Emil Lewis Holmdahl (August 26, 1883 – April 8, 1963) was a machine gunner, soldier of fortune, spy, gun runner, and treasure hunter who fought under John J. Pershing in the Spanish–American War in the Philippines, under Lee Christmas in Central America, under Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, and Venustiano Carranza in the Mexican Revolution, and under John J. Pershing in World War I. In 1926, Holmdahl was accused of having stolen Francisco Pancho Villa's head.
Born on August 26, 1883 in Fort Dodge, Iowa of Swedish-American parents, the young Holmdahl did not get much of a formal education. Before finishing high school, he followed President McKinley's call to arms against Spain. Lying about his age, he joined the 51st Volunteer Iowa Infantry Regiment in 1898 together with his older brother Monty. He shipped out to the Philippines within months. As the population of the Philippines did not take well to the American occupation and rose in revolt, the war ended as quickly as it had begun. With a brief interlude, in which Holmdahl joined American forces to battle the Boxer insurgency in China in 1900, the young infantry soldier fought insurgents in the Philippine Islands.
He returned to the United States in 1906, 22 years old, and one of the youngest sergeants in the Infantry. In the years of combat in the Far East Holmdahl had become an expert marksman, a dare devil counter insurgency fighter, and committed to a soldier's career. Back in the United States, Holmdahl's unit, the 20th Infantry Regiment was based in San Francisco. Within a month of settling into camp life in Monterrey, a tremendous earthquake and subsequent fires virtually destroyed San Francisco on April 18, 1906. Holmdahl's unit rushed into the smoldering remains of the city to rescue residents and maintain order. "It was worse than soldiering in the Philippine Islands. I was on guard at the United States Sub Treasury Building for 125 hours with little sleep," Holmdahl commented on his service in San Francisco. The army discharged him in January 1907.
Knowledgeable in jungle fighting techniques and soldiering, Holmdahl joined the mercenary troops of "General" Lee Christmas in Honduras and Nicaragua. Christmas supported the Honduran President Manuel Bonilla against an invasion by Nicaragua in 1907 and fought to oust the Nicaraguan dictator Zelaya who was a puppet of the United Fruit Corporation. The Nicaraguan forces retreated as a result of Bonilla's counter offensive, in which the American mercenary army led by Christmas played a major role. In the fall of 1909, Zelaya left Managua. Holmdahl fought alongside two other legendary soldiers of fortune, Sam Dreben and Tracy Richardson, all three highly paid and coveted machine gun experts. Machine guns had just become an important tactical weapon in warfare. People who could operate these unreliable and temperamental guns were few and far between and almost exclusively former American soldiers.
Holmdahl returned to the United States in 1909. A severe recession in the United States that spilled into the Mexican economy combined with an aging dictator who refused to allow free elections created unrest all over Mexico. Holmdahl took a security job at a railroad company with the task to fight "bandits." Supposedly switching sides when he realized that the "bandits" were Insurrectos, Holmdahl joined Francisco Madero's forces in the spring of 1911. Within months of an armed uprising that started in Chihuahua, Porfirio Diaz went into exile. Now a major Holmdahl remained a member of the Mexican army through the spring of 1913. His first assignment took him to Morelos where he joined federal troops in a fight against Emiliano Zapata. Holmdahl also joined the Mexican Secret Service under the command of Felix A. Sommerfeld in the same period. As a machine gunner in Pancho Villa's irregulars he decimated Pascual Orozco's rebel forces, while relating important intelligence to Sommerfeld in El Paso. "We knocked the Hell out of him [Orozco] and his troops later while with Villa at San Andres where I earned the Legion of Honor medal."
When President Madero died in a coup d'etat in February 1913, Holmdahl immediately joined the Constitutionalist forces under the command of Venustiano Carranza. After fighting in Sonora, the soldier of fortune was seriously injured and spent several months recovering in Douglas, Arizona. Still "thin and pale … but … cheerful," Holmdahl was assigned to Villa's forces around the beginning of November 1913. In the summer of 1914, the combined Constitutionalist forces ousted General Victoriano Huerta, who had usurped the presidency from Madero over a year prior. Not able to reconcile their differences, Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza split and started a new civil war in 1915. Holmdahl chose to remain with Carranza and helped smuggle arms and ammunition across the border into Mexico. He was promptly caught, indicted, tried, and convicted in El Paso in the fall of 1915 for gunrunning. While free on bond, Holmdahl tried to re-join the US army but was rejected as a result of his felony conviction. Finally, in March 1916, in the aftermath of Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico, his application was approved. Holmdahl joined the Pancho Villa Expedition under the command of John J. Pershing as a scout.
As a prerequisite to join the US military permanently, Holmdahl had to get his felony conviction overturned. He tirelessly appealed to former commanders of his, Hugh L. Scott, by 1917 Army Chief of Staff, and John J. Pershing, the designated commander of the expeditionary forces, as well as members of Congress and the Mayor of El Paso Tom Lea for a presidential pardon. Finally, in July 1917 Holmdahl received his pardon, joined the 6th Engineers and shipped out to France. After he returned to the US and managed selling off military surplus, Holmdahl left the US Army in 1920 for good.
In the early 1920s, Holmdahl became obsessed with finding "Pancho Villa's gold." Folklore had it that Villa hid millions of dollars in gold bullion somewhere in the Sierra Madres. Holmdahl organized several treasure hunting expeditions but did not find the gold. In 1926, while on a treasure hunting expedition the retired soldier of fortune stopped in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua. There federal police arrested Holmdahl and a companion and charged them with having vandalized Pancho Villa's grave and taken his head. Holmdahl managed to talk his way out of jail and through the waiting Mexican lynching mobs. Villa's head was never recovered. While Holmdahl maintained his innocence until his death, the suspicion remains that he stole the head for an American customer. While there are many theories of who vandalized Villa's grave and who took the head, one rumor claims that Villa's skull ended up in the secret Skull and Bones Society at Yale University. Emil Holmdahl died "on April 8, 1963, while loading his automobile with his prospecting tools..."