Mr. Blackwell entered the U.S. Border Patrol with the 26th Training Session on March 20 1944. He was one of the first generation of Officers who established the Border Patrol as one of the elite enforcement agencies in the United States. I believe readers would be interested to know that some of this same generation included: Charles Beechie Bob Stewart Herman Moore Bill Toney Harlan Carter Jim Kelly Bill Jordan Tom Maddrey Elmo Rainbolt Ed Cupp Robin Clack Jim Greene Jeff Fell Bill Sabin Tom Ball & Don Coppock. They and many others in this generation well understood the motto Honor First One has only to contemplate the last paragraph of Mr. Blackwells oral history to understand.
Today is May 16 1987. My name is David Van Blackwell I was born on October 9 1922 in Altoona Iowa. Dorothy Gohman and I were married in Edinburg Texas on June 20 1942. We have two daughters. The older is Carolyn Jean now Mrs. Raymond Kretz who was born June 14 1944 at Weslaco Texas and Barbara Ann now Mrs. Alan Weikel born September 24 1946 at McAllen Texas.
I entered on duty in the Border Patrol at McAllen Texas on March 20 1944. During the years I was in the Service I was stationed at Edinburg Falfurrias McAllen and Hebbronville Texas. I then went to Houlton Maine and Burlington Vermont. Returning to Texas I was stationed in Brownsville Port Isabel and El Paso Texas where I retired on December 31 1976. The positions I held included Patrol Inspector Patrol Inspector-in-charge Senior Patrol Inspector Intelligence Officer Regional Air Detail Officer Deputy Chief Patrol Inspector and Chief Patrol Agent.
At the time I entered the Service the key personnel in the McAllen Sector were: Fletcher L. Rawls Chief Patrol Inspector; John R. Peavey Assistant Chief Patrol Inspector; W. Gregory Hale Senior Patrol Inspector (he was assigned to headquarters to do the administrative work); and Autogiro Pilot Ned Henderson. There were two clerk stenos: Winifred Whitten and Earlene Kiefer. Radio Operators that I recall were Glenn Gerhardt Kenneth Lombard and Marcella Cikanek.
I cant remember if there was a fourth operator. The garage was under the direction of Johnny Griffin and the other mechanic out there was Rodolfo Alvarado. The Seniors for the various stations included: James P. Cottingham and Walter Swain both at McAllen; Charlie Wallis Brownsville; Ireneus E. Snavel at San Benito; Bill Holt at Harlingen; Dlaso Kite at La Feria; Clifton D. Brown at Mercedes; and Charles R. Wroten Westlaco. I believe Thomas E. Phillips was a Senior at Mission. Jesse Perez was a Senior at Rio Grande City but he died soon after and Delbert A. Valentine was the Senior there. Oscar Stetson was Senior at Roma Earnest A Cap Kilborn at Raymondville William M. Davis at Falfurrias and I dont recall who was Senior at Kingsville at that time.
The San Antonio District was the parent organization to the sector and was under the direction of William A. Whalen District Director. I think John Holland was the Deputy D.D. but I am not positive of that. Hubert P. Brady was the District Chief Enforcement Officer. Mr. Walter Mehlhause was the District Administrative Officer. The Chief of the Laredo Sector was Elmer DeBrail and his Assistant Chief was Charles R. Kirk. The Chief at Del Rio was Buck West and his Assistant Chief was Charlie McBee. The sectors were called sub-districts also and each one had a number but I dont remember what they were. I rather think McAllen was Sub-district #3.
The policy of the service at the time I entered on duty was for trainees to work three or four months at each of three different stations and this gave them an opportunity to be exposed to the various types of patrol operations and also to receive on the job training and evaluation by a variety of experienced officers. The school which I think was called the Border Patrol Training School was of six weeks duration and was held at the old El Paso Sector Headquarters. It was called Camp Chigas.
The trainees were divided into northern and southern border trainees. The northern border men were required to learn C. W. (morse code) for radio transmissions but the southern border P.I.s were not required to take that course and instead were required to study Spanish. Prior to our class I think everyone had to learn C.W. I know all the older officers I worked with could send Morse code messages.
When I was at the training school they didnt have any particular housing or living accommodations for us. They had arranged with an old hotel downtown and a lot of individual home owners to rent rooms to trainees. The homes were scattered all over town. We all either walked or rode street cars between Headquarters where we took our classes everyday and wherever we were staying.
My first station was Edinburg where Oscar D. Kelly was the Senior. He was from Indiana and had been a stone-mason prior to entering the Border Patrol. He and a brother owned really good farmland in Indiana and he would go home annually and visit relatives and also see about his property up there. He was a bachelor. He told me that when he came in the Border Patrol (I think he entered on duty in 1934) that he had had several suits. He saw no sense in having any civilian clothes so he had never bought another suit and the only civilian clothes he owned were a few pairs of wash pants and work shirts that he could wear when he was working in the yard at the house where he was living. Other than that he wore a uniform at all times never out of uniform and he insisted that all of us at the station dress as he did. He said that when he came in he was the last man hired for two years which put him low man on the totem pole for a long time and he was assigned all the menial tasks like washing cars and just other flunky jobs until another officer was hired and entered on duty. Then the new man inherited those jobs. Kelly lived with the Frank E. Berrys; he roomed and boarded with them in Edinburg. Their son known as Buster was Frank E. Berry Jr. later joined the Border Patrol and ultimately was an investigator in Pittsburgh. Also their daughter Audry married a man who had a career in the Immigration Service Francis Dawson. Kelly had a 1935 Chevrolet Coach that was just slick as a button. It was in mint condition and so far as I knew he never drove that car except when he went on vacation back to Indiana. Transportation was in pretty short supply during and for some time after the war years. One of the P.I.s needed a car real bad so Kelly sold his car to him and never owned another. After that when was in the local area he was always on duty and always in a government car but when he went on vacation still in dress uniform armed and all he rode the bus.
The other man at that station when I arrived was Russell K. Golden. He was a P.I. and the two of them made up the force. Two or three weeks after I entered on duty two more trainees Pete Stogner and Hollis Mitchel entered on duty.
The work at that station was primarily apprehending farm workers whether on farms or on the highways en route to work or in town. Kellys standing order was to report for work at 6:00 AM unless it was raining in which case you would go in at 8:00AM and report to the office. Many mornings wed be out at 6:00 AM waiting for daybreak on some canal bank or remote road so we could start checking camps where wets were suspected of living. Golden on the other hand liked to work evening shifts so when Kelly went on leave Golden had us work the evening shift and then when Kelly came back they didnt break back to his system right away. It took a while so we were working mornings and evenings for several weeks.
My next station was Falflurrias. I transferred up there in September 1944 and stayed until July 1945. The Senior was William M. Davis. Not too many months after I transferred to Falfurrias Davis left the Service to go into the Navy and Bob Dayton acted as Senior the remainder of the time I was stationed there. The work at Falfurrias was mainly traffic check and train check and initially there was very little ranch check. As time went on we had a loss of personnel and were no longer able to maintain anything like a continuous highway check se we began doing more ranch check. While I was at Falfurrias I think pretty early on I hadnt been there too long they decided that we could not use the Brooks County jail to house aliens overnight and that any we apprehended would have to be transported either to Hidalgo for voluntary departure to Mexico or to McAllen to be put in with their group of aliens or placed in the Hidalgo County jail at Edinburg. It was 65 miles down to Edinburg and another eleven over to McAllen so I dont know of anyone who used the Edinburg jail. It just wasnt very practical to drive all the way down there with the certain knowledge that the next day would have to go back and get them and take them on to either Hidalgo or Mcallen.
We did some traffic check at La Gloria which is a little ranch community about halfway between Rio Grande City and Falfurrias. A road leads up from the river into the ranch country and at that point it forks. One fork leads on to Falfurrrias and the other to Hebronville They had the Rio Grande City unit checking that road twelve hours a day and then we held it the other twelve hours each day for several weeks. It was not very productive. I remember sitting out there from seven at night through to seven the next morning and only check two vehicles all night long.
A little about some of the other officers at Falfurras when I was there. Bob Dayton who I have already mentioned resigned not too much later to become a gate keeper at the Lasater Ranch and to work at the new cracking plant northwest of Falfurrias. Another man was Gerald D. Madden. He too resigned a year or two later to go into the grocery business in the Valley. He had been a grocer at Waxahachie before joining the patrol. Dempsey L. King who was later stationed at McAllen and much later than that transferred to the Department of Labor in connection with the enforcement of contact labor laws. Hansford Niles who was another trainee was also there at the time. Niles was later stationed at McAllen and finally retired as Senior Patrol Inspector at Brownsville. Another man there was Oswald Brassell who resigned just a few months after I arrived at Falfurrias to return to Carthage where he was going to seek his fortune in the oil boom. Charles Hinesley was also there. He was really Bill Daviss Segundo. During the first few months of my time at Falfurrias the officer strength was pretty good so assignments to traffic check work didnt include either Bill Davis or Charlie Hinesley. As the on-duty force dwindled Charlie started having to pull shifts on the highway too but he was really in a bad way with rheumatoid arthritis. He was a good officer spoke good Spanish did a good job at work but he just couldnt walk he couldnt get up and move around. He tried mightily to hold up his end of everything that had to be done. Finally though he just got so bad that he couldnt continue. His last day of duty he asked me to drive him to McAllen so he could turn in his gear see Mr. Rawls and say good-by to other people there that he was interested. in. When we got to McAllen he asked me to pull into a filling station in town so he could get out and walk around a little bit. Im positive it took between five and ten minutes for him to get out of the car get to his feet and move his joints enough to be able to walk a little. He was a proud man and just didnt want anybody at headquarters to see how difficult it was for him to move. He always whistled and carried on as if there were no pain but you knew the pain was excruciating. Anyhow when we got to the office he got out and was able to walk with a little more confidence and dignity than he had displayed when we arrived in McAllen.
Bill Davis came back from the Navy and was reassigned as the second Senior under Charlie Wallis at Brownsville. From there he went on to Laredo as Assistant Chief and from there to Chula Vista as Chief Patrol Inspector. After two or three years in Chula Vista (Ive forgotten just how long) he went to Newark and finally to Miami as an Investigator. Bill was just a super person; he was a good man but his Spanish and his ability to communicate and deal successfully with Mexican people was outstanding. His father had been an engineer working the silver mines in Mexico. Bill lived in Mexico until he was 12 and was just completely bilingual. Even after he was out of the Patrol he was used to accompany groups of Mexican officials that the Service was transporting up and down the border and around the country in an effort to develop cooperation friendship and an exchange of views. Because Bill was so superior in dealing with them he continued to be used in that capacity though he was no longer a Border Patrolman.
My next station was McAllen. I moved there in July of 1945. The principal activity there was farm and ranch check. There was some patrolling of towns and an occasional traffic check for short periods and there was line and river watch. The illegal aliens who both we and the aliens themselves referred to as wets were here in just huge numbers you couldnt imagine how many there must have been. At various times through the ensuing years the Sector was beefed up and they would push the population of the aliens down a little bit temporarily and then something would happen and it would bounce right back up and there would be more aliens than before. The valley economy was largely agriculture and for that matter is still pretty much that way. The farmers welcomed the plentiful and cheap labor and the aliens who did virtually all the work on the farms in packing sheds and other agricultural product related fields did some of the more menial tasks for as little as a dollar a day. Skilled workers or the ones who had a little more on the ball like tractor drivers and irrigators and some of the other skills got up to about $5 per day. A lot of those days were 12 hours long. Wages for farm workers were really low. So low in fact that the local labor force just didnt have any choice but to board up their homes and follow the harvest north every year. About the only ones who could really afford to stay here year round were the crew bosses employed by many farmers and nearly all packing sheds and the harvest contractors who furnished crews of aliens to harvest the crops. These people had their trucks and every able-bodied person they could find to cram on those trucks would be part of their crew. They kept books for them (the farmers) and took their cut off the top and paid the aliens on a piece meal basis because thats the way they were being paid by the farmers. Employers (again the farmers) liked the set-up because they were paying low wages and had no medical or unemployment insurance responsibilities and almost no responsibility to the alien other than to pay him whatever scale was agreed upon for the work actually produced. Yet they were able to sell their produce on markets away from this area where they were competing with prices based on different and a lot higher labor rates. When minimum was laws were talked of particularly for farm workers the idea wasnt popular at all in the Valley. The farmers were always opposed and theyd have two or three fall-back positions in their arguments each time. They claimed that having to pay minimum wage even though low would put them out of business; and that the marginal quality of labor just wouldnt support that kind of expense. They always went through this same type of routine each time the government or whoever made the decision would talk of raising the rates. I think it started out around 15 cents and hour and gradually bumped up. First they didnt want minimum wages applied to domestic help or farmers or others who hired less than five employees. Now I see that they have even had written into the current law that the Border Patrol no longer has the authority to enter on open fields to check farm labor to see whether or not they are in the country illegally. They always made some sort of effort to salvage as much as they could of their presumed right or continued ability to employ illegal aliens.
As more and more Valley people began benefiting from the illegal alien labor they resorted to ever increasing efforts to shield the aliens from apprehension. Wets were housed in every conceivable kind of shelter; ramshackled abandoned old houses barns sheds chicken coops abandoned automobile bodies caves dug into canal banks and tents. There were some farmers who built little one room houses for their laborers. The larger operators and some really not-so-large also provided a sort of commissary service. It was not unusual when we took aliens to collect their wages and belongings that they had little or no money coming. The wages would be tallied and also the provisions they had used would be tallied and the alien would get whatever the difference might be. Some times the difference wasnt very much particularly if wed had inclement weather and they hadnt worked every day. Then too there was a mark-up on the items they were buying from the farmers. Prices were usually a little higher than regular retail prices in town. There were always a few employers though usually not farmers who would try to completely beat the aliens out of their wages.
Valley farmers had a system well not just the farmers everybody who had a wet whether it was a wet maid wet yardman or farm worker no matter what. Many employers kept these people in line by threatening to report them to La Patrulla or La Migra and back through the years the Mexicans particularly the less educated peon type person from deep in the interior was really frightened by the thought of the Border Patrol and being apprehended by them. One constable in Hidalgo County had a large crew of wets that he farmed out to work on various farms around the area. They were his employees they were his people and he had them in tents way back in deep brush concealed from view by some big canals. You just wouldnt notice them driving by on the road. Someone reported them and when the P.I.s raided the place and caught the wets the wets told us of having been forced to stay there and to work even though they had been abused and underpaid and wanted to go home wanted to quit wanted to leave and were not allowed to. This constable was charged and convicted of some sate statute relating slavery. I dont remember just what it was.
There were several times when the Service mounted operations that really appeared to have everything going for them. We were just right on the brink of gaining control of the illegal alien problem and each time we started to make significant headway the Farm Bureau and some of the more powerful local figures prevailed upon their Congressmen or Senators to dry up the money. Our efforts were curtailed and the wets immediately returned in numbers even greater than before. The Valley newspapers editorialized against immigration enforcement and made big sensational events and wrote long diatribes relating to any incident or alleged impropriety by any of our officers. Attitudes of many in the Valley was illustrated by a couple of the restaurants. One of these restaurants had a sign up over the mirror behind the counter that said Border Patrol not welcome Another had a sign too but it said coffee 10 cents for Border Patrolman 50 cents. Some of the officers children were not treated well by the local citizenry. Some were belittled ridiculed and ostracized by other kids at school and even at Sunday school a few times. These actions reflected their parents adamant views against everything Border Patrol or Immigration enforcement.
Among the methods employed to discourage illegal entries was an air-lift to the interior of Mexico. The Service contracted with Flying Tigers to fly on transport planes loads of aliens to Leon Gto. And Guadalajara Jal. Every day. The planes were based at the Brownsville airport and all of the Stations in the Sector when they made their apprehensions each day would screen the males to determine if they were; first from the interior second if they had families either in Texas or in the border area. Male aliens from the interior whose families were in the interior were taken to the Hidalgo County jail and the Edinburg Border Patrol unit would manifest them and do whatever else had to be done in the way of documentation. The aliens were then hauled to the Brownsville airport and loaded aboard Flying Tigers planes. Seems to me they made a couple of trips a day to each destination. The effect of this or the result of this operation really was noticeable. The frequency with which you encountered wets really took a nose dive; and you just didnt see anything like the numbers of wets we were accustomed to seeing after this operation had been in effect a few weeks. However the operation was soon ended by termination of our funds.
Another time arrangements were made with Mexican Officials to remove the aliens from the border town by train. You have to realize that the Mexican border town officials didnt want these people any more than the Border Patrol did. The usual procedure was to send the aliens back to Mexico at the Ports of Entry. The numbers were so great that they simply overwhelmed the facilities of border towns like Matamores Reynosa and Rio Bravo. The local officials didnt want them there and Im sure that had some bearing on the Mexican governments decision to allow their citizens to be transported inland from the border. That kind of removal benefited us too because it got the aliens back to the interior where some would stay and not r-enter illegally and it at least delayed those determined to come right back. Mexicans were moved literally by the hundreds and mostly in railway boxcars. The trains were loaded in Reynosa and every two or three cars there was a soldier. It was the soldiers job to keep the people being returned to the interior from getting off the train and walking right back to the border. Since it didnt take long for them to figure out their little mordida system and apply it to that the trains soon began reaching their destination all but empty. To try to encourage them to be a little more diligent some of our officers were assigned to ride the train and just observe. They didnt have any authority but were to observe and as a result the number of passengers aboard the trains when they reached their destinations in the interior increased dramatically.
Years later after we had out detention camp at McAllen we had a fleet of small school buses built on Ford truck chassis. The procurement officer for the department at that time was a man named Anthony. Hed purchased these little buses which were dubbed Anthony Ants by Mr. Rawls. They kind of looked like a bunch of ants as all loaded with aliens they would file out of the camp in convoy en route to Zapata. The purpose of their going to Zapata was to VR aliens across the river at that point which was real isolated on both sides of the river. The little village on the Mexican side was a good many miles seems like it was bout 15 or maybe 20 miles north of the highway between Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. There was no public transportation there so the aliens had to walk at least to that road and maybe farther to get away from that village. There was no incentive for them to return en masse at Zapata because there were no jobs on the American side in that area. It was tough traveling too to get back to the Valley from Zapata.
It seems like an inhumane way of dealing with these people but it was not nearly as bad as it would appear. Back at that time most of the aliens we were catching (farm workers) were from interior towns ranches and farms and they had walked all the way from their homes to the border and from the border to wherever they were going in the Valley. For that matter they would go on north always just walking. They walked long distances and really they did it pretty fast and without ever appearing to hurry. They traveled single file and walked along the edge of highways or roads along railroads trails or even across open country and they just kept moving. It was surprising how far they would go in a day. To illustrate their ability to travel I will relate a story of my dealings with a young wet at Edinburg. I caught him early one morning along with some others; in fact we had a pretty good group before to late in the morning. It was our practice at Edinburg to go out early each day as I mentioned and catch all the aliens we could or a least as many as we could handle then take them into the office which at that time was a room next to the JP court in the basement of the old courthouse. Once we got them in there we would process them and then haul them on to Mexico or take them wherever they had to be disposed of. Except on rare occasions when the court was in session we would use that little courtroom to hold all of the aliens and we would just type the required apprehension reports right there in the courtroom.
As soon as we had a couple of carloads ready some of us started taking loads to Hidalgo for VR while other officers continued processing the aliens we had apprehended. Trips were made as long as we still had aliens to return to Mexico. There was no lunch break; no nothing. Mr. Kelly did not want anybody to stop until all the aliens were disposed of. He quit at noon and went home to eat and did not come back unless it would be that night sometimes but he did not come back for the rest of the afternoons processing. This particular wet I mentioned was in the load I took to Hidalgo the first load that day. Then a little later I was taking another oa
load and I saw that same wet on this side in Hidalgo so I stopped and picked him up again and brought him on back to Ediunburg and put him in the bunch to be processed. Later he was taken to Mexico again. Well a third time that day I encountered him again on this side in Hidalgo and processed and VRd him again. That evening about 6 or 7 I was going to a dairy that is on the edge of Edinburg to buy some milk and I saw this same wet walking up the road into town. I was in my personal car then and I pulled up to him and stopped. He started over to the car I know expecting to be offered a job or a ride and when he looked in and recognized me he just kind of hung his head looked dejected opened the door and got in. That time I did not take him back; I just put him in jail overnight and figured we both had seen enough of the other for one day. That case is not typical of the number of times you catch a particular alien in a day but it is typical of their determination to immediately return after being sent back to Mexico. They were determined to come over here and be here and simple VR to Mexico and the long walk back was absolutely no deterrent. Neither was Federal Court much of a deterrent.
We did not send anyone to court except smugglers or those who were really aggravated repeater cases where they had probably been deported a time or two and been prosecuted previously. Just those with long and bad records. I have been in Federal Court at Brownsville where I saw Judge Hannay turn his chair half around away from the bench rear back and appear to go to sleep when he was told the next cases to be presented were Immigration cases. His obvious disinterest carried over into sentencing. He gave almost all defendants in our cases suspended sentences and really short ones at that. He did not act that way in all cases. When a marijuana case came up for example he sat upright leaned forward and paid close attention. Another Federal Judge James V. Allred a former Governor of Texas heard an alien transporting case one time and at the end of it he said this is a two-bit case. and then he fined the defendant two-bits. Needless to say Valley employers had no fear of standing in judgment before a panel of their peers on charges of Immigration law violations.
The pressure that was applied just incessant pressure to not enforce the Immigration always laws all but unimaginable. One year Willard Kelly the Associate Commissioner for Enforcement at the Central Office in Washington was down here and he was holding news conferences and trying to develop a little support or a least acceptance from the local citizenry when I guess he kind of lost his cool. They of course objected to every effort to reason with them so at some point he indicated he might just let them have their way. He could just pull the Border Patrol back and form a line above the border like from Kingsville to Falfurrias and on across that way and the Valley could have its wets. That was not what they wanted. They just wanted to have all the wets they could use but they wanted us to control them. The story goes that when Mr. Kelly got back to Washington the work of his threat preceded him and he was criticized severely for what he had done and was told the nobody has the authority to give up any part of the United States. I think his job was whittled down a little bit as a result of that trip to south Texas at least that was the story that was floating around.
When I came into the Border Patrol everyone was being entered on duty on Temporary War-Service appointments. They did not have Civil Service Status. In fact everyone who entered from sometime early in 1942 until well after the war had the same king of appointment. I didnt happen to take an examination. By the time I applied they were just giving oral and of course a physical but some of the men had taken and passed the written examination and were appointed in the regular manner yet they too had temporary appointments. The decision to change their appointments and the arbitrary date they set killed their permanent status. When we were told several years later after the war that everyone would have to take the written examination and be appointed to permanent positions or be separated all of us were a little concerned. Those of us who were going to be affected certainly were. We had to take the written exam and then we had to go through the oral and physical exams all over again. The oral exam was pretty well cut and dried ahead of time. The Board members who were Chiefs from within the District all knew us and knew how they were going to handle each of us and I think the Board members just played with us just enjoyed hasseling us a little bit that day. Those of us in the Valley went to San Benito to the Post Office building and took our written test there. Then we waited several weeks to find out what scores we had made then waited some more for the orals to be scheduled. After all the tests our names went on a register according to our written test grade. Appointments were made from that register over a period of two or three months maybe longer. Finally the Service told us that if we were not reached on the register for appointment and we were down to within thirty days of being separated they would add ten points to our score. It that put a name within reach the man was converted to Permanent appointment. Most of us managed to be retained and get permanent status but there were several who just did not make it; they were dropped and some of them were real good men. That was an unnerving period for those who had that kind of appointment.
Another period in the history of the Service which I think was much worse much more unnerving because it affected everyone occurred back in the early 30s I think. It was then the Border Patrol was under the Department of Labor. The old timers I encountered when I joined all talked about the Benzene Board. This board it seems was formed by they called her Madam Perkins her first name was Frances. She was the Secretary of Labor under part of Franklin Roose