BY COLLEEN P. CLARK
Capt. Emilio Carranza may have died tragically on July 12, 1928, when his plane came crashing down in the Pine Barrens during a lightning storm, but his mission of goodwill has lived on — touching many lives and inspiring two nations.
Carranza, known as the Charles Lindbergh of Mexico, was commissioned by his government as a goodwill ambassador between the two countries. The aviator desired not just to test the limits of aviation but also to use the technology of flight to help connect Mexico and the United States and strengthen their relationship.
However, his mission came to an abrupt end during a return flight from New York to Mexico when he was just 22 years old.
The 83rd Annual Captain Emilio Carranza Memorial Service was held July 9 at the statue in his honor that can be found several miles down the narrow, winding Carranza Road in Tabernacle.
The crash site may be isolated, but it is not forgotten.
The annual service, always held on the second Saturday in July, brought out dozens of attendees including Carranza’s family, members of the military, Mexican dignitaries, committee members from both Tabernacle and Shamong, and local residents.
From Carranza’s tragedy was born a “simple but noble” ceremony to honor a man of service and goodwill, said Robert W. Barney, junior vice commander of American Legion Post 11 in Mt. Holly and chairman of the event. He explained to the crowd that it was members of his Mt. Holly post that were sent to find Carranza’s body.
After finding him amid the wreckage and carrying him out of the Wharton State Forest, they vowed to keep his memory alive and the same American Legion post has been holding this ceremony without fail since 1929.
“This day is as much yours as it is Emilio’s,” said Ismael Carranza, the aviator’s second cousin. “His spirit of goodwill remains here in your hearts, your minds, and your deeds.”
He thanked the members of the American Legion for carrying on this tradition to honor Carranza, his sacrifice, and his mission to improve communication and understanding around the world.
“It’s amazing what a young life can accomplish,” said Lawrence Gladfelter, American Legion post commander. “We come here to celebrate not the tragedy but the life of this young aviator.”
He added that at the time of the crash, there were many World War I veterans living in this area, and they understood the importance of celebrating his life to keep his memory alive.
“Captain Carranza died in the service of his country and has inspired many people who have come since then to be of service,” said Lt. Col. Robert Jennings, vice commander of the New Jersey Wing, Civil Air Patrol.
He said the word of the day should be “service.”
“It is the highest calling we can have to serve others,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, also in attendance at the ceremony, spoke of Carranza’s service as well and how it helped bridge the gap between two countries.
It’s amazing what you see in the heart of good people when they are faced with tragedy, he added, and a prime example of that is how Post 11 has carried on this ceremony.
“No matter what our differences, we are all on the same team,” he said.
Carranza, at the time of his death, held the record for the third longest nonstop solo flight, which was from San Diego, Calif. to Mexico City. He remains an aviation hero, especially in his own country. The United States flag used to drape his casket when it left Mt. Holly still hangs in Mexico’s School of Aviation.
Al Arce, who presented one of several wreaths during the ceremony, hopes to see Carranza’s memory carried on through the younger generations.
He literally stumbled upon the Carranza Memorial some 30 years ago when he was lost in the Pine Barrens, and as a Hispanic civil rights activist, he couldn’t believe he didn’t know it was there.
“Ever since then, it’s been on my bucket list to come to this ceremony,” he said.
Arce, a professor at Ocean County College, said it’s important to tell Carranza’s story to the younger generations because Hispanic youth need a role model to look up to. He said the average age of Hispanics in our country is 22, the age Carranza was when he died.
“There’s too much negativity going on in Mexico,” he said. “We need to get the kids to look at Carranza as a role model.”