I am so pleased to host Dorinda Nicholson today for Friend Friday! I am a huge fan of hers, going back to my first encounter with her work in Pearl Harbor Child, a book I relied on while researching several of my WWII stories. I have yet to meet her in person (not that we haven’t tried!) but feel bonded to her through her work. Please help me celebrate her latest book, The School the Aztec Eagles Built: A Tribute to Mexico’s World War II Air Fighters (Lee and Low Books). Kirkus gave it a starred review, calling it “a stirring tribute to an unjustly overlooked group of heroes.” Aztec Eagles also earned A Book Launch Award from SCBWI, and has been recognized as a Commended Titles for the CLASP (Consortium of Latin American Studies Program) Américas Award!
World War II is a huge reservoir of stories, many unknown. The School the Aztec Eagles Built: A Tribute to Mexico’s World War II Air Fighters is one of those stories.
Ask most anyone if they knew Mexico helped the United States in World War II. The usual answer is a shake of the head and “No.”
In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt visited Mexico’s President Avila Camacho and asked if he could send troops to fight overseas with US soldiers. Camacho, a former general, knew he could not ready an army immediately, but he could send 300 men: a squadron of pilots and support staff. The United States agreed to train the pilots and support team in the United States to prepare the men to serve alongside American military in the Pacific.
About thirty of Mexico’s top pilots were chosen and two hundred sixty additional men were selected to learn to refuel the planes, or to work as mechanics or radio operators. In the support team was a former teacher, Sergeant Angel Bocanegra.
When the squadron was ready to deploy, President Camacho came to bid farewell to the newly formed Escuadron 201 (later nicknamed the Aztec Eagles) before they boarded trains to take them north to the U.S where they would train to fly United States Army Air Corps fighter planes.
Angel Bocanegra and the uniformed men standing in parade formation were proud to pass in review before their President. The march began, pilots first, then the support team. Near the rear, Sergeant Bocanegra—chin up, chest out, arms at his side—stepped in cadence with the other soldiers.
President Camacho addressed the men standing at attention before him and thanked them for their service and asked if anyone had a last minute request. After a moment of silence, a solider in the rear stepped forward and saluted.
“Mi Presidente, I am Angel Bocanegra. My wife and I are teachers in our village and we teach outdoors. When it rains, we have to cancel school. Sir, will you please build a school for our village of Tepoztlan, Morelos?”
President Camacho –surprised by the unusual request and impressed by Angelʻs courage– agreed to have the school completed by the time the Aztec Eagles returned home.
On November 25, 1945, Escuela Escuadron 201 was dedicated. After the ceremony, the crowd burst into applause and stood in standing ovation for the Aztec Eagles who had fought courageously in the war, and especially for Angel Bocanegra who had given their village a school.
The most enduring monument to the men of the Aztec Eagles squadron is the school which still commands the center and heart of the village of Tepoztlan where more than 600 students study each day.
I visited the school while researching this book and meet with the 5th and 6th graders. I asked if the students would sing a song for me, the one written by Angel Bocanegra: “The Hymn of Squadron 201.”
A portable keyboard was quickly summoned and the teacher sounded the opening chord, The studentsʻ high-pitched voices sang the story of how, almost 70 years earlier, Mexicans and Americans had overcome a troublesome history, became allies and fought alongside each other in World War II.
At six years old, Dorinda and her father witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor from their front yard. The torpedo bombers flew so low, she could see the pilots’ goggles. This experience inspired her book, Pearl Harbor Child. She is also the author of Pearl Harbor Warriors, which was chosen as Hawaii’s First Read Aloud Book in 2012 and performed as a play by Kamehameha School 5th graders.
Her National Geographic book, REMEMBER WORLD WAR II, Kids Who Survived Tell Their Stories, is on the National Social Studies list.
Dorinda recently retired as a Marriage and Family therapist and now travels for The Red Cross, presenting workshops to the Armed Forces and encouraging veterans to write their stories.
She’s an avid hula dancer who strives to live within her means, and travel well beyond them. She loves it when her travels include school visits. Contact her at Dorinda@pearlharborchild or visit her website at http://pearlharborchild.com.
Great interview! Thank you!