Various location in Mexico: 1916. Envelope or Cover. Although two previous U.S. experimental airmail flights occurred in 1911, it wasn’t until 1916 during the Pancho Villa Punitive Expedition that the first real U. S. airmail service was begun by the Army’s 1st Aero Squadron and its eight JN-3 Curtis-Jenny aircraft. The unit, based at San Antonio, Texas, arrived in Columbus on 15 March and deployed to Pershing’s base camp at Casas Grande, Mexico on the 19th. High winds, poor maps, lack of repair parts, and severe terrain hampered their deployment, and it took the squadron a full week to re-assemble in Mexico, where it was soon found that the airplanes lacked the power to fly high enough to reconnoiter the mountains where Villa’s force was hiding. Further, sand and dryness damaged engines and propellers, and it became apparent that the planes would soon become inoperable. So, the commander, Captain Benjamin D. Foulois, limited their use to transporting communiques and mail until all were no longer flyable. (See Gilnes, “In Pursuit of Pancho Villa” in Air Force Magazine, July 1991 and SWilkins, “Genesis of the Jenny” at HistoryNet.com)
As noted in Volume 4 of the American Air Mail Catalog (AMMC 92), “On March 19 the 1st Aero Squadron began flying its eight planes between Columbus and points in Mexico, [transporting] mail and military command dispatches. . .. It is possible . . . to ascertain . . . if a particular letter was flown . . . from the field to Columbus, [it will bear] a Columbus postmark between March 19 and April 20.”
The earliest letter in this group is dated March 21 and postmarked April 5, and contains a detailed description of the earliest days of the campaign including the arrival of Foulois’s airplanes. Its postmark April 5, matches the date of one of only three previously known covers flown from Army camps in Mexico to Columbus (March 27, April 5, and April 17). It is an eight-page letter datelined “Tues March 21-16” and its first paragraph indicates it was written “in camp in the field on the banks of the Casa Grande River.” It is enclosed in its original envelope, an ice cream advertising cover from El Paso and postmarked with a “Columbus, N. Mex.” duplex handstamp dated “Apr / 5 / 4pm /1916”. It is annotated “Soldiers mail. Contains no military information. C. Lininger 1. Lt 3.Cav.” and hand-stamped “Postage Due 2 Cents.” Docketing that reads “3/21 Gen Pershing followed trail from Columbus.” Content includes:
“We arrived here yesterday afternoon and found Gen. Pershing here [with] some detachments. We are in camp . . . on the banks of the Casas Grande River. . .. Villa, natives hereabouts say he is about a 100 miles south trying to recruit, but without much success. . .. We followed his trail . . . finding dead horses, discarded articles, campfires, etc. . .. Contacts along the road say Villa took up to Columbus some 500 men and that he brought back some 300. He certainly got a drubbing. . .. Yesterday about 8 a.m. five of our aeroplanes flew over us and landed here. One of these was partially wrecked last night and the aviator injured; Bowen I think, in landing. They say they find the conditions here pretty good in the calm mornings and evenings except that at this altitude, they find the air light and they have to use more power. . ..”
The “Report of the Operations of the First Aero Squadron, Signal Corps, with the Mexican Punitive Expedition for the Period March 15 to August 15, 1916” notes that “With only two airplanes left, and these in unserviceable condition, the Squadron received orders on April 20th to return to Columbus, N.M., to secure new airplanes. . .. During the months of May, June and July, constant troubles and difficulties were encountered with defective propellers, motor parts and defects in construction.” Once the planes were flying again, “The Squadron carried on extensive experiments with an automatic camera . . . in aero-reconnaissance.” AMMC 92 also reports that eventually “new planes arrived at a later date and made flights into the field but it is unclear when mail was flown after April 20.” Four other letters in the group are from this later time frame and shed light on when airmail service resumed. One, also, makes it clear that only officers could send mail by airplane.
A letter dated 14 Sep from Vado de Fusiles was postmarked in Columbus the following day. Truck transport would have taken at least three days. Only an airmailed letter would have been able to reach Columbus and be postmarked within a day.
A letter dated 23 Sep from Dublan contains the following text: “Will try to get this off by an aviator in the morning.”
A letter dated 27 Sep from Dublan was postmarked in Columbus two days later. Truck transport would have taken at least three days. Also, it contains the text: “Will take this now to the aviation camp to mail it. . ..”
A letter dated 24 Sep from Dublan. Although this letter was not postmarked until five days after it was dated, Lininger’s next letter dated 26 Sep states, “I sent you a letter this am by aeroplane. . .. About every other day aeroplanes carry to or from Columbus officers first class mail.”
Exceptionally scarce. Only three of the early period covers were previously known per AAMC 92, which reported the 1992 value of a single postally used airmail cover without content from the early period to be $2,500 ($4,900 in 2019 dollars). There are no records of any auctions or sales of the even scarcer airmail covers from the later period. Very good. Item #009486
Lininger continued his Army service and retired in 1949 as a Brigadier General. He received the Distinguished Service Medal for heroism during the punitive expedition; his certificate reads “Lieutenant Lininger, while in action at Parral, Mexico, on 12 April 1916, proceeded under fire to the rescue of a dismounted man of his command who was in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy, and, taking him up behind him (Lieutenant Lininger) on his horse, carried him to safety. Exceptionally scarce. No letters with first-hand accounts written during the expedition and sent from within Mexico by airmail are identified in any institutional collection, however there may perhaps be one or more in the General George Patton papers at the Library of Congress.) In 1992, the AAMC reported value of a single postally used airmail envelope without letter at $2,500 ($4,500 in 2019 dollars).