Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

27 August 1918: The U.S. Army's Battle of Ambos Nogales

At  Fort Huachuca, AZ,  in 1918, the men of the all-Black 10th Cavalry had time to reflect on the events in Europe and waited anxiously to learn if they were to get in on the fighting. But they were required on the border, a place at that time that was thought to be subject to attack from Mexicans instigated by German agents. The threat from south of the border appeared to be real and intelligence reports on German activities there were received in number. The historian of the 10th Cavalry recalled the importance attached to these reports.

About 15 August 1918, the Intelligence Division reported the presence of strange Mexicans, plentifully supplied with arms, ammunition, food and clothing, gathering In increasing numbers in and about Nogales, Sonora, as well as the presence of several strange white men, apparently Germans, at times engaged in addressing gatherings of Mexicans explaining military terms, movements and methods. At about this time an anonymous letter was received, written by a person who claimed to have been a major in Villa's forces who was sickened and disgusted at the atrocities committed by Villa and his men, and at the lack of pay or reward, and who claimed a feeling of friendly respect for American troops, warning them of the German influences at work near and in Nogales.

U.S.-Mexican Border, Where Things Started

A shooting incident on 27 August 1918 led to a full-scale shootout when Lt. Col Frederick J. Herman, 10th Cavalry commander at Nogales, rushed reinforcements to the international line. Three troops of the 10th Cavalry and three companies of the 35th Infantry from nearby Camp Stephen D. Little took up position along the American side and returned sniper fire of Mexican troops. It would be known as the "Battle of Ambos Nogales" (Both Nogales).

Manning the international guard station in Nogales were details from the Thirty-fifth Infantry, and patrolling east and west along the border were cavalry detachments. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick J. Herman, Tenth Cavalry, was with the cavalry troops and also acting Nogales sub-district commander.

Military intelligence developed information that the Nogales situation was becoming critical. The Mexican garrison were, digging some trenches in the hills overlooking the American side. Groups of mounted Mexicans, some in uniforms, were seen moving along the trails into town, and the Sonora border guards at the crossing gate had adopted a changed and officious attitude. Such an explosive condition seemingly only awaited an incident for ignition.

Wider View of the Border

At 4:10 p.m. on 27 August, a Mexican carpenter named Zeferino Gil Lamadrid coming from the American side tried to walk through the guarded international gate without interrogation. When the U.S. Customs inspector (Arthur G. Barber) ordered " Halt! " the man kept moving toward the other side. Then the government official drew his revolver and went after the person. Private W. H. Klint of Company H, Thirty-fifth Infantry, followed for protection. A Mexican customs guard fired at the American official and missed him but killed Private Klint. Instantly Corporal William H. Tucker of Company H shot the Mexican officer. More Mexican guards came running and started shooting. The corporal opened fire with his Springfield and killed three more. The U.S. inspector gunned one down. A civilian at the gate (Mr. Frank Eames of the Nogales Theater) phoned to the Thirty-fifth guard detail at the West Coast Company warehouse about the emergency. Another (Mr. Otto Mayer) cranked up his truck and sped to the place, returning with Lieutenant Fanning (Fannin) and the soldiers. They arrived amidst a fusillade of lead from the Mexican side. That was the beginning of the Battle of Nogales.

No sooner had the smoke cleared from the border gunfight in Ambos Nogales on 27 August 1918, than a hail of concentrated fire erupted from the south side of town, as Mexican soldiers and armed civilians advanced on the international line. Much of the firepower came from entrenched machine guns and sniper holes in the surrounding Sonoran hills, suggesting the Mexicans had been preparing to mount a full-scale attack.

As the Mexican riflemen advanced, Lt. Oliver Fannin and some 20 enlisted troops of the Thirty-fifth Infantry threw together a stubborn defense. Fannin would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, as well as a testimonial from 33 of the leading U.S. citizens of Nogales. “Lt. Fannin hurried to the boundary line the reserve of the guard,” it read in part, “and taking position, he stood off the attack until the garrison could be brought to the line.”

Enlisted Men of the 10th Cavalry

On hearing the gunfire, Col. Herman phoned in an alert to sub-district headquarters and raced to Ambos Nogales in his staff car to assume command. Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry from nearby Camp Stephen D. Little soon arrived at the border on horseback or in whatever motor vehicles were available. Herman understood the key to any effective defense of the border was possession of the hills to the east and west, which offered clear fields of fire into both sides of town.

Herman first ordered Capt. Roy V. Morledge, commander of the 10th Cavalry’s Troop A, to lead a detachment of dismounted cavalrymen into the Mexican district. Taking fire from the surrounding hills and urban snipers, the troopers took cover in a building just south of the border. “It seemed as though everybody in Nogales was shooting from the windows toward the border,” Morledge recalled. The men soon realized they had taken refuge in the Concordia Club, a local house of ill repute. On recognizing a familiar customer, one of the “frightened señoritas” exclaimed, “Sergeant Jackson, are we all glad to see you!”

On orders from Herman, Morledge launched an assault against a Mexican position on the heights south of town, directing his force up the hillside in squad rushes. After dislodging the defenders, Morledge assessed his casualties—just five men wounded. The Mexicans weren’t as fortunate. “I hope we only hit those who were shooting,” the captain noted in his after-action report. “But there were a lot of bodies lying around.”

Machine Gunners from the 35th Infantry

Herman next ordered Troop C of the 10th Cavalry, under Capt. Joseph D. Hungerford, to take and hold Reservoir Hill, a ridgeline to the southeast from which entrenched Mexican forces were laying down a withering fire. As he led his troopers in a dash up the scrub-covered hillside, Hungerford was killed by a bullet through the heart. First Sgt. James T. Penny took command, driving the Mexicans from their positions.

As the Americans advanced to take Titcomb Hill, another hilltop vantage, the men of the Thirty-fifth Infantry supported troopers of the 10th Cavalry. Wounded in the right forearm early in the attack, Troop F commander Capt. Henry Caron was carried to safety by 1st Sgt. Thomas Jordan, who took command of the assault force. Two Americans were killed before the soldiers managed to dislodge Mexican defenders and occupy the hilltop.

Hearing of the battle on the border, individual American soldiers from the surrounding region made their way piecemeal to town. One 10th Cavalry trooper arrived on a horse riding bareback and wearing nothing but a hospital gown. Dismounting at the camp ordnance depot, the soldier practically begged for a rifle and ammunition. The quartermaster sergeant provided both, though not before having the man sign a receipt for the weapon. Another quartermaster soldier, Pfc. James Flavian Lavery, would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for “braving the heaviest fire, repeatedly entering the zone of fire with his motor truck and carrying wounded men to places of safety, thereby saving the lives of several soldiers.”

Officers of the 10th Cavalry

Tenth Cavalry Lt. William Scott was riding toward Ambos Nogales on a motorcycle when the battle broke out. Apparently familiar with the sandy desert trails around town, Scott navigated through the brush to a hillside offering a clear field of fire into the Mexican district. Armed with a .45-caliber pistol and a lever-action Winchester rifle, Scott engaged in solitary counter-sniper fire, picking off unsuspecting Mexican gunmen until the battle was over.

Although U.S. forces held most of the high ground and managed to establish a rooftop machine gun position, fighting raged throughout Ambos Nogales well into evening. Civilians on both sides joined in the fray, either out of sheer animosity or in self-defense. On the U.S. side Pat Shannon—the daughter of a Chicago doctor, who worked as a pianist at the local theater—gamely loaded ammunition for two civilians firing from the windows of her hotel room. Customs officer Gaston Reddoch armed himself with a wounded soldier’s rifle and returned fire until mortally wounded in the neck by a sniper’s bullet. He was the only known U.S. civilian killed in the battle.

As the casualties mounted, Mayor Félix Peñaloza of Nogales, Sonora, tied a white handkerchief to the end of his walking stick and rushed into the streets. While pleading with his fellow citizens to end the bloodshed, the 52-year-old was struck down by gunfire. Bystanders carried the mortally wounded mayor to a nearby pharmacy, where he died within minutes.

Dead Being Removed to a Local Cemetery

Amid the chaos the U.S. and Mexican consuls, Herman and various other civil and military officials somehow managed to communicate with one another and eventually coordinate a cease-fire. On arrangement at 7:45 p.m. Sonoran officials in Nogales had a white flag flown from their prominent customs house, and Herman ordered his troops to put up their guns.

The respective representatives met in an open plaza near the border, despite the risk posed by random potshots. “A sniper’s bullet cut off a small limb of a tree that fell pretty close to me,” recalled Lt. Fannin, who served as Herman’s aide at the meeting. “I felt like diving into a big ditch that was close to us.” Herman, who had suffered a bullet wound to the right thigh, demanded the Mexicans surrender and wholly disarm, but the diplomats negotiated a more amenable cessation of hostilities. Though sniper fire persisted through the night, the Battle of Ambos Nogales was over.

After conducting an investigation into the causes of the incident, Mexican and U.S. officials opened negotiations to re-establish peace in the border area. Hostilities flared briefly in late August, after an American trooper wounded by sniper fire retaliated by wounding a Mexican soldier. But cooler heads prevailed, containing the incident. 

Local Memorial to the Dead of Nogales

Capt. Joseph D. Hungerford, Troop F, 10th Cavalry, was killed while leading his men in a frontal assault on Mexican troops. Lieutenant Loftus of Company C, 35th Infantry, was killed by sniper fire as he brought his men into position. Other American casualties were three enlisted men killed, including Private W. H. Klint and Corporal Barney Lots, both of Company H, Thirty-fifth Infantry, and several civilians. Two officers, Lt. Col. F. J. Herman and Capt. H. C. Caron, both of the 10th Cavalry, and 29 men were wounded. Mexican casualties are not known. One history of the battle claims Mexico lost "up to 28-30 soldiers, and about 100 civilians were killed with about  300 total wounded. Claims were made that the bodies  included two German agents provocateurs.

Sources:  Great War Document Archive; HistoryNet; Wikipedia


  1. Trenches dug, machine gun defenses, desperate struggles for hills - sounds like WWI in microcosm.

  2. There is some discrepancy with what is reported here versus what was published in the Nogales Daily Herald newspaper the following day, August 28, 1918, which should be considered a reliable source. Hence, I will just report the Nogales Daily Herald's version for comparison. For example, 1st Lieut. Loftus served with Company G, not Company C. He was listed as seriously wounded, not "killed by sniper fire," although it is also possible that he later died of his wounds. Private Klint is also listed as seriously wounded, although it is also possible that he later died of his wounds. Corp. Barney Lots last name is misspelled, is actually "Lotz", and he served with Company G, not Company H. Customs officer Gaston Reddoch was not "mortally wounded in the neck by a sniper's bullet." He was instead listed as wounded, although again, it is possible that he later died of his wounds. "Several civilians" were not killed, in fact, no civilians were listed as killed, and Reddoch and customs inspector E. E. Cooley were the only civilians listed as wounded. Also, Capt. Hungerford commanded Troop C, not Troop F of the 10th Cavalry. It was Capt. Caron who commanded Troop F of the 10th Cavalry. (Once you get these officers switched around correctly, it starts making more sense.) "On hearing the gunfire, Col. Herman phoned in an alert to sub-district headquarters and raced to . . . Nogales . . . to assume command," is a confusing statement. It needs to be made clear here that Lt. Col. (not "Col.") Herman was already the commanding officer of the Nogales 10th Cavalry sub-district. There were 24 soldiers listed as wounded (not 29), 15 from Companies F, G, and H of the 35th Infantry, and nine from Troops A, C and F, plus Herman of the 10th Cavalry. On the Mexican side there were 14 known dead and 16 wounded. Of those 14 dead, three were unidentified men, and there was one unidentified woman. I suppose that you could claim that a couple of those were German agents, but that's easy to say since they were already dead and couldn't otherwise deny such an allegation. That list was presented by the Mexican consul. The article's mention of "sniper fire" suggests that the Mexican Army was involved, other than local civilians and border guards. However, the Mexican consul's list of dead and wounded does not show any rank or military association. And for example, the photo showing the American soldier guarding one side of the border, shows just a Mexican border guard wearing a sombrero guarding the other side. Unlike Europe in WWI, this area was just high desert and scrub brush hills with little cover outside of town, and the Mexicans didn't have machine guns, cavalry, and military tactical training. Perhaps the "Sources" need to be updated here.

  3. Update: Yes, Gaston Reddoch died of his wounds on August 28, 1918, according to the Nogales Daily Herald.

  4. Update: According to the August 29, 1918, Nogales Daily Herald, Lieut. Luke Loftus died of his wounds at the Nogales Base hospital, increasing the list of American dead to four. After the battle, there were 3,000 Mexican troops encamped either in or nearby Nogales, Sonora, plus an additional 1,500 Federalized Yaquis (Indigenous people of Mexico) under the command of General Arnulfo Gomez encamped four miles from Nogales. Mexicans were seen to be entrenching in the hills east of town, but this was AFTER the battle, not a prelude to the battle. The incident was, "thought to be the work of rash and furious citizens instead of Federal soldiers," reported the August 30, 1918, Nogales Daily Herald. Private Edward Stiller, Co. F, 5th Infantry was wounded, not "by sniper fire," the night of August 28, but after about 30 shots were fired in the dark from the Mexican side of the border. The Americans responded with 18 rounds of machine gun fire, which stopped after Gen. P. Elias Calles ordered a cease fire. There was no report of a Mexican soldier being wounded in retaliation. There was also no report of Mexicans having or firing machine guns during the August 27 battle. Normal conditions prevailed by August 30, partly because all civilians in Nogales, Sonora were required to turn in all their weapons to the Commandante, and all civilians in Nogales, Arizona were required to turn in their ("Enfield" specifically) rifles to the 35th Infantry commanding officer. And lastly, I would like to see the use of the word "sniper" limited in this article, as there is no evidence that any of these Mexican civilians and border guards were military/paramilitary marksmen who engaged their targets from positions of concealment or at distances exceeding the target's detection capabilities, or that they had any specialized training. Perhaps the counter would be to say that they were simply shooting from a hiding place. But simply shooting from a hiding place doesn't make you a "sniper," i.e., unless you're shooting accurately and at long range.