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How the Army Taught Courage Before World War II: Elizabeth Letts on "The Perfect Horse"

Perfect horseMany of us have heard the heroic story of the "Monuments Men"—Allied troops tasked with retrieving iconic artworks stolen by the Nazis during WWII. In The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts sheds light on another of Hitler's infamous heists, that of prized stallions from Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, and other parts of Europe, with the aim of employing eugenics to breed the consummate war horse (of course, of course). The harrowing mission to save these magnificent creatures, not just from the clutches of the Nazis, but the advancing--and very hungry—Russian army, was approved by General George S. Patton, evidently no slouch on the polo field. But consent came with a worrying caveat: if things went south, the ragtag band of rescuers were on their own. So why, in the midst of so much human suffering, did these men willingly risk their lives in this equine endeavor? Here, Letts talks about a unique code of honor that helps answer this question...

Imagine galloping cross-country, leaping over ditches, fences and gates and sliding down steep embankments as you go. If your horse stumbles, and you're pitched to the ground among flailing hooves, your sergeant will holler get back in the saddle. Unless you're out cold, you'd better do it. You didn't grow up riding horses—you hail from the Bronx, or the South Side of Chicago. You got your driver's license before you ever pulled on a pair of boots. But since you arrived for basic training eight weeks ago, you've learned to get a horse off a picket line, saddle it up, and be ready to ride in under eight minutes. In an age of tanks and aircraft, jeeps and armored cars, the Army still believes that this training is indispensable. Until the early 1940s, Fort Riley, Kansas mass-produced competent horsemen.

When I started researching The Perfect Horse I did not know that the United States was still training mounted soldiers a year after Japan dropped a bomb on Pearl Harbor, nor that there was a heated debate about the role of horses in the Army. Turns out, the interwar years are called the cavalry's Golden Age: Army-bred horses won Olympic medals, and Army-trained riders shone in international competitions. To belong to the US Cavalry, was to be a skilled rider. It was also to be trained in a code of honor known to cavalries around the world: always take care of your horse first.

In the last days of World War II, the world's most priceless purebreds were in danger of being slaughtered for food. Their only hope was a group of American soldiers who by chance were camped out nearby. As it happened, these were the soldiers of the Second Cavalry—one America's most storied mounted units, and one of the last to be mechanized—finally switching from horses to tanks in mid-1942. General Patton believed that horses taught courage—now this belief would be put to the test.

When World War II ended, the few remaining horse proponents were forced to give up the fight. A few years after the war, the last horses were led away from Fort Riley as grizzled cavalry veterans saluted and wept. A fledgling United States Equestrian Team was founded to develop civilian riders for Olympic Competition. The twentieth century cavalry soldier was largely forgotten.

But as Patton liked to remind people, many of the most celebrated leaders in World War II got their start as cavalry officers, and in the last days of the war, when the priceless purebreds were in danger—these men remembered the lesson to put the horses first!


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