Pinelands Salute an Air Legend

A memorial service for Emilio Carranza will take place this Saturday in the Pine Barrens—as it has every year for almost a century. Which might cause many to ask: Emilio who?

Carranza was a pioneering Mexican pilot who crashed and died in 1928 near Tabernacle in Burlington County. The crash site is marked by the Carranza Memorial, a 12-foot-tall cement monument in the shape of a pylon, which holds little significance to most people these days, save the occasional high school couple looking for a secluded spot on a Friday night.

But to American Legion Mount Holly Post 11, the monument is a place of honor, tradition and respect—as they remind us every year.

Carranza’s story is impressive. At 18, he became a war hero, when he helped suppress a rebellion with strafing air fire in the Mexican state of Sonora. According to legend, he once flew into a rainstorm during the war in order to put out a fire on one of his wings.

In his book The Pine Barrens, John McPhee writes of Carranza: “His hair was parted in the middle, and he had a long, thin, sad face, more Andalusian than Mexican. After a crash in Sonora, his face bones were set with screws.”

Carranza happened to be a great-nephew of President Venustiano Carranza, who was assassinated in 1920. His celebrated pedigree made Carranza a perfect choice when the Mexican government wanted someone to make a non-stop goodwill flight from Mexico City to Washington, D.C., in 1928. Charles Lindbergh had done the same thing in reverse the previous December, and when Carranza took off on June 11, 1928, the newspapers called him “Mexico’s Lone Eagle.” He was 23 years old.

Dense fog over North Carolina forced Carranza to land his plane and wait for visibility to return. Nonetheless, a parade greeted him when he arrived in Washington, and then again in New York City, where he was praised by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Still, Carranza vowed to make amends by flying home to Mexico City without pause. It was early on the morning of July 13, when he took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island—a morning pocked with thunderstorms up and down the East Coast. It was one of these storms that took Carranza by surprise as he flew over the Pine Barrens later that day, causing him to crash and die upon impact.

Every second Saturday in July, American Legion Mount Holly Post 11 holds a service for Carranza at his namesake memorial at 1 p.m. A simultaneous remembrance is held at his gravesite in Mexico. This year will be the 84th time the tradition is upheld.

Why the fuss about this little-remembered figure?

“On one hand he was a pioneer aviator,” says Robert Barney, senior vice president of Post 11. “You have to remember that a long-distance flight back then was like going to the moon. Without pioneers like Carranza, who knows where we’d be with air travel today.”

Secondly, Barney says that two of the men who recovered Carranza’s body were World War I veterans and members of Post 11.

“And they made a promise to hold a ceremony every year in his honor, not only for his pioneering work but also for his dedication to duty,” says Barney. “So we’re honoring his mission and keeping that promise of our American Legion forefathers.”

Barney says about 200 to 300 visitors show up every year for the ceremony, which consists of flyovers by private pilots, speeches by U.S. and Mexican officials, and the presentation of 24 wreaths at the site. Afterward, visitors are invited to a light luncheon at nearby Seneca High School in Tabernacle.

“Post 11 is committed to leading the way toward international friendship between Mexico and the United States, and citizens of both nations can look at the example Emilio set for us to follow,” says Barney. “We are obligated to continue his mission of peace and goodwill.”

For more information about Carranza and this week’s remembrance (including directions to the memorial), visit the American Legion Mount Holly Post 11 website.

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