Kevin Riordan: Area veterans keep alive memory of Mexican aviation pioneer

Bob Barney, unofficial Emilio Carranza historian of American Legion Post 11 in Mount Holly, touches the phoenix rising on the Carranza Memorial.
Bob Barney, unofficial Emilio Carranza historian of American Legion Post 11 in Mount Holly, touches the phoenix rising on the Carranza Memorial. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2013

A brave young Mexican air force captain whose final solo flight ended in death 85 years ago still inspires veterans, and civilians, in South Jersey and beyond.

Emilio Carranza's story has everything: An idealistic hero, a daring adventure, a tragic ending.

It's about a gutsy aviator of 22 piloting a tiny Ryan B1 named Excelsior into the stormy darkness of July 12, 1928.

On that return leg of a goodwill round-trip from Mexico City to New York, "he had an altimeter, a compass, and a map," unofficial Carranza historian Bob Barney says. "The rest was dead reckoning."

Barney, 60, lives in Browns Mills and is a member of American Legion Post 11. That Mount Holly group will host a memorial service at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Carranza monument in Chatsworth, Burlington County.

Paid for by donations from Mexican school children and built of limestone, the art deco monument was erected four years after the pilot crash-landed in the Wharton State Forest.

On July 13, 1928, Post 11 volunteers helped carry Carranza's body out of the sandy scrub-pine woods. Their successors have honored Carranza with an annual event ever since.

"A lot of our forefathers in Post 11 were World War I aviators, and they felt that Emilio should be remembered always," Cmdr. Larry Gladfelter, 77, says.

Barney created the website www.post11.org/carranza/. And James Giquinto 45, a Mount Holly resident and Air Force veteran, is heading Saturday's celebration. He's also leading the post's efforts to beautify the monument.

This sort of commitment sparked the interest of Chicago filmmaker Juan Carranza (no relation), who made "Flying With Emilio," a 30-minute documentary, in 2009. The post sponsored a local premiere in June.

"I wanted to celebrate the fact that these men in New Jersey continue to celebrate his life," says Carranza, 40, adding that he also hopes to expose fellow Mexican Americans to the hero's role in aviation history.

A descendant of a prominent political family, Emilio Carranza pioneered long-distance flight in the 1920s. He was friends with Charles A. Lindbergh and was sometimes called "the Mexican Lindy"; the airplane he flew that night was a custom-built replica of the Spirit of St. Louis.

"He's the perfect example of a tragic hero," says Tom Stackhouse of Springfield Township, who recently wrote a song called "Aztec Eagle" in Carranza's honor.

A hand surgeon by day and a member of the roots-music ensemble the Ong's Hat Band during his off hours, Stackhouse, 60, is a also a pilot, as well as a lyricist:

Messenger of Peace why did you go?

The sky was dark and threatening that day.

The clouds were piling high above,

The wind was howling down below

It made no sense to soar along your way.

Barney says Carranza had not planned to fly that night but received a telegram from his commanding officer ordering him to return to Mexico. The veracity of this widely reported account remains in dispute, but Barney believes that Mexican authorities destroyed the telegram.

"We admire Emilio's dedication to duty," he says, likening the post's commitment to a promise kept.

The commemoration will feature Mexican government representatives as well as members of Carranza's family.

Second cousin Ismael Carranza, 78, who lives in Texas and flew for the Air Force during the Korean War, will be on hand again this year.

"Emilio inspired a lot of young kids to get into aviation," Ismael Carranza, a life member of Post 11, recalls.

Among those who held Carranza as a role model was Arizona resident Juan Reyna Tapia, a much-decorated Army major and World War II veteran.

He died at age 90 in 2012.

Until then, he had arranged for a wreath to be laid annually at the monument deep in the Pines.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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