The attacks by Nazi Germany that led Mexico into World War II 80 years ago (and the transformative moment it generated for the country)

The 201 Squadron of the Mexican Air Force participated in World War II.  GETTY IMAGES

The 201 Squadron of the Mexican Air Force participated in World War II. GETTY IMAGES

It is almost midnight on May 13, 1942.

Through the waters near the Florida peninsula, the Mexican-flagged ship Pasture of the Plain it advances with its cargo of almost 50,000 barrels of oil heading north.

His destination is a port on the east coast of the United States, which he would never reach: a german submarine U-564 launches a torpedo attack that directly hits the 30-year-old oil tanker.

It’s a shipwreck 14 of the 35 crew dieincluding several members of the Mexican Navy.

In Mexico there is a great national outrage, which will lead to the entry of the country into the WWII.

But the event ultimately would also represent a turning point in a transformative era for Mexican society and economy.

“If something changed the face of Mexico in the 20th century, it was the entry into World War II,” historian César Valdez, from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), tells BBC Mundo.

And it is that the sinking of the Potrero del Llano -and another ship, the gold girdleseven days later- took the pre-war Mexico, with a slow development, to industrialize and lay the foundations for what is today a vigorous trade with the United States.

A power with which it shares a border and that until then aroused a great feeling of antagonism among the Mexicans of the time.

the sinkholes

Mexico, like many Latin American countries, had stayed out of World War II since the conflict broke out in September 1939.

The position among the countries of Latin America was one of non-intervention, although many governments -including the Mexican- did condemn the invasions of Nazi Germany.

Hitler in a Nazi act

Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany did not show a clear plan to include Mexico on its side, but there were some intelligence attempts.

But Japan’s attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 changed things.

The United States entered the war and the countries of the continent began to face pressure to settle. Mexico, being the country at the gates of US territory, was in a complex position.

“The United States makes a lot of intelligence reports and sends them to Mexico. There were names of businessmen, politicians, German descendants,” says Valdez.

In these circumstances, the Mexican oil tankers were sunk by German submarines that were already present in waters near the countries of the Americas.

The gold girdle Suffered a similar fate to Potrero del Llano: on May 20, a German submarine U-106 sank the ship in the Florida Straits, killing 9 of the 37 crew members.

“The sinking of the Mexican ships is not an isolated case,” historian Veremundo Carrillo-Reveles, from the National Institute of Historical Studies of the Revolutions of Mexico (INEHRM), explains to BBC Mundo.

“There is a whole strategy on the part of the German army to try to cut off all the supplies that are being sent, of oil and other basic products, to England,” he adds.

The ship Potrero del Llano


Ships from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela were also sunk in the Atlantic.

The declaration of war

Given the lack of German response to Mexico’s demand for compensation, the government of Manuel Ávila Camacho asked Congress for a declaration of war.

“It is declared that, as of May 22, 1942, there is a state of war between the United States of Mexico and Germany, Italy and Japan,” the document stated.

“On May 13 the attack came. Not determined and frank, but unfair, cloaked and cowardly, struck in the dark and with absolute confidence in impunity. A week later, the attack was repeated in the face of this repeated aggression, which violates all the norms of the law of nations and which implies a bloody outrage for our country,” President Ávila Camacho told the nation.

President Manuel Ávila Camacho delivers a speech about the war

Getty Images

In the facts, the country neither expected nor had the capacity to send a military force to the frontof battle in Europe, Asia or the oceans, because the Mexican army was actually very limited.

There were some 50,000 troops who did not make up brigades or divisions, and the aviation had only 25 planes, so there was no chance of opening an offensive. The country’s defense was just as limited.

“The country did not have an anti-aircraft force to repel any attack from the Pacific,” says Valdez, since the main concern at the time was the arrival of Japan on the Mexican coast.

While it was good for the US to have Mexico among its allies, the country’s weak military position became a concern.

A copy of Mexico's declaration of war

The declaration of a state of war in Mexico is preserved in the General Archive of the Nation of Mexico.

“For the United States this is terrible, because they fully distrust the Mexican government and its army. So the first thing they start doing is suggesting to Mexico that it transform certain features of its armed forces,” explains Valdez.

Through the Loans and Leases Law, the US began to offer financial resources, military supplies, and technical assistance to bolster Mexico’s position.

“Mexico completely modifies its defense system, creating three commands: Pacific, Gulf and Isthmus. We had the possible Japanese invasion through the Pacific covered, protecting the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Isthmus due to the possible entry through Central America”, explains Valdez.

A development shuttle

In addition to military improvement, Mexico lived from the entry into the war a unique moment of economic development that would transform the reality of the country in a short time.

And it is that the country entered an era of industrialization that was very necessary in the war efforts to provide the United States and its allies with resources.

“It was a crucial moment for the history of the Mexican 20th century, because your industrialization accelerates for the needs of the war”, explains Carrillo-Reveles.

President Manuel Ávila Camacho delivers a speech about the war

Getty Images
President Manuel Ávila Camacho found an important point of support to negotiate with the US, as Mexico is a strategic country in the region.

“A lot of foreign currency comes in that helps the country take off,” he adds. In addition, he began braceros program that allowed tens of thousands of Mexicans to work legally in the United States, which gave rise to the first great migration to that country.

“They go to work not only in the agricultural fields, but also on the railways, in industry.”

The United States could not allow the neighboring country to fall on the other side, so it devoted much of its attention.

“There was probably a certain amount of American pressure to enter [en la guerra]. But what never ceases to draw attention is how these Mexican politicians take advantage of this context to launch Mexico economically, which will consolidate itself in the coming years,” says Valdez.

In the following 20 years, Mexico experienced remarkable economic growth that came to be called the “mexican miracle”.

Mexican workers are registered upon entering the US.

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The United States welcomed thousands of Mexican workers during World War II.

Before the war, “Mexico is still seen in the international context as a country of hats and guns,” says Valdez.

the old feud

Beyond political agreements, enter the war it was not popular for the Mexican people.

A survey, one of the first in the country, explains Carrillo-Reveles, showed that close to 70% of Mexicans did not support Mexico’s participation in World War II.

And joining the United States in a war effort was just as unpopular.

In the 1930s, a century had passed since the annexation of Texas by the United States, and the centenary of the war with the United States in which Mexico lost half of its territory (1848).

“There was a very strong historical anti-American feeling, and also anti-British, because we must remember that after the oil expropriation of 1938, England broke off relations with Mexico,” says Carrillo-Reveles.

In addition, the Mexican government faced political instability, both due to opposition groups from the sectors of the left, including the communists, and from the right, with groups aligned with fascist ideology.

The war, however, was used by the government to close flanks: “The opportunity arises to transform the discourse of political confrontation that Cardenismo provokes [del gobierno de Lázaro Cárdenas, 1934-1940] in a policy of national unity for Mexicans”, indicates Carrillo-Reveles.

and there was one very intense government propaganda campaign -supported from the US, Valdez warns- to convince Mexicans of the reasons for being with the allies.

“There is no Mexican Secretary of State that has not printed a poster where the Mexican and American flags appear together. But I don’t necessarily think that feeling against the United States has been diluted,” explains the historian.

201 Squadron in battle

Despite Mexico’s limited possibilities, the government sent a contingent outside its territory: the 201 Squadron of the Mexican Air Force.

He accompanied the US 5th Air Force in its campaign against the Japanese empire in the Philippines.

Manuel Avila Camacho and Lazaro Cardenas del Rio

Former President Lázaro Cárdenas, a strong figure of nationalism, served to give the government popular support for the war.

Despite mistrust from the American counterpart, Mexican pilots executed dangerous dive attacks in July 1945 around Manila.

His participation took place only a few weeks after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the conflict in Asia.

“It was a Mexican contribution to the extent of its possibilities,” explains Valdez.

“They went into war action, they were going to fight the Japanese, they were enthusiastic, they were afraid, they were at war because Mexico was at war,” says the historian before the conception that was created years after the Mexican participation was symbolic.

Those Mexican pilots had no idea that the Pacific War was about to end with a highly secret operation to drop atomic bombs.

A combat near the Philippines in World War II

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Mexico participated in the campaign led by the United States in the Pacific, in countries such as the Philippines.

But beyond what the 201 Squadron did, Carrillo-Reveles highlights how Mexico had an important contribution to the victory of the allies through all the labor and industrial support to the United States.

“They contribute in a very important way that the United States economy does not stop and that it can even keep a collapsed Europe afloat completely,” he says.

For a long time unsupported versions circulated, historians point out, that the United States was the one that sank the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro. “Today there is absolutely no evidence that it was the United States,” Valdez points out.

Instead, time would show that the war was a transformative moment for Mexico: “And if you think about it, all this is caused by the sinking of a ship.”

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