How the military made the
By TIM HORAN
With an interest in animals in the military, Beverly Barnette of Enterprise was anticipating the presentation on the U.S. Cavalry.
Author Gary Palmer discussed his book “The U.S. Cavalry - Time of Transition, 1938-1944: Horses to Mechanization” at the Visitors Center Auditorium at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum Saturday.
During the 1930s and into World War II, the U.S. Cavalry wrestled with a fundamental question: should its horses be retired and replaced with tanks and other mechanized vehicles or should the horse remain the mainstay of the cavalry? Time of Transition is a volume of military history that salutes the pioneers who stood at the crossroads of tradition and modernization and courageously grappled with the challenges of change.
“I really find WW II interesting,” Barnette said. “I currently am looking exclusively at the Eastern Front. They had camels on the Eastern Front. They had reindeer and dogs; all these animals. So here we are talking about horses.
“You don’t hear much about the Eastern Front anyway,” she said.
She said that the Russian military was using dogs to blow up tanks.
“They trained their dogs to have a harness with a spindle top,” she said. “It would go under a tank and then blow up. The Germans were scared to death of these dogs. The trouble was a dog couldn’t tell the difference from a German tank and a Russian tank.”
Palmer said the transition from Cavalry to vehicles started in 1940.
“A secretive meeting in the basement of a high school was held,” he said. “Most of the nation’s top generals were involved. Some like Col. George Patton were not invited.
“The meeting was held in secrecy,” he said. “The Army had been trying to transition from horses to motorized vehicles. The basement conspiracy, as it had became known, was to form a separate armored branch.”
Even though the new branch of the Army was formed on June 6, 1940, Palmer said it would take at least three years to become effective.
“The decision to make the transition happened in early 1940,” Palmer said. “The change was not easy. There was some validity to maintaining horses.
“You have to think back to what were the military vehicles of that era. You had motorcycles. You had old trucks, GMCs, and armored cars,” he said. “None of these were what you would call silent running vehicles. If you were a Calvary group and part of your task was reconnaissance, you’re not going to roll up onto your enemy on a motorcycle and go unnoticed.
“Another problem was terrain,” he said. “As long as there was some type of road, most of these vehicles could be used quite well. But if you got into hilly country or wooded areas, the horse had some advantages.”
Most of Palmer’s discussion Saturday was about stories he published in his book.
“There are so many interesting people and so many stories,” he said.
“What first peaked my interest was my father,” he said. His father served in the 106th Cavalry Group in World War II.
“I was 14 years old at the time,” he said. “I realized my dad was in the military. He was in the Army but I didn’t know he was in the Cavalry.”
His Dad and a friend would tell stories bout going through WW II.
“I know by heart most of the stories, which generally included some kind of humor,” he said. “Being 14, I didn’t have enough common sense to learn where this event occurred, when this even occurred, or who they were with when it occurred. It just didn’t cross my mind.”
He told a typical story.
“My dad and his buddy were out in a Jeep on a recon mission. They were following a map and when they came to the end of the map there was a town down below. They had no idea the name of the town. They decided to make a quick recon through the town. About halfway through town, they came to the realization that people walking up and down the streets were all dressed in gray. For those of you in the military, gray usually meant German solders. They continued to drive to the other side of town. They stopped, looked at each other, and realized they were now behind enemy lines. They decided to drive through the town one time and nobody shot at them. So they said, ‘let’s try driving back through.’ They turned around, managed to get through the town and reported back. They then knew the name of the town and it was foreign occupied.”
Another was about then Col. Dwight Eisenhower.
He was looking for a location of a new camp.
“They went out and, after spending several hours on horseback, they came across a sandy ridge. Eisenhower got off and walked to the top to survey the area. He decided that would be the location of the new camp. Something that is little known is that he was using a walking stick at that time. Apparently, as he was training at West Point, he suffered an injury playing football and he walked from time-to-time with a walking stick. He took his walking stick and stabbed it into the sandy ground and said this was the location of the new camp. That became Camp Polk; Fort Polk.
“These are the stories I felt were important to get out,” he said, adding that “Horses to Mechanization” is the first in a series of four.
The second will be about WWII from the Normandy Invasion to the Liberation of Paris.