow rising to the heavens. On the sides are inscriptions. The Spanish one tells you that the memorial is dedicated to Capitan aviator Emilio Carranza, muerto tragicamente el 12 de Julio 1928; the English one notes that “The Lone Eagle of Mexico,” or “Mexico’s Lindbergh,” died while flying from New York to Mexico City.
For a brief, shining moment in 1928, Carranza was an international hero, possibly the most famous man in Mexico. His face appeared in newspapers, magazines and newsreels all over North America, Latin America and Europe. Eighty-seven years later, his fame outside his native country is confined to the residents of a few tiny towns in a New Jersey pine forest.
The Carranza family was almost royalty. Emilio was born December 9, 1905, in the town of Ramos Arizpe, Coahuila, the fourth child of Sebastian Carranza Cepeda and Maria Dolores Rodriguez Gomez. He was the nephew of General Alberto Salinas Carranza, one of Mexico’s aviation pioneers and the first director of the School of Military Aviation of Mexico. He was also the grandnephew of Don Venustiano Carranza, a military commander during the Mexican Revolution and the first constitutional president of the grand republic of Mexico, who was assassinated in a 1920 rebellion.
“People in the family always talked about how, as a young boy, Emilio loved airplanes,” said one of Carranza’s descendants. “When he was only 11 his favorite pastime was visiting the flying school.” At 18, Emilio became a student at the academy; three years later he was declared a “Pilot of Aviation” after test flying a Mexican-built Avro biplane. In 1924 he became a national hero flying for the government against rebels in the north.
Not surprisingly, the young aviator’s idol was Charles Lindbergh. Like Lindbergh, he flew a Ryan Brougham B-1 monoplane. Named the Mexico-Excelsior, it was built in San Diego by the B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corporation and was a virtual twin of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. In September 1927 Carranza made the 965-mile nonstop flight from Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez, landing on the same day that Lindbergh arrived in El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande. The two became friendly, and they renewed their acquaintance three months later when Lindbergh made a goodwill fight from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City. The trip was promoted by Dwight Morrow, newly appointed American ambassador to Mexico, former consultant on U.S. aviation policy and Lindbergh’s future father-in-law, who recognized the potential benefits of air travel to diplomacy.
Such a gesture had been sorely needed for years. Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, N.M., in 1916, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, and General John Pershing’s subsequent pursuit of Villa across the border angered many Americans and bewildered many more who were unsure which factions in the Mexican war held the moral high ground. (Just a few years earlier, the propaganda film The Life of General Villa had many in American movie theaters cheering the rebels.) In 1917 the infamous Zimmerman telegram, in which the German empire attempted to lure Mexico into a World War I military alliance against the United States, enraged Americans and left many questioning Mexico’s loyalty to its northern neighbor.
Business relations between Mexico and the United States also took a turn for the worse in 1917 when, according to historian David W. Dent in the Encyclopedia of Modern Mexico, Article 27 of the newly signed Mexican constitution “overturned the liberal exploration and ownership laws which had encouraged foreign investment in mining and oil, and the tradition of state ownership of mineral rights became the law of the land. This revolutionary change did not go over well with the foreign oil companies, and they soon found themselves in constant conflict with the Mexican government.”
As border tensions simmered, Carranza decided to return Lindbergh’s gesture. An April 22, 1928, Associated Press story from Mexico City reported that “public subscriptions for funds to enable Captain Emilio Carranza to return Lindbergh’s compliment to Mexico by making a non-stop ‘Good-will’ fight from this city to Washington closed today with $25,000 in hand.” After a successful nonstop 1,440-mile fight from San Diego to Mexico City on May 24-25, Carranza started planning his fight to the U.S. capital.
On June 5 the New York Times reported that the Mexican Embassy “was advised today that Captain Emilio Carranza of the Mexican Aviation Service will undertake his non-stop fight…the latter part of this week, the date depending on weather conditions.” Captain Carranza took off on June 11, with the press, officials from the Mexican government and his bride of six months, Maria Luisa Corbala, there to see him of.
The fight went as planned until the Mexico-Excelsior reached North Carolina. Unusually thick fog forced an emergency landing. The next day Carranza completed the journey to Washington, where he was received by President Calvin Coolidge, flanked by scores of journalists. From there it was on to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, where his father, Sebastian, who was working at the Mexican consulate in New York, was the first to greet him. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, New York’s glad-handing mayor, Jimmy Walker, presented Carranza with a key to the city. A banquet in Carranza’s honor included an impressive guest list: Coolidge; Walker; Charlie Chaplin, the world’s most popular movie star; and former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. After the dinner, Carranza announced that he was planning to undertake the longest solo fight ever attempted in the Americas: New York to Mexico City. But the early summer weather wasn’t cooperating; every day a new series of thunderstorms cropped up, and the frustrated captain had to postpone his fight.
During his stay in New York, Carranza was a busy man. On June 28 he was the guest of honor at a banquet hosted by the American Syrian Federation in Brooklyn. Significant numbers of Syrians had immigrated to the Americas since the turn of the century, and Carranza told his hosts that Syrians in Mexico had contributed a third of the money to pay for his fight to the United States. The federation presented him with a wristwatch and a scroll written in Arabic. On another day, he flew the short distance to West Point to present the academy with a photo of the Mexican Aviation Society.
The turbulent weather continued. Friends, Lindbergh among them, urged Carranza to put of his trip until the summer storm season was over. But on July 12, while at dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, Carranza ordered his plane readied. The pilot rushed to Roosevelt Field, where officials handed him a telegram from the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington: “Partly cloudy to cloudy sky New York to New Orleans with local thunderstorms.” He was cautioned against leaving but would not be dissuaded. During a break in a fierce electrical storm, he took off to the cheers of several hundred well-wishers. The time was 7:18 p.m.
Carranza’s fight plan took him over New Jersey. In the dark of night, the Mexico-Excelsior, laden with extra fuel, disappeared. When no sightings were reported in the first few hours of July 13, Americans and Mexicans alike became frantic. In the early afternoon, John Henry Carr, to be identified later in the New York Times as “a woodsman and berry picker,” was out in the Pines with his wife and mother gathering wild blueberries. They came upon the wreckage. Carr went into the brush and found a wing of the plane and, finally, Carranza’s body. Carr drove eight miles to Chatsworth to get help, telephoning a Burlington County detective, who drove 20 miles to the site with the county coroner. (The Mexican government later presented Carr with $500 “as a token of gratitude.”)
The wreckage was scattered over about a quarter of a mile; both wings had been shorn off the plane. Carranza’s watch was found 35 feet from his body; it had stopped at 4:45. His leather helmet, shredded, was a short distance away.
Stories sprang up quickly. One involved the parachute Carranza was known to have had brought aboard; no trace of it was ever found. The county detective speculated that Carranza had jumped from the plane after it struck the treetops. Others thought that the body wasn’t far enough from the fuselage to support that conclusion. A few residents of the Sandy Ridge area of the Pine Barrens recalled hearing what sounded like an airplane engine sputtering overhead on the night of the crash. There were reports that a small plane had tried to land near Trenton as the storm approached, its pilot dropping a yellow fare before turning back toward the Pine Barrens. The reports were never verified.
Yet another story—entirely without documentation—was that hoof prints were found around the crash site, indicating that the mythical monster of the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devil, was actually the first to discover the wreckage.
There has never been a consensus about the cause of the crash. The first of two leading theories was that lightning had struck the plane—one of the wings and Carranza’s leather fight jacket were charred. The other was that Carranza had been flying low, looking for a spot to land, when the plane hit trees and flipped over into the soft bog. The flashlight found in the aviator’s hand—in fact, jammed through his palm by the force of the crash—was thought to support that theory. What neither theory could explain was a purse in his jacket pocket containing $70 in U.S. currency torn to pieces.
People also questioned why Carranza insisted on taking of in the foul weather. A story circulated that before he left the Waldorf Astoria, Carranza had received a telegram from General Joaquin Amaro, head of the Mexican War Ministry, ordering the pilot to return to Mexico City: “Leave immediately without excuse or pretext, or the quality of your manhood will be in doubt.” The existence of the telegram has never been proven; some thought that the story was fabricated to blame Amaro for the accident. (Amaro sided with the rebels in the 1920 coup that had overthrown the president, Carranza’s grand uncle Venustiano, and was unpopular with the old guard of the Mexican military, who resented his reforms.)
The pilot’s body was recovered by members of Mount Holly American Legion Post 11 and carried to a local garage. Legion members and Army officers from Camp (now Fort) Dix, in Trenton, draped his coffin with an American fag. (Today the fag hangs in the lobby of Mexico’s School of Aviation.) At the request of the Mexican government, Carranza was transported to New York. His body lay in state at a local funeral home, and the public was admitted for several hours to view the hero, dressed in a captain’s uniform of the Mexican air corps. Funeral services were held in New York on July 18.
From the summer White House in Wisconsin, President Coolidge sent a personal message of condolence to Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles and offered the USS Florida to carry Carranza’s body home. President Calles declined the U.S. Navy’s services and asked that the body be sent by rail to Laredo, Texas. From there, family members and a contingent of dignitaries escorted it back to Mexico City for burial. A headline in the Chicago Tribune told Americans- Mexico sorrows over death of its flying ace. All over the United States, Carranza’s virtues were extolled. Mayor Jimmy Walker, vacationing in San Diego, told reporters that Carranza’s death “was a severe shock to me and to the people of New York, who developed an intense admiration for his charming personality and courageous daring.”
Emilio Carranza was posthumously promoted to general. To mark the first anniversary of his death, Mexico issued a set of six airmail stamps in his memory.
In 1929 Legion Post 11 organized the first memorial service at the Carranza crash site, making a solemn pledge to “conduct a pilgrimage each year and pay honor to the memory of Emilio Carranza and to keep his mission of good will and peace alive.” For 86 years that promise has remained unbroken. More than 150 people, including members of the extended Carranza family, attended the ceremony on July 12, 2014. Emilio’s only child, a son born after his death, had died of appendicitis before his 6th birthday, but scores of nieces, nephews and cousins have kept the family name alive. Missing from the ceremony, however, was a distant cousin, Sergio Emilio Carranza, who was killed in January 2014 when a private plane he was copiloting crashed in Vail, Colo. Representatives from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, New Jersey State Police and Burlington County sheriff ’s office regularly participate in the annual ceremonies. In 2014 Maj. Gen. Victor Hugo Aguirre Serna of the Mexican Embassy in Washington represented the Mexican government. The Legionnaires reenacted the carrying of Carranza’s body from the crash site, accompanied by the spiritual-like “Goin’ Home,” adapted from Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony. More than a few wept openly. Floral tributes and wreaths were presented and heaped around a photo of the handsome young captain. A single plane from the Civil Air Patrol few overhead in his honor.
After the service, the Ballet Folklorico of New York performed. Stephen Lee, deputy mayor of Tabernacle, presented Ismael (Mel) Carranza, a distant cousin of Captain Carranza, and his nephew Sergio Rodriguez Carranza with an altimeter Lee’s grandfather recovered from the wreckage in 1928. “My family’s house was in Speedwell,” Lee says. “The Excelsior’s fight path went right over it. I remember my aunt saying that she could hear the plane’s engine. My grandfather was searching the woods at first light and found it.”
Mel Carranza, a Korean War veteran and retired commercial pilot who lives in Grapevine, Texas, expressed his gratitude for the gif. Family members planned to accompany the altimeter on a flight from New York to Mexico, fulfilling the aviator’s mission.
But his real mission, said Sergio, “was creating good will between Mexico and the United States. We’ve closed the fight log, but that mission goes on.”
Allen Barra is a former editor at American Heritage and writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast and TheAtlantic.com.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.