Honoring the other Lone Eagle

Sun Journal

Carranza: Relatively unknown to Americans today, the Mexican aeronautical pioneer is memorialized in a remote corner of New Jersey, where he lost his life in a plane crash in 1928.

June 27, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TABERNACLE, N.J. -- Each summer since his airplane crashed in the Pine Barrens 71 years ago, Capt. Emilio Carranza is honored here -- rain or shine, bugs or heat.

To most Americans, the name means nothing. Yet the young Mexican army pilot once transfixed two countries with his derring-do, and his praises as a prince of good will are still sung by some here and by more in Mexico.

Carranza, 22 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, adventurous and handsome, was called "Mexico's Lone Eagle," after his friend Charles A. Lindbergh. Carranza, too, made headlines in the 1920s, the glory days of the young air pioneers. The Sun and The Evening Sun ran dozens of stories about his exploits.

Carranza took to the air in his teens, flying bombing sorties against Mexican rebels. He walked away from crashes in Arizona and Oklahoma. He became a national hero in his homeland when he flew nonstop from San Diego to Mexico City, 1,575 miles, in less than 19 hours. It was one of the longest flights to that time.

Once, on a flight from Mexico City to Ciudad Juarez, a wing caught fire. Carranza turned into a nearby rainstorm to douse the flames and completed the 1,224-mile flight in 10 hours over barren, isolated countryside.

Carranza's last flight, in 1928, did not have a happy ending, but it has a happy aftermath in the annual memorial ceremony honoring the anniversary of his fatal crash.

The American Legion's Mount Holly Post 11 will conduct the observance at 1 p.m. July 10 at the monument erected where the aviator died. The service, with speeches and the laying of 18 wreaths, will attract up to 300 local residents, Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and aviation buffs. A lunch will follow in Pemberton, and a simultaneous ceremony is held in Mexico City.

As he has every year since 1991, Ismael Carranza, 64, will come from his home in Houston. Inspired by his father's first cousin, he became an airline pilot. He has joined the Legion post and was given the altimeter from the doomed plane by Stephen V. Lee, who found it as a boy.

The post's dedication to Carranza is rooted in a pledge made two generations ago in these pine forests. "We'll honor him for 10,000 people or two people," vows Commander Lawrence Gladfelter, 60, of Mount Holly.

A gesture by Lindbergh set in motion the events leading to the Pine Barrens. A few months after his sensational Atlantic flight in 1927, the Lone Eagle flew a goodwill mission to Mexico City.

In response, it was decided that Mexico's best aviator, Carranza, would fly nonstop from Mexico City to Washington on a peace mission to strengthen relations between the two countries. Money was raised to buy him a Ryan B1 monoplane similar to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh contributed $1,200.

Carranza was unable to complete the adventure. Fog forced him down June 12, 1928, in Moores-ville, N.C. "Washington won't be so glad to see me," he said on landing. "My countrymen won't be so proud of me now."

Nevertheless, in Washington he had lunch with President Calvin Coolidge, and in New York he was feted by thousands as the Mexican Lindy. He and Lindbergh flew their planes together to Detroit. To atone for his interrupted northbound flight, Carranza announced that he would fly home nonstop from New York, a 27-hour, 2,400-mile flight that would be second in length only to Lindbergh's flight to Paris.

July 12, 1928, was a day of storms in the New York area. Despite a poor weather forecast and friends' pleas to wait, Carranza took off. He desperately wanted to make his country proud, he said. And he was lonesome; he had been away from home and his pregnant wife, Maria Louisa, for a month.

The Pine Barrens is an anomaly in an urbanized landscape -- 1.1 million acres of pitch pines, Atlantic white cedars and sluggish acidic streams between the New Jersey Turnpike and the casinos of Atlantic City. Even in 1928 the sandy, scrubby wilderness was a world apart from the American crowds that had greeted Carranza. But the aviator and the Pine Barrens were about to meet.

In the early evening, between thunderstorms, Carranza took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. In Mexico City, thousands awaited his return.

Then, nothing. For 18 hours, he vanished. U.S. aviation officials figured he was somewhere up there, perhaps off course.

The next day, John Carr, a huckleberry picker, found Carranza's body in the Pine Barrens, his plane smashed. His right hand clutched a flashlight as though he had been checking the map, the compass or even the trees below. The body was identified from a paper in his pocket -- the Weather Bureau's unfavorable forecast that he had ignored. He had been aloft less than two hours. Lightning was blamed; experts later said he was trying to land.

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