Didier Masson’s 1913 attack on a Federalist gunboat at the behest of Mexican rebels was one of the earliest airstrikes carried out against a naval vessel.
By David H. Grover
Didier Masson sat in the pilot’s seat and warmed up his open biplane on a primitive runway in the hills of the Mexican state of Sonora. He was apprehensive over what was about to take place. A French citizen who had entered Mexico illegally from the United States, he was not concerned that he was about to become a participant in a revolution of a country in which he had no stake. Ideologies were no problem to a mercenary, and it was clearly Masson’s passion for flying, not his passion for the revolutionary cause, that had taken him to Mexico. His concern, instead, was that he knew very little about what his new flying assignment would demand of him in terms of skill, and even less about how much danger was involved.
Masson was probably unaware that, in this unlikely setting, he was about to write aviation history by launching one of the earliest strikes ever carried out against a naval vessel. He knew only that his new employers had directed him to fly his American-built plane the 40 miles to the port of Guaymas on the Gulf of California, to seek out and attack the enemy ship that was anchored in the harbor. Adding to his uneasiness was his awareness that since the United States had stayed well clear of the revolution and had encouraged American citizens to come home from the war-torn land, his temporary homeland north of the border would probably not be very supportive if things were to go badly for him in Mexico.
American newspapers and wire services had followed the movement of the Martin pusher biplane into Mexico and had correctly speculated about how it might be used, but no one seemed to have any real sense of the significant events that this early flying machine could set in motion. Even today, viewed in retrospect, the events that Masson triggered seem so far out of the mainstream of aviation and military history that any examination of the circumstances surrounding them seems like a venture into some far-off time and place, more fictional than real.
To understand those circumstances, one must first appreciate that the Mexican Revolution produced a number of warring political and military factions. The de facto leader of Mexico in 1913 was Vittoriano Huerta, who, in February of that year, had wrested control of the revolution from the idealistic but ineffective Francisco Madero. Madero had been in power only 1 1/2 years following his successful coup against the old established regime of Porfirio Díaz, the longtime president of Mexico. Leaders of several revolutionary factions were unhappy that Huerta seemed to be steering the country back toward the days of Díaz. These military men, who would later fight among themselves, were at that point united against Huerta. They called themselves the Constitutionalists.
Warfare in Mexico was traditionally the realm of the cavalry, and most leaders on both sides of the revolution thought only in terms of land warfare. A few Mexican military men, however, had become interested in using the airplane as a weapon. The first use of the airplane for military purposes in the Western Hemisphere had taken place in February 1911, when Díaz was still president. Several barnstorming French aviators touring the southwestern United States were hired by the Mexican Federal army to scout the positions of the rebel troops of Generals Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Pascual Orozco in the state of Chihuahua, across the border from El Paso, Texas. In May 1912, the Madero government had bought three Blériot-type monoplanes to be used in future campaigns, but it is not clear when those planes first went into service.
The revolutionary forces set in motion the events in January 1913 that would bring Didier Masson to Mexico. The leader of those forces in northwest Mexico, Colonel Alvaro Obregon, a former schoolteacher and inventor, dispatched several officers to Southern California to check out the state-of-the-art in military aviation. Through introductions provided by important Los Angeles businessmen interested in aviation, the officers were steered to the Glenn L. Martin facility at nearby Balboa. That company was primarily engaged in developing flying boats, but it also built other types of aircraft and operated a pioneer flying school. As a result of that visit and what they learned, the Mexican officers decided to hire one of the company’s instructor pilots, a small, quiet 27-year-old Frenchman named Didier Masson.
There are a number of conflicting accounts about Masson’s background, but the most reliable information indicates that he was born in Asnières, France, on February 23, 1886. After a brief career as an apprentice jeweler, he enlisted in the French army in 1903. When his service was completed, he worked several years for a magneto manufacturer. In 1909 he met the famous aviator Louis Paulhan, who hired him as a mechanic. Masson later recalled that he made his first solo flight in France that year in a Farman biplane.
Masson came to the United States in 1910 with Paulhan, who launched a major aerial exhibition tour across the country. With help from his mentor, Masson flew whenever he could during 1911 and 1912, both solo and with other pilots, but he could not afford to acquire his own airplane. Only when he joined the Glenn Martin Flying School did he receive his pilot’s license, Aero Club of America Certificate No. 202, in January 1913.
A number of well-publicized flights in California and in the Midwest in 1912 had given Masson a reputation as a daring and durable aviator. Consequently, during the Mexican delegation’s visit to the Martin facility early in 1913, the officials offered Masson $300 a month base pay, plus $50 for each reconnaissance flight and $250 for each bombing run he made, if he would join the revolutionary forces.
Captains in the U.S. Navy or colonels in the U.S. Army were then paid about $300 a month. The Mexican delegation’s offer was tempting to the young pilot, particularly when he learned that as part of the deal the Mexicans would spend $5,000 to buy, for his use, a Martin pusher biplane with which he was already familiar. So Masson, along with his Australian mechanic Thomas J. Dean, decided they would go to work for the Mexican revolutionaries as the crew of the primitive-looking American airplane. Masson was given the rank of captain in the revolutionary army.
Aircraft designers were starting to produce airplanes with tractor engines and covered fuselages in 1912, but the Martin biplane’s configuration was more reminiscent of the Wright brothers’ original plane. It was adequately powered in that it had a 75-hp Curtiss-built pusher engine, which gave it a range of 100 miles with a passenger on board. The pilot and passenger sat out in front of the engine in an exposed position among the rods and struts that held the plane together.
Masson had assumed responsibility for getting the Martin biplane across the border into Mexico as a part of his arrangement with his Mexican employers. The movement of the plane was no secret. The New York Times reported that it was being boxed and transported by truck and wagon from Tucson to the border town of Naco, Ariz. There, a one-legged deputy sheriff named Hopkins aided in the crossing by conveniently looking the other way; for his assistance, he was later rewarded with a major’s commission in the revolutionary army. As a result of the news coverage, it was no secret that aerial warfare was in the offing in northwest Mexico.
The plane was hauled to a newly created airstrip only about 40 miles from Guaymas, and several railroad passenger cars served as headquarters of the aviation unit. Guaymas was the major port of the state of Sonora, located on the Gulf of California (or the Sea of Cortez), about 230 miles south of Nogales, Ariz. After considerable difficulty assembling the plane and getting it running, Masson eventually test-flew the machine for the first time from Mexican soil, thus becoming a one-plane air force for the army of Colonel Obregon. The installation of the bombardier’s seat and a primitive cross-hairs bombsight changed the plane into a bomber. It was named Sonora for the state in which it first took to the air for the Constitutionalists.
No aviation ordnance of any type existed in North America at that time, so homemade bombs were created for the attacks. The bombs were 18-inch-long pieces of 3-inch pipe, filled with sticks of 40-percent dynamite, among which rivets were distributed for shrapnel. A push-type detonator was rigged to the bottom through a pipe nipple, and a crude fin was mounted on the top to ensure that the bombs would fall in an upright position. The 30-pound bombs were launched by pulling a toggle that released them from the rack on the undercarriage, where eight of them could be stowed.
Masson’s first combat mission was to attack the Mexican naval vessel General Guerrero, which was lying off Guaymas. Nobody in Obregon’s army had any idea of what kind of resistance to expect from such a bombing raid–the only precedent, unknown to the Mexicans, had occurred on February 6, 1913, when a Greek Maurice Farman had dropped grenades on ships and harbor installations in the Turkish port of Nagara in the Dardanelles, causing no significant damage.
With their ship caught up in a revolution, the officers and men of Guerrero had been forced to change sides. A few months earlier, as the crew of a Federal ship, their loyalties had been to Madero, but now their loyalties were to Huerta, who was the new head of the Federalists. How that crew would react to aerial attack and what kind of resistance they might mount, no one knew.
General Guerrero was a fairly substantial ship, about 200 feet long and weighing 1,880 tons. Built in England in 1908, she was variously described as a cruiser, transport and gunboat. She mounted six 4-inch guns, two 3-pounders and probably some machine guns. She was somewhat underpowered for naval service, however, and her 1,200-hp reciprocating steam engine could produce only 12 knots of speed. The ship had spent the previous five years in routine patrols along the Mexican coast.
Sources differ as to the exact date of the first aerial attack, but newspaper accounts place it on or about May 29, 1913. The bombardier for this historic flight was probably Captain Joaquin Alcalde of the Mexican army, although some sources claim that it was Gustavo Salinas Camina, who was the nephew of General Venustiano Carranza. Masson himself was not explicit on that point, saying in later correspondence without specifying dates that Alcalde “was my co-pilot and observer” while acknowledging that his mechanic also flew with him once.
As he began his bombing run, Masson put his concerns to rest, bounced his little plane along the runway, and felt it lurch into the air for his first sortie against Guerrero, which was lying in the mountain-ringed harbor at Guaymas. To avoid the unpredictable air of midday, the takeoff was made in the morning. There are two versions of what happened next on the first flight. In one, during the bombing run over the target, the bombs were reportedly launched from 2,500 feet. Masson and his bombardier soon discovered that this was not a safe altitude, since Sonora encountered brisk gunfire from Guerrero. No hits were scored on the darting plane by the crew of the gunboat, for whom this was also a first experience, but neither was there any damage done to the ship, which took evasive action of her own.
The other version of the flight appeared in an Associated Press wire service story, which ran in The New York Times. In that account, the plane flew at 5,000 feet and made five passes on the gunboat without dropping bombs and without encountering hostile fire. Other reports indicated that on the first run the rebel aviators dropped propaganda leaflets but no bombs. In any case, Masson had to save enough gas for the plane to return to its landing field, so he could not stay more than a few minutes over Guaymas before heading back upcountry toward the landing strip. Thus, by all accounts, the first bombing attack on a naval vessel in the Western Hemisphere was brief and indecisive.
Accounts of this action generally do not record whether there were any other ships in Guerrero’s vicinity at the time of this and subsequent attacks. Guaymas was a busy port, both for naval and merchant vessels, and it is likely that at least several ships were there. A few versions indicate that the Federalist gunboats Tampico and Morales were also in the harbor at that time, but press reports do not mention them. If those ships were indeed in the harbor, there was an ironic twist to their presence, in that the former would soon become a rebel gunboat as the result of a mutiny and the latter would endure another bombing at the hands of the same plane a year later.
During the most unsettled days of the revolution, particularly in 1913-14, naval vessels were being used to evacuate citizens of other nations from Mexico. Some of those vessels may also have been near or at Guaymas. By some accounts, the U.S. Navy cruiser Colorado witnessed the attack on the nearby Mexican gunboat. Most of the naval vessels in Mexican waters belonged to the United States, but there were German, British and Japanese warships operating in the Gulf of California as well.
On the day following their initial sortie, Masson and his bombardier resumed their attack on the gunboat. Again they achieved no hits on their target, although they had the satisfaction of seeing some of the sailors on Guerrero leap into the water to escape the threat of the bombs. The men were apparently very anxious about the fate they might encounter by remaining on board.
Masson returned to base and made a number of adjustments to the bombsight and to the vanes of the bombs, hoping to improve upon the dismal performance of the first two flights. Nevertheless, the next attempt was as unproductive as the first two, although a newspaper account credits the attack with driving two gunboats out of the harbor. That third attempt was particularly dangerous, because repairing a blown tire on the plane cost the aviators precious time on the ground. It was midday before they were airborne again, resulting in sluggish performance from the plane plus considerable shore-based fire as they approached the harbor at a dangerously low altitude. The new art of aerially bombing ships did not seem to be easily mastered.
Masson’s fourth attempt came to a premature end when Sonora crashed on takeoff. The pilot was unhurt, but the plane required repairs, including the replacement of several parts, among them a propeller, which were not available locally. After a four-week wait, the parts finally arrived after being smuggled across the border from the United States. Once more Sonora was readied to make war against the Federalist forces. This time, Masson and Captain Alcalde managed to achieve a near miss on Guerrero, but again they had to return without having scored a hit.
Masson was back over Guaymas once more early in August, this time with his loyal mechanic Tom Dean as his bombardier. During the first bomb run at 2,000 feet, amid a concentration of small-arms fire, the Curtiss engine sputtered in the hot summer air and died. The harbor at Guaymas was surrounded by mountains, as well as being enemy territory, so Masson glided the plane to the head of an adjacent bay and the town of Empalme. The town was a railroad junction, laid out on flatter ground not far from Guaymas, and was occupied by rebel troops. En route, the crew jettisoned their bombs to reduce the risk of their exploding upon landing. Fortunately, Masson was able to let down safely on the tricycle landing gear, only to discover that one of the bombs, snagged in its trip cord, was trailing behind the plane. The flier was relieved to learn that the homemade detonator on the bombs worked no better than the homemade bombsight had worked.
Sonora’s crew soon discovered that the area around Empalme was not securely in the hands of the rebels. Even though two American naval vessels, the storeship Glacier and the cruiser Pittsburgh, were trying to evacuate refugees from the railroad pier at the time, enemy shells continued to fall in Empalme and near the plane during the balance of their stay. Fortunately, no immediate danger to any Americans resulted from the shelling.
The next day, after repairs were made to the fuel system, Sonora was once again in the air, bound for home base 40 miles to the north. This trip, too, was plagued with mechanical problems; at one point the engine seized up. Consequently, when the two adventurers finally arrived back at their base, they agreed that they wanted no more of military aviation in the rebel forces. Both men submitted their resignations from Obregon’s army.
Curiously, however, both Masson and Dean stayed on in Mexico in an unofficial capacity, perhaps hoping to collect the back pay that was still owed to them. Masson was concerned that Colonel Obregon was now talking about bombing cities; however, he spent some time checking out Gustavo Salinas in the aircraft during several flights at Hermosillo, the capital city of Sonora. Dean continued to work on the plane and its engine.
The sequel to the history-making events at Guaymas is as interesting as the bombing attempts themselves. Before the summer of 1913 was over, another first for military aviation took place in Mexico when two American mercenaries engaged in what might have been the first dogfight in history. Fought with revolvers, this engagement pitted Dean Lamb, flying for the revolutionaries in a Curtiss pusher, against Phil Rader, flying for the Federal government in a Christofferson. Both planes were similar to the Martin flown by Didier Masson, but the fliers were even more exposed in that both of those aircraft lacked a stabilizer or rudder in front of the pilot. The duel took place near the town of Naco and ended in a draw, with neither pilot gaining any advantage over the other.
On September 8, 1914, about a month following the start of World War I, Masson went to France, where, after serving briefly in his old infantry unit, he returned to aviation. Following training at Pau, he gained a French military flying certificate on May 10, 1915, and flew Caudron G.IV two-seaters with Escadrille C.18 until September. Masson then trained on Nieuport fighters and joined N.68, flying with the unit until April. After a two-month period as a instructor at Cazeaux, he was assigned to a new squadron made up of American volunteers–N.124 at Bar-le-Duc–on June 16. Masson was the 13th pilot to serve in what was later known as the Lafayette Escadrille. Edwin C. Parsons, a well-known American in that outfit, later said of Masson: “He was unquestionably the first war aviator and without doubt the only man alive who has comprised in his own person the entire air force of a nation. When he joined the Escadrille, he had seen more war flying and probably more hours in the air than all the rest of the gang put together.” Ironically, Parsons had briefly served as a mercenary pilot in Pancho Villa’s Armia del Norte–a rival of Obregon’s army.
Masson held the rank of adjutant in the French army, similar to a warrant officer in the American military. He flew a number of combat missions and shot down a Fokker fighter on October 12, 1916. He left the unit on October 8, 1917, flew in defense of Paris in N.471 from October 10 to 28, and then became an instructor at the American Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun.
Those early aviators had many stories to tell, and in the telling, the stories often were embellished beyond recognition. For example, in one of the many histories written about the romantic Lafayette Escadrille, the story of Masson’s snagged bomb over Guaymas is retold in such a way as to have the bombardier become a pioneer wing-walker who worked his way out onto the flimsy frame of the aircraft to cut the bomb loose. No one knows which version of the story is correct.
Sonora was used briefly again by the rebels in mid-May of 1914, with Gustavo Salinas making several flights during an attack on the Federal gunboat Morales. The 1,200-ton vessel had been one of the larger prerevolutionary gunboats of the Mexican navy, mounting two 4-inch guns, six 6-pounders and a 14-inch torpedo tube. She had run aground in the outer harbor at Mazatlan, after which she was boarded and blown up by the Constitutionalists.
Obregon, by then a general, proudly announced that his plane had bombed the gunboat, but it was obvious that the explosives planted within her hull by ground troops had done most of the damage. Newspapers reported that several civilians in Mazatlan, including a baby, were killed during the aerial attack, thus demonstrating that Masson’s concerns about Obregon’s intentions for the plane were well-founded.
Salinas’ luck or skill deserted him during that flight, and he crashed Sonora during the attack on the gunboat. More than 20 years later Masson recalled those events: “I taught Gustavo Salinas the handling of the Sonora. He made, I think, two flights in Mazatlan and wrecked the machine completely. I understand that Jimmy Dean repaired it later on, but that was the end of the Sonora as nothing was heard of it afterwards.”
Pancho Villa also became interested in aviation and put together a squadron of five planes to support his armies. Among his fliers was Ted Parsons, who would later fly with Masson in N.124. However, Villa lost most of his planes in 1915 in combat with the Federal forces of Venustiano Carranza, the general who had displaced Huerta as head of the Mexican government. Carranza’s nephew Salinas, Masson’s protégé, also headed up a small aviation detachment in the Federalist army in 1915, which produced its own biplane, apparently a disastrous model.
Although he had been one of the strongmen of the revolution, Villa was then squeezed out of the new government. He returned to his bandit ways and in 1916 achieved true infamy through his attack on the town of Columbus, N.M. That raid precipitated a long and frustrating punitive expedition into Mexico, led by American Brig. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.
In pursuing Villa across Chihuahua, it was natural that Pershing would try airplanes as a means of reconnaissance and attack, but his planes, ill-chosen and poorly supported, fared no better than had Villa’s (see “1st Aero Squadron in Mexico,” by Gary Glynn, in the November 1997 issue of Aviation History). Thus, for several years the further attempts to utilize military aviation in Mexico were no more successful than the early aerial attacks in the Gulf of California had been.
And what of Didier Masson? After World War I he returned to Mexico, where he met and married a young woman named Modesta Escalante, subsequently drifting on to British Honduras and becoming involved in a number of nonflying and apparently not too successful activities. He ran a commission firm in the export-import business, became the French consular officer in 1935, and later served as airport manager for Pan American before budget constraints closed that operation.
In the mid-1930s, Masson tried to interest publishers in a book he had written about his flying experiences during the Mexican Revolution, but he apparently found no takers. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of that manuscript is unknown.
When France surrendered to the invading Germans on June 16, 1940, Masson resigned from his consular post. He left British Honduras in 1942 to work as the manager of the Hotel Iris in Chetumel, Mexico. He died in Merida, Yucatan, on June 2, 1950.
In spite of being the first in a series of largely unsuccessful military aviation episodes in Mexico, the attack at Guaymas by Didier Masson should be given proper recognition because of the historical precedents it set. Masson’s efforts contributed to the emergence of aerial bombing through development of the concept of the bombing run, as well as the use of a bombsight and bomb rack, the fins to guide the bomb, and the impact plunger and detonator. For better or worse, aerial bombing had begun its long history.
After Sonora’s final bombing runs at Mazatlan in 1914, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet protested to the rebel leaders against the use of airplanes in warfare. It was a hollow protest, however, since for several years the U.S. Navy had already been busily engaged in improving its own aviation capabilities, including aerial attacks against ships by airplanes that could operate from naval vessels, which would one day become today’s aircraft carriers.
Maybe naval aviation officials had seen in Masson’s comic-opera attacks the prospect of Brig. Gen. “Billy” Mitchell’s bombers sinking ships in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps they had wanted to ensure that land-based aircraft would not be the only planes capable of sinking ships.
David H. Grover has written several books and articles on maritime history. For additional reading: A History of Air Power, by Basil Collier; Aviation: An Historical Survey from its Origins to the End of World War II, by Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith; The Great Pursuit, by Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr.; and I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, by Edwin C. Parsons.