Leo Dunnigan entered the U.S. Border Patrol at McAllen Texas on July 5 1949. He is one of the very few Border Patrolmen who was successful in passing his probationary period without the benefit of formal Academy training. According to his own account the Academy only had one class in 1949 and that was before he entered the Service. Leo was a Naval Aviator before becoming a Border Patrolman. Interview was conducted at the National Border Patrol Museum El Paso Texas on May 16 1989 by Ms. Terrie Cornell
LD – I was raised in Waihalla North Dakota.
TC – And there was a Border Patrol Station there?
LD – During the time I was going to school yes. It was terminated right at the beginning of the war 1942 or 43 41 or 42 I guess.
TC – Do you remember any of the men who were there?
LD – Yes. Red Hodson. He was there when I was going to high school and then he was a Border Patrolman out of Casa Grande when I was out there.
TC – So thats were you became acquainted with the Border Patrol?
LD – Right.
TC – And then the war broke out?
LD – The war broke out and I went into the military and came back.
When I took the test for the Border Patrol I was working for the
Prison Service in Englewood Colorado. Then I guess it was almost a year later when I went in the Service at McAllen.
TC – And what was the date of your EOD?
LD – July 5 1949.
TC – And you had learned to fly in the
LD – In the military right.
TC – Where?
LD – I was a naval aviator. I came through the aviation cadet program. I started out at Iowa City Iowa in the pre-f light school at the University. And then I went to Hutchinson and Corpus Christi graduated at Corpus.
TC – So you entered on duty at McAllen and you came up here for school?
LD – No there was no school at that time.
TC – Is that that one –
LD – Thats what they called the 49ers yes. There was one school during the year and it was in January of 49 here at Camp Chigas.
TC – And the rest of the year?
LD – Everybody that came in during the rest of the year didnt go to school.
TC – Because?
LD – I dont really know why they didnt go to school. They didnt run the school.
TC – So you never had to learn Spanish?
LD – Oh yes yes. There was no relaxation of the requirements. You still had to learn Spanish.
TC – But on your own.
LD – Right. In fact we didnt even have inservice instructors like they had later on.
TC – How did you do it?
LD – I dont really know how we did it I guess working together with the rest of them and the older Border Patrolmen helped me. There were a tremendous number of people that didnt make it. You know I dont suppose over fifteen per cent of the people that took the test ended up Border Patrolmen at that time.
TC – Who else was in your group at that tine?
LD – Other 49ers? Well John Bailey was one of the people that
Was with me. Claud Hicks Jim Blockinger Ed Mcclure.
TC – So you stayed right there in McAllen and
LD – No after about two or three weeks I was transferred up to
Kingsville and I stayed at Kingsville for four years.
TC – Who was the Chief then at McAllen?
LD – Fletcher Rawls.
TC – And who were the Seniors?
LD: The Seniors at McAllen? Mr. Jim Cottingham and Sam McKone.
TC – And at Kingsville who was in charge there?
LD – Lets see Arthur Swain came just after I got there. T.E.
Phillips was a senior he and Bill Toney. And right after I got
there – actually they were in the process of changing at the tine Arthur Swain came from McAllen.
TC – And he was in charge of the Kingsville Station?
LD – He was in charge of the Kingsville Station all the time I was there.
TC – Who else did you work with there? You didnt do any flying there?
LD – No. I started flying in 53 when I transferred back to McAllen.
TC: And who was chief there in 53?
LD – Fletcher Rawls. And Phil Pring – thats when they put the second pilot in. I was the second pilot in McAllen. There were only two sectors had two pilots. There were two pilots here in El Paso and then McAllen got two pilots.
TC – Phil Pring and you.
LD – Phil Pring and I yes. And Bill Turner and Hayfield were here.
TC – And what did you fly a Super cub?
LD – No we were flying Cessna 170s down there. They had a Super Cub and a Bonanza here.
TC – And you had two Cessnas down there.
LD – Yes.
TC – And what did you do? Up and down the border?
LD –No mostly we worked with the ground units there in McAllen. That was the start of the Task Forces actually the way you used the Task Force down there.
TC –That was right at the beginning of Operation Wetback.
LD –Well it was before that but thats where all the technique came from. Working the units on the ground where you work fifteen or twenty units from the airplane directing them here and there and everywhere.
TC – And you guys kind of devised that system.
LD –Well I think thats where it was pioneered yes. Because it went on to be used. As I understood their operation here in El Paso it was mostly signcutting. But ours was not signcutting it was strictly with the units.
TC –You said twenty units under you at one time?
LD –Oh sometimes you would have twenty yeah. But normally you would have maybe six seven eight to ten. But we used that same technique in other places after that. They may have been using it out in El Centro too. They had a situation that was similar to ours in McAllen. Large huge numbers of aliens three four five hundred working in a field. I remember one morning there at Donna Road and 495 in the valley we had three thousand aliens on the ground by ten oclock in one place.
TC –And what happened to them?
LD –Oh it took us the rest of the day to haul them off.
TC –That was before Operation Wetback?
TC –And how did it change during Operation Wetback?
LD –Well the same thing occurred except we had so many men and so many people you know. I dont remember but the apprehension numbers were like five and six thousand a day. That three thousand that happened to be kind of a special deal that we ran. But it was rather remarkable with something like fifteen or twenty men I guess.
TC –How long were you there in McAllen the second time?
LD –Until February of 55 when I was transferred to Tucson.
TC –And you were in Tucson eight years?
LD –Until mid1965. I dont remember what month it was August or something like that. About ten years.
TC –Tell me about Tucson were you the first pilot there?
LD –No Bob Brewster was the first pilot there. No he might not have been. I think maybe Greg Hathaway was actually the first pilot there. The three pioneers so to speak: Hathaway and Parker and Henderson.
TC –He wasnt killed in the autogiro?
LD –No Ned Henderson was killed in the autogiro.
TC –But Hathaway was one of the pilots?
LD –Yes. And later quit and became head of the Arizona Highway
Patrol and stayed there until he retired.
TC –Hes not still living is he?
LD – No. Parker died recently and he was the last of the
TC –I got him on tape. So you went out there with Brewster in Tucson?
LD –No Brewster had left. Thats how I happened to go there I took his place.
TC –Who else was flying out there?
LD –I was the only one for almost the entire time. The last couple of years I had another pilot.
TC –Who was that?
LD –Jack Ewing came there and then Darryl Carrico was transferred in from Florida after the Florida operation. They started phasing it out.
TC –What did you fly in Tucson?
TM: I got the first Cessna 180 in the Border Patrol. I had a
Super Cub for a little while and then it went to Marfa. The Cessna 180 had been ordered for the Tucson Sector.
TC –You never got another Super Cub?
LD –We got a Super Cub later after the second pilot came but I flew a 180 or 182 all the time I was out there.
TC –You dont happen to remember the number of that Super Cub that you got?
LD –The Super Cub no I sure dont. I may have a picture of it though.
TC –What did you do flying in Tucson?
TM: Well Tucson was quite a bit different than it was down in McAllen although we did some of the same work with the farm crews up in the Phoenix area and Casa Grande and the Gila Bend Area.
But we worked over the sign cutting units. Not sign cutting per se from the airplane only a very few places you could do that in the Tucson Sector along the border. But we used to use it more or less to pin the alien down so that the ground units could get to him. If I stayed over the top of the country ahead of them I could keep the alien down until they could get there. Or quite frequently Id find them out there somewhere. But there is no question that in most of the Tucson country that they can conceal themselves.
TC –Did you do many search and rescue type things?
LD –Hunted for a lot of escaped prisoners out of Florence. The State or Federal penitentiary always seemed to have somebody getting loose from time to time. And they always asked for our help. And I spent sixty hours hunting for Ed Parkers abscondee at ten thousand feet out there – the alien that jumped out of the airplane.
TC –You were involved in that?
TC –They never did find him.
LD –No they never did find him. But I flew for a week and a half or two weeks – I think I flew nearly sixty hours looking for him something like that.
TC –They chalked that up as a suicide finally didnt they?
LD –I dont know.
TC –Ed was flying the plane when he jumped?
TC –Thats quite a story. But you didnt find many aliens dead or halfdead in the desert.
LD –No. In fact I dont remember having any at that time. They did over in the Yuma Sector but not the Tucson Sector. There is enough water in most of that country that they can get to water once in a while. Except maybe over at Ajo in the Gila Bend area thats pretty desolate. But we didnt have a lot of aliens moving through the Gila Bend country at that time. Later I understand they did but we didnt at that time. Most of it was through Nogales or Douglas.
TC –And you were stationed in Tucson itself?
TC –Who was the Chief then?
LD –I had seven while I was there. I started out with Bill Yeager.
TC –Tell me about Walter Miller. You said you interviewed him for the Sector history.
LD –I wish I could remember everything he said you know.
TC –What kind of a man was he? He was retired then?
LD –Right he was retired but he had a memory that I wish I had now. He could remember every person who had been employed at that time and why each station was placed where it was and the complement he could tell you how many automobiles the station had and how many horses. For the history I wasnt interested in personal histories at the time but I wish I had been because I should have put down some of the things he told me.
TC –He was retired there in Tucson?
LD –He was retired there in Tucson.
TC –Was he old at the time you –
LD –Right. He was probably in his 70s.
TC –And he died when?
LD –That I cant tell you I dont know.
TC –He had been Chief at Tucson.
LD –He was the first Chief at Tucson.
TC –Had he been a river rider or border rider?
LD –He had been a Chinese Inspector. He told me stories about these Chinese smuggling cases that they made back before the formation of the Border Patrol.
TC –Was he a tall man a handsome man?
LD –He was a good looking man. As I recall he stood about five foot probably nine or ten inches tall. Of course now he might have been taller than that at an earlier age too.
TC –And he had clear recall?
LD –Tremendous it really amazed me the memory that he had. He had a better memory at his age than I had and I was a young man and I didnt have that kind of memory.
TC –Who were some of the characters you worked with?
LD –Characters? Ooph. Sam McKone. I would have to put him up
TC –Tell me about Nettle.
LD –Well I didnt know Nettle until I became Assistant Chief at Port Isabel.
TC –Oh that was after Tucson?
LD –Well I quit flying at Tucson. I went chasing around sitting in one of these dentist chairs. But I was Assistant Chief at Port Isabel and Nettle was Senior at Galveston. And thats how I got to know him. I had known him by reputation only until that time.
TC –What did you do at Port Isabel? You were Assistant Chief?
LD –I was Assistant Chief. Dave Blackwell was the Chief.
TC –Is that when that was the Sector?
TC –Or was it the Academy?
LD –The Academy was there also. So was the District the Port Isabel District.
TC –So you were Assistant Chief under Dave Blackwell?
TC –Did you teach at the Academy?
LD –No. I think I probably lectured a couple of times but that was it.
TC –From Tucson you went to Port Isabel?
TC –Who was Chief there then?
LD – Jim Kelly was first and then he transferred to Tucson and Speedy Williams was the Chief.
TC –How long were you there?
LD –Six years.
TC –And then you went to Port Isabel. Did you retire from Port Isabel?
LD –No I was Deputy at McAllen when I retired.
TC –Deputy under who?
LD –Tommy Ball.
TC –So your career made a great big geographical circle.
LD –I started at McAllen and ended there.
TC –When did you retire?
LD –I think it was the 17th of December of 1977.
TC –So you were in almost thirty years.
TC –Can you remember any funny stories or stories about these characters?
LD –There were a lot of characters. The NcAllen station when I was there was a bunch of characters. We had one there I cant remember his name right at the moment that was constantly in trouble you know. He was a living legend. Im sure his file was a foot thick. Just right now I cant think of any.
TC -We have a memo out there from Nettle about a cabbage smuggling case. I forget where it came from but its hilarious.
LD –You know I wonder if somebody filched that off me because I havent been able to find that. I had a number of them. One of them was an investigation he conducted on an automobile accident up in Houston where Tex Lorphing was involved in some accident. It was probably as fine a letter as I ever saw.
TC -: He had a sense of humor.
LD –: He did.
TC –When did he die? He got to retire?
LD – Right. He was a northern Minnesota individual you know and he went back up to the piney woods of northern Minnesota when he retired. He wasnt in the best of health when he retired. But what he died of I dont know. Nobody ever saw him after he got up there except Balentine I guess. Theres one you ought to interview sometime.
LD –Yes. Jim Balentine. He commutes between south Texas and northern Michigan. Hes the one that will remember all the humorous stories. McKone would too. Have you ever interviewed McKone?
TC –He interviewed himself kind of. But he writes me the funniest letters.
LD –I know he sent me a copy of what he sent you.
END OF INTERVIEW
Transcribed by Roberta Shasteen on March 8 1990.
Edited by Terrie Cornell March 20 1990.