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Sig Unander: a historian and a gentleman

World War II - A Cornelius art dealer takes a documentary film about a squadron of Mexican fighters under his wing - and watches it fly
by: Chase Allgood, Cornelius resident Sig Unander is collaborating with Mexican American filmmaker Victor Mancilla on a movie about the Aztec Eagles. He also hopes to make a documentary about Portland native Claire Philips, an American spy in the Philippines during World War II.

History sometimes seems like a long dark tunnel where the lives and connections of the past lay quietly in the shadows.

Occasionally, art becomes a flashlight, history suddenly seems less daunting and, in fact, becomes interesting and applicable.

That is why the world needs people like Sig Unander, who lives in Cornelius.

Unander is a historian and aviation art collector and dealer who is perhaps best represented by one image: the P-47 Thunderbolt that displays both the distinct American star on a white and blue background and the green, white and red stripes of the Mexican flag.

The image is the centerpiece of a poster he commissioned Seattle artist Jack Fellows to paint in commemoration of the Mexican Squadron 201 that fought with the U.S. 6th Army during the last days of World War II in the Pacific theater.

The image is also the subject of a documentary film, 'The Forgotten Eagles,' premiering at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville this weekend.

It may be just the image that some people need to see today.

In light of immigration grabbing headlines all over the country, Unander said it's important to realize that 'national relationships are not just built by diplomats. They're built by one-to-one personal relationships.'

Instead of focusing on aspects of Mexican governance or relationships that are negative, Unander hopes to tell a positive story - and thereby influence the perception of Americans.

Aviation aficionado

Unander, 55, grew up in Portland's West Hills, knowing little about Latin American culture. After earning a bachelor's degree in political science at Pacific University, he decided to tackle the Spanish language independently in addition to heading to Portland State University for a graduate degree in Latin American studies.

During that time, while visiting a store in Hillsboro looking for Spanish-language materials, he stumbled upon an aviation magazine. Unander was intrigued to learn that there was a 300-member expeditionary Mexican Air Force that supported U.S. and Philippine ground troops during World War II.

The story of the 'Aguiluchos' or 'Fighting Eagles,' as they were called, may very well be as nuanced as modern Americans' relationships with Mexicans.

During their training, members of Squadron 201 were stationed all over the United States. Most notably, they trained as a unit in Pocatello, Idaho, where they received a warm welcome. The newspaper even printed a large greeting in Spanish in a banner on the front page.

The ugliness of racism exposed itself in Greenville, Texas, however, where many of the men experienced discrimination for the first time in their lives. Because the men were from upper class families - some even descended from Spanish colonizers, they were appalled to be refused service in restaurants. Some of them even filed complaints with the Mexican Consulate.

'Today Mexicans come to help and build our economy and add richness and value to our lives,' Unander said. And (like Squadron 201) they, too, should be welcomed.'

Unander first traveled to Mexico City in 1996 to search for the remaining pilots. His goal was to create a special autographed print commemorating the 'Aguiluchos.'

The U.S. Embassy was of little help, claiming that all of the pilots were dead. However, Unander found a young Mexican history buff who claimed to know one of the pilots. The man turned out to be Capt. Miguel Moreno Arreola.

Moreno, who continued working as a pilot after the war, had always wanted to be an architect and loved the idea of a fine art poster. This sparked a friendship between Unander and the remaining Fighting Eagles. In 1996, 13 of 31 were still alive.

Threw a party

After years of research and working with an artist, Unander released 'Strike of the Aztec Eagles,' a print representing the June 17, 1945 raid by eight P-47s on a Japanese convoy on Luzon. In 2002, he threw a party in Mexico City to celebrate the pilots' achievements and to commemorate Mexico's contributions to the Allied Cause in WWII.

At that point, only 11 men were alive to sign the poster.

Around that time, Unander began working with Victor Mancilla, a Mexican American filmmaker from Los Angeles, to make 'The Forgotten Eagles.' The documentary features interviews in the three countries involved - the U.S., Mexico and the Philippines.

Unander and Mancilla accompanied two of the pilots to the Philippines, where they were filmed walking on the old, broken-down runway for the first time since the end of the war.

As history goes, the Mexicans were in the Philippines only three months before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945. The Japanese formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Before they left the Philippines, the men of Squadron 201 were decorated in a formal ceremony by Maj. Gen. Basilio J. Valdez, Secretary of Defense and Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army.

As Unander recounted, 'On that morning the men passed in formal review, then heard the Philippine commander pay tribute to them and recall the historic links between the Philippine and Mexican peoples. As a lone Thunderbolt dove from the sky and roared fast and low over the airfield, the young Mexican officers and men stood proud and straight as General Valdez pinned the Philippine Liberation Medal to their uniforms and saluted them.'

On Oct. 23, most of the officers and men of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force boarded the Sea Marlin, a transport ship, in Manila Bay and began the eastward journey across the Pacific to the United States. When the Sea Marlin docked at the port city of San Pedro, near Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 1945, the men were taken by car convoy to a city park where they were welcomed and honored with speeches by city officials and showered with confetti and flowers in an emotional celebration by 30,000 Mexican-Americans.

There's been tremendous growth in tourism and exchange between the two countries since then. The North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico was signed in 1994. Immediate past president Vicente Fox sent a Mexican medical squadron to help after Hurricane Katrina, making it the second deployment abroad in Mexican history. Today, many Mexicans immigrate north, creating one of the fastest growing populations in the United States.

'I'm not endorsing illegal immigration, but it grabs a disproportionate share of the media,' said Unander. 'Many Mexicans are here legally.'

Unander, who's also working on 'The Great Wave,' a book about immigration, hopes that in sharing this story, North Americans will be reminded of the positive aspects of U.S.-Mexican relations and their own role in the forming of that relationship.

Men of Squadron 201 helped cement U.S.-Mexico relations

In May of 1942, German U-boats torpedoed a Mexican oil tanker and, when no apology was issued, President Avila Camacho decided to join the Allied forces. According to the 1917 Constitution, the president wasn't allowed to deploy troops without consent of the Senate, so a campaign was started to raise support for the war.

Two years later, the Mexican Air Force staged an air show for a crowd of 100,000 people, and Camacho gave a speech declaring that Mexico should join World War II. Even Walt Disney joined in the propaganda, releasing 'The Three Caballeros,' a film made to foster inter-American solidarity. Squadron 201 later adapted its seal from the film.

Initially, the plan was for the troops to join the Brazilians fighting in Italy. However, on May 1, 1945, Squadron 201 entered Manila, a city with ties to colonial Mexico for 375 years.

During the days of imperial Spain, the Manila galleon traveled twice a year between Manila and Acapulco. The two Spanish colonies became key ports in the global trade; the gold came from Mexico, and silk, spices and other goods came from East Asian markets.

Because of the cross-pollination between the two worlds, the two countries felt historically tied together, and Camacho suggested to President Franklin Roosevelt that the Mexican unit could aid '...the liberation of a people for whom it is felt a continuity of idiom, history and traditions.'

Though the relationship between Mexico and the Philippines was a warm one, U.S.-Mexican relations had been strained since the annexation of what is now Texas and the southwestern United States in 1847. (We call it the Mexican-American War. They call it the Invasion of the North.) In addition to being the first time that Mexico sent troops overseas, Squadron 201 marked the beginning of more positive relations between the U.S. and Mexico.

'Mexico is our friend and ally and is deserving of the respect those terms imply,' said Sig Unander. 'Notwithstanding its problems, relations are better than they have ever been in history.'

See the film premiere:

What: 'The Forgotten Eagles,' a tribute to the men of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force

Where: Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, 500 N.E. Capt. Michael King Smith Way, McMinnville

When: Friday, Jan. 11 at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 12 at 7:15 p.m.

Info: Tickets are $5 to $7. Call 503-434-4180 or visit www.sprucegoose.org.