The Boys of Company D Head to the Border
In the early 1900s, Mexico was suffering under dictatorial rule and a difficult economy. By 1910 the situation had become dire and the resulting uprising marked the beginning of what became known as the Mexican Revolution. For the next several years, hostilities became increasingly worse within the country and in the border region with the United States. Relations between the two countries became strained and even more tension developed when in March 1916, a Mexican revolutionary named Francisco “Pancho” Villa and hundreds of his fighters crossed over the border. They raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing many and destroying much of the town, and the incident clearly got America’s attention. American troops were already at the border, but following the attack more military units were mobilizing, including Visalia’s Company D Second Infantry Regiment of the National Guard of California.
In June 1916, even though no departure orders had been received, the local unit and the community were getting matters in order in preparation for the inevitable trip to the border.
At about 11:30 p.m. on June 22, 1916, the much-expected call came. Captain Alex M. Simons, commander of the Visalia guard unit, who also happened to be the principal of Visalia High School, received orders that his unit was scheduled to leave by train at 9 a.m. the next morning. It was short notice for the nearly 100 men, but they were ready.
At 7 a.m. all the town whistles sounded as a prearranged signal to alert the entire community about the departure of the guardsmen. The soldiers and well-wishers gathered on Center Street between Court and Church for a brief farewell ceremony. Short patriotic speeches were given by Ben Maddox and P. M. Longan, and the send-off program ended with a prayer by Reverend A. O. Raber. “There were few dry eyes” in the crowd, witnesses reported.
Captain Simons allowed the soldiers a few minutes to say their goodbyes to loved ones, then the company formed in ranks and he marched them to the Southern Pacific Depot, where two special train cars were waiting, along with several thousand well wishers.
The troops boarded the train, and shortly after 9 a.m. they left to thunderous cheers of the crowd. From Visalia they headed north to Sacramento to join other mobilized National Guard units, and then after a few days, the troops headed south for Nogales, Arizona.
When they arrived at the border, they set up camp and settled in to a soldier’s life. After a short time, rumors began to circulate back home in Visalia that there was a scarcity of food for the Visalia boys. The ladies of the Guard of Honor went to work. In one campaign they asked the community for 110 live chickens. The response was amazing and they received many more. After the live chickens arrived in camp, Sergeant Arthur M. Becker, wrote in a letter back home, “The big shipment of chickens…was just delivered at the head of Company D’s street and the boys went wild. The boys as a unit are superlatively grateful to the dear people at home both for the spirit and the gifts.” He later wrote, “Chickens all killed and picked and are being dressed,” but added, despite what the people of Visalia had heard, “We have had plenty to eat.”
And the community sent another gift from home, a small black bear cub that had been found at Giant Forest. The furry little guy was crated and shipped, and quickly became the company mascot. They named him “Phil Bear” and the entire regiment enjoyed his company. Needless to say, he left a lasting impression on all the soldiers.
In September 1916, more rumors began to circulate in Visalia. This time word spread that Company D was coming home soon. Other unsubstantiated reports followed. One was that the troops were “enroute home” and still another was that Company D was going into Mexico. And yet another rumor was that the unit was stranded on a railroad siding somewhere, trying to get back to Visalia. By November, clarity began to surface. Visalia’s Company D was in fact coming home, and units from Alabama were replacing them.
The ladies of the Guard of Honor again went to work, this time preparing for a homecoming celebration. The National Guard club room in the newly built auditorium was decorated with American flags and plans for a big parade, banquet, and dance were put in place. Organizers wanted the returning troops to have a huge welcome, so arrangements were made to have the fire department whistle give nine short blasts when the troop train was 20 minutes out. That would give Visalians enough time to gather at the Santa Fe Depot at Main and Santa Fe streets.
The troop train arrived at about 10 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, 1916. After four months of service and no fighting, the troops were welcomed by a crowd of 10,000 people. As they filed off of the train, they were escorted down Main Street by city and county officials and war veterans. That evening a delicious turkey dinner was served by the ladies and the home cooking tasted so much better than the hard tack and beans the soldiers were used to.
All of the work by the ladies of the Guard of Honor did not go unnoticed. One soldier gave a tribute to them in an open letter to the Visalia Morning Delta. He wrote about their “untiring spirit” and thanked them for all that they had done. He added that “Company D…will always remember these good women.”
The next year marked the official end of the Mexican Revolution, although fighting continued in the country for several more years.