California Naval History
The California Naval Militia and The Tampico Incident
(Including Camp Highland)

by Norman S. Marshall
Naval History Branch, California Center for Military History

The first two decades of the century saw Mexico in great unrest which unrest was shared by her northern neighbor for the United States' border stretched for 1200 miles and was the nation's soft underbelly.

Porfirio Diaz was overthrown by Francisco Madero in 1911, but in less than two years he was arrested by General Victoriano Huerta on February 22, 1913 and assassinated while under house arrest and being relocated from the National Palace to the National Prison. As this was happening Woodrow Wilson assumed office as our twenty eighth President of the United States, swept in on a platform of national reform. Wilson brought with him the famed lawyer, fundamentalist, prohibitionist, and international affairs novice William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State and Josephus Daniels as his Secretary of the Navy.

Wilson detested Huerta describing him as "a diverting brute false... so sly.. so full of bravado, yet so courageous...seldom sober and always irresponsible, yet what an indomitable fighter for his own country". He described him as, "that scoundrel Huerta." Huerta described Wilson as the "Puritan of the North".

Wilson was inaugurated on March 4, 1913 to find an immediate crisis with Japan's fury over a California Statute prohibiting Japanese Nationals owning or leasing land within California.

Among his first acts, Wilson decided to withhold diplomatic recognition of Mexico's New National Leader thus encouraging Huerta's rival General Carranza and his Constitutionalist Party who was already stirring up an insurrection along the American Border.

Both parties sought support, including weapons, from abroad and Japan sold arms and munitions to Huerta after the Emperor requested Mexico's foreign Minister Senor de la Barra to attend him in Tokyo.

Sixteen Nations quickly recognized Huerta as President but Wilson was obstinate and was oblivious to the fact that Mexico supplied one quarter of the world's oil needs and that world's Navy's were completing the conversion of their fleets from coal to oil.

Practically all oil of the Royal Navy's Atlantic Fleet came from Mexico. The British Navy depended upon Mexico's Oil and Britain depended on its Navy and to assure that supply Great Britain recognized Huerta on May 3, 1913.

Wilson's policy was fostering Anti-Americanism in Mexico and American Industrialists joined in the clamorous urging of recognition on condition that Huerta and Carranza each guarantee a free election Even their moderate compromise was not accepted by Wilson who wrote a confidential note to Huerta stating he must remove himself in the coming election. America was seeking to counsel Mexico for her own good, said Wilson. Huerta's response was predictable and immediate. He dissolved the Mexican Congress and arrested 110 of its members.

In response, the United States lifted its arms embargo to Carranza followers and to Huerta's aid came the German Ambassador, Admiral von Hintze, who offered military aid against the rebels of Mexico, if they would agree to cut off oil to Great Britain in the event of war. The promise was made and three ships, the Ypiranga, Bavaria and Kronprizzen Cecile were loaded with munitions and sailed to Veracruz.

This led to the Tampico Incident.

The gunboat U.S.S. Dolphin, the flagship of Admiral Mayo was at Tampico and on April 6, 1914. Seven sailors and a paymaster went ashore for supplies. Huerta had caused the port city to be under Martial law. Upon docking, soldiers arrested the sailors then brought them to the barracks. The officer in charge, realizing a potential embarrassment, released the sailors and an officer appeared before Mayo expressing regrets.

They were not accepted by Mayo who decided a twenty one gun salute and punishment for the offenders was needed which ultimatum demanded response within twenty four hours. Thereupon, Mayo informed Washington and the press picked it up as a national insult. Huerta was equally adamant querying why the United States demanded a salute for a nation it did not recognize.

Wilson took this challenge and issued his own ultimatum expiring at 6:00 PM on April 19, unless honors were rendered. Failing that, the Navy would establish a blockade and occupy the large port city of Veracruz. Nothing happened on the 19th or on the 20th as the American cabinet debated implementation of the threat and at mid-day a telegram was received at the White House from the American Consul stating that Ypiranga was arriving with a cargo of arms.

In the early morning of April 21, Wilson was awakened by Secretaries Bryan and Daniels who called to say Ypiranga was due to dock at 10:00 that morning carrying 200 machine guns and 15,000,000 cartridges to be met at the pier by three trains which were to load and move immediately tearing up the tracks behind them.

Finally the President spoke. Daniels sent the order to Admiral Fletcher, to take Veracruz, at once.

By 8:30 AM the Navy halted Ypiranga and by 11:30 sailors and marines came ashore and seized the Customs House, the rail yards and rolling stock, the cable telegraph and post office.

Not surprisingly, the Mexicans resisted and both soldiers and civilians opened fire. The USS Prairie shelled the town. By days end, 19 Americans and 126 Mexicans lay dead and there were 21 Americans and 95 Mexicans wounded.

The German Ambassador thereupon appeared in person before the Secretary of State and made a stiff protest decrying correctly commission of an illegal act without prior declaration of blockade or a state of war.

Meanwhile, Ypiranga was diverted to Puerta Mexico where she off loaded her cargo and Bavaria emptied her hold of 8327 rolls of barbed wire and 1,800,000 rounds of ammunition

The Balkanization of Mexico was a fact and the Monroe Doctrine was shattered. Wilson's exit from his futile Veracruz encounter came with the offer of Argentina, Brazil and Chile offering to mediate the dispute. While this was going on, Carranza moved upon the capital and ousted Huerta who went into Spanish exile aboard the German cruiser Dresden arriving there three days before Archduke Ferdinand's assassination at Sarajevo. The world's eyes were focused on Europe with the outbreak of war but Mexican tensions remained high, for Pancho Villa was resisting Carranza and occupied Mexico City.

High Japanese officials called on Villa and asked what would be Mexico's attitude in the event of a war between Japan and the United States. This news leaked, of course. But rumor was validated by the appearance of the Japanese cruiser Asama in December 1914 which entered Turtle Bay in Baja California with an escort of three other cruisers and several auxiliaries.

There was great uneasiness in Washington and in Southern California.

Huerta was in exile in Barcelona and the Germans offered to back a military coup that would restore power to Huerta and bring a peace of sorts to the anarchy of feuding private armies of Generals Villa, Zapata, Obregon, Diaz and Orozco. American investors were screaming for intervention and if the Germans finessed the game, the energies of the United States would be fully occupied on this side of the Atlantic

Huerta arrived in New York on April 13 and $800,000 was deposited to Huerta's account in the Deutsche Bank in Havana, Cuba and an additional $95,000 in a Mexican account.

Huerta booked a rail passage to San Francisco but by secret pre-arrangement changed trains at Kansas City and diverted to El Paso. His plan was to detrain even earlier at Newman, New Mexico and proceed by car twenty miles to the Mexican border. At Newman, he was met by General Orozco and both leaders were arrested by U.S. Officers. Huerta remained jailed in El Paso but on July 2 Orozco escaped.

In October, 1915 the United States recognized Venustiano Carranza as President. Villa was infuriated. The accession allowed Carranza's northern forces, expecting an attack at Agua Prieta, to be reinforced by troops carried on railroads across American territory and in November Villa met the greatly reinforced Carranza troops and was defeated.

Huerta had been removed to Fort Bliss where he sickened of yellow Jaundice and in November 1915 he was released to his family. But he recovered and was again imprisoned at Fort Bliss, Texas only to have his malady return. He died on United States soil in January 14, 1916.

With German encouragement, Villa provoked incidents along the border and finally on May 9, 1916 four hundred Mexican Villistas attacked Columbus, New Mexico killing 20 Americans and causing Wilson to send Brigadier General John J "Black Jack" Pershing into Mexico with 6600 men. European nations, now at war, were keeping the United States very busy.

Camp Highland, San Diego, California

The tensions caused California's governor to bring up both the National Guard and the Naval Militia's Third Division based in San Diego. They were called to duty on April 23, 1914 starting at 4:00 AM by the clamoring alarm of the city fire whistle. They were part of Provisional First Battalion of the National Guard of California. Their initial encampments were near Palm City close to the border. The Adjutant General directed that the Guard units and the Naval Militia were to be sent to the Otay Reservoir, the Highland Reservoir and the San Diego and Coronado Pipelines as protection. The sites were about 3½ miles from Tijuana on rising ground. Additionally, members were sent to stand watch over the Lower Otay, Sweetwater, La Mesa and Morena Dams. The mobilization was to interdict two way traffic of ammunition and rations flowing south and to stop Chinese that may be coming into the United States illegally.

The Naval Militia unit consisting of 4 officers and 56 enlisted men were equipped with a three inch howitzer, a one pound field piece and two gatling guns plus the Krag Jorgensen rifles then in use.

The flavor of what transpired is found when years later, Lt. David M. Stewart wrote as follows:

"As soon as our camp was established we went through regular guard mountings, and had pickets posted for about three miles, guarding one of the main pipelines bringing water to San Diego."

"At this same time there was another company of infantry stationed at LaPlaya, under the command of Captain Benteen, guarding a considerable force of the regular Mexican Army that came across the border when attacked by a superior number of "insurrectos," and were necessarily interned. After a few months' time, conditions across the border modified somewhat and the internees decided that they preferred to be back in Mexico, so they proceeded to tunnel under the wall for a considerable distance. The outlet was in a clump of brush a slight distance outside the wall, and the work must have taken considerable time and been carried Out with engineer-like ability and precision. A well was dug in one of the tents, and then they tunneled or drifted to the location outside the wall, then another squirrel-like hole came up in the clump of the brush, As evidence of the time consumed, the earth removed from the tunnel was carried out nights and spread around the camp, and tramped down so that it was not detected by the guards. One morning when daylight came and reveille sounded, there were few to respond. A few of the escapees were caught by the police."

"Captain Benteen paid me a visit; he was much disturbed by the occurrence and solicited our help. As we covered most of the roads from our camp inland, I simply extended our guard line to the bay shore and had a lookout, with binoculars, on a transformer-platform from which we could spot them a mile off. We apprehended a majority of the escapees within sight of the border."

"Conditions did not improve across the border, and shortly after the raid by the "insurrectos" into Columbus, New Mexico, Captain Condon called and stated that affairs were worsening across the line. While he was not unduly alarmed, and be did not deem it proper form to issue an order, nevertheless should we wake up some morning and find the Mexicans in the hills between us, we would never live it down. I remarked, "Sufficient, Captain." We immediately broke camp at Palm City and joined the Army force at San Ysidro "

"Condon instructed us in setting up the tents and the field pieces, so they would show to the best advantage at a distance. He said, "They will be watching us." Nothing happened, and conditions gradually improved. We were relieved a week later by a regular Army force and returned to our camp at Palm City. The Army having things well in hand, we were relieved of further duty and returned home.

Major Herbert R. Fay regularly to the Adjutant General and footnote, camp life agreed with the sailors and guardsmen for they gained an average of eleven to twelve pounds each.



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Updated 8 February 2016