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NEWS | March 27, 2023

502nd ABW rededicates Pershing Chinese Camp historical location

By Andrew C. Patterson 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The 502nd Air Base Wing Cultural Resources Office rededicated the historical site of Pershing's Chinese camp at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston March 25, 2023.

In 1917, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing received permission from President Woodrow Wilson to evacuate 527 Mexican and Chinese refugees from Mexico to Fort Sam Houston. American troops pursued Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his paramilitary force in the Mexican Expedition, which was originally known as the "Punitive Expedition, U.S. Army." 

The expedition was launched in retaliation for Villa's attack on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, and was the most remembered event of the Mexican Border War. The declared objective of the expedition by the Wilson administration was the capture of Villa. Despite locating and defeating the main body of Villa's command who were responsible for the Columbus raid, U.S. forces were unable to achieve Wilson's stated main objective of preventing Villa's escape.

The location of the historical marker (Texas Historical Commission marker No. 16246) indicates the northern edge of the former camp that spanned several streets east and west. Referred to as "Pershing’s Chinese," the immigrants were allowed to set up camp on Fort Sam Houston after clearing land for themselves.

The re-dedication ceremony was organized after the original historical marker underwent a refurbishment process. Attending the event were descendants of the Pershing’s Chinese, members of the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, along with senior JBSA military leaders.

"The contributions of Pershing's Chinese were invaluable to the U.S. Army’s mission of 1917," said Army Col. Travis Mills, 502nd Force Support Group commander. "That contribution is reflective of values the military holds dear today."

While the U.S. Army never captured “Pancho” Villa, Pershing used the Chinese to clear an area of land 400 miles into Mexico ahead of the Army’s advancement. This allowed troops to focus on pursuing Villa and his rebels.

According to records, the Chinese provided hot meals and laundry services for the troops and created what might have been the first mobile Army Exchange. They provided comfort supplies such as tobacco, matches, candy, soap, towels and more.

Potable water was provided for canteens, coffee, and other drinks, which protected troops from water-borne diseases. Their intelligence and resourcefulness directly contributed to the health of Army soldiers.

"It's important that we do not forget their story and the sacrifices they made,” Mills added. “Despite not wearing the military uniform, being recognized as citizens, or having a place to live, the Pershing Chinese are an example of resilience."

The camp location on Fort Sam Houston was cleared by the Pershing Chinese and became their temporary home until settling into Bexar County and San Antonio communities a few years later.

Mills closed with a quote from Gen. George Patton himself which stated, ‘live for something rather than die for nothing. Those that we honor today embodied this quote.”