Soldier for hire

I am currently reading a book about Swedes who have participated in wars around the world over the last 100-150 years while the country itself retained neutrality. Most of these soldiers of fortune went out and did battle for, essentially, the pay. Then there were some who just loved fighting and soldiering. One of those chaps I read about today: Emil Holmdahl.

Emil wasn’t born in Sweden. He was born in Iowa in 1883 to Swedish/American parents. Lying about his age, he joined up and went to fight in the little known, Philippine – American War.

The war didn’t last very long, so Emil then headed for China to take part in the Boxer Insurgency.

Back in the US, he was in San Francisco for the great earthquake and spent his time guarding the US Treasury Buildings from, I guess, looting.

In 1907, the army discharged him from service. I don’t know why. Apparently he was a good soldier who loved his work – well, apart from guarding buildings which he found irksome. He did enjoy the army life and was a career soldier, to all intents and purposes, something highlighted by his next move. He went south and joined the Honduran army to fight against Nicaraguan invaders in the ranks of the wonderfully named Lee Christmas Mercenaries.

One of the reasons he was there was because the Honduran side had managed to get hold of a load of US machine guns. The new technology was not that easy to use and tended to be a bit unreliable. Obviously, using experienced ex-US soldiers to fire them made perfect sense.

The Nicaraguans were ousted and the war ended. Emil went back to the US only to find a severe recession going on. He decided to work in Mexico for a bit as a security guard on the railway. His job chiefly involved him fending off bandits. Or so his employers told him. As soon as he realised that the so-called bandits were actually the goodies, he switched sides.

He fought for a while in Mexico, joining Pancho Villa’s lot until he was seriously wounded. Having recovered, he tried to rejoin the US Army in order to fight in the Great War. A previous conviction held him back however so the army wouldn’t take him.

This makes me think of Alice’s Restaurant and how the US Army thinks a conviction for something is enough to keep someone out of a group of people whose sole aim is to roam around the country killing people. So bizarre. Surely a prerequisite to death and destruction is a wholesale disregard for humanity rather than being law-abiding. Still, what do I know?

Good news for Emil though: His conviction was quashed and he was signed back up and, in July 1917, he shipped out to France. I can only assume he was delighted.

He survived the war and, in 1920, left the US Army for good.

He then went looking for gold. Pancho Villa’s gold to be exact. He was convinced he knew where to find it. He hunted high and low, he may even have looked in Villa’s coffin but, of gold, he found none. He might have stolen Villa’s head though. This is possibly what Emil Holmdahl is best known for: being the man who stole Pancho Villa’s head. Not that anyone knows for sure. And I don’t know why it’s a problem, after all, Villa wasn’t using it anymore.

Pancho Villa looking a bit miserable

(There’s an excellent page here on the whole Pancho Villa story, including the lost head.)

Emil died in 1963 having reached the grand old age of 79. An extraordinary life story.

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