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The first military truck convoy in history had a colorful mission: capture the Robinhood of Mexico, Pancho Villa.

Pancho Villa, 1916

Early in his career as a bandit, Pancho Villa would ride through the streets of impoverished Chihuahua, Mexico pouring out stolen gold to locals. At the time, ninety percent of Mexico lived in poverty beneath the oppressive reign of dictator Porifirio Diaz. 

Villa’s generosity and guerilla warfare raids on Diaz quickly made him a legend. The people treated him like a Zorro of the people– hiding him when the “Rurales,” the Mexican police came searching for him.

Hollywood and the Desperado

Villa was a showman that helped to feed his own legendary mystique: He famously signed a contract with an American film company for exclusive rights to film his war for Mexican Independence. Reportedly, Villa was so accommodating that he would start fighting at 9am each day so that the lighting would be better for the crew. 

But he could be brutal: Villa was famous for cutting off the ears of captured American soldiers. “Villa’s greatest weakness was his uncontrollable temper. From a sane man, laughing and joking with his friends, Villa could turn into a maniac at a moment’s notice.”

Eventually, his temper took him a step too far: When a US banker living in Columbus, New Mexico offended the hot tempered Villa, he decided to cut off the banker’s head and raid the city. 

At the time Columbus, “was little more than ‘a cluster of adobe houses, a hotel, a few stores and streets knee deep in sand,” filled with cactus, mesquite and rattlesnakes.’”

In true Pancho Villa fashion he galloped across the U.S.-Mexico border in style with five hundred Vaqueros, and the guards respectfully gave way. Little did Villa know that his ride would result in a global sea change.

Cavalry vs. convoys change warfare forever

Villa rode into town in the dead of nights with his men shouting, “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!” They began dragging civilians into the streets and murdering them. Things were desperate until the Vaqueros set a hotel on fire, which gave light to the local garrison to fight by. Villa sounded a bugle as dawn rose over Columbus– signaling a retreat.

Military convoy in Mexico, 1916

The bugle also signaled the last ride of the desert cowboys: Villa met his match in none other than the famed General Pershing that led the United States during World War I.

In an epic chase that pitted horses against trucks, Pershing marshaled the first military truck convoy to chase Pancho Villa and his cavalry back to Mexico. The convoy rode for 11 months seeking through the barren, mountainous deserts for the famed guerilla outlaw. 

Hunting Pancho Villa

General Pershing studying telegraphed orders

588 trucks were deployed, but in the rough terrain they often broke down.

“Despite these issues, all parties concerned recognized the versatility and adaptability of motor trucks under actual conditions of warfare.”

Ultimately, the convoy failed to capture the desperado, but the military trucks had proven themselves. The search for Pancho Villa became Pershing’s dress rehearsal for World War I:

For military trucks this was their first chapter in, “A war to end all wars.”