The Last Horse Soldier
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Not one more horse will I give up for a tank.
- John K. Herr, U.S. Chief of Cavalry, June 1940
Appointed to head the U.S. Army’s cavalry branch in March 1938, Maj. Gen. John K. Herr had one overriding objective: to keep the U.S. Cavalry on horseback. Subordinates like Adna Chaffee, George Patton and Lucian Truscott looked to establish mechanized units within the cavalry, and Herr agreed, but on the condition that any increase in mechanized troops be matched by increases in horsed troops. Under the Army’s peacetime budget restrictions, this was not going to happen.
Like many cavalry officers, Herr had been a fine polo player in his day and enjoyed riding his magnificent thoroughbred Star Witness, sired by the famous War Admiral (that's them, over there on the right). Yet his attachment to the horse, seen as hopelessly quixotic even at the time, did not rise purely from nostalgia. Herr insisted on building the cavalry into a modern force suitable for a war of maneuver, and did not object to adding mechanized troops to the cavalry; on the contrary, he believed that mechanized units would take a vital role in the upcoming conflict. He simply resisted replacing horsed cavalry.
Operationally, Herr pushed for a Regular Army Cavalry Corps of two horsed and one mechanized divisions, trained and equipped for what later writers would call “deep battle” missions. Horsed cavalry, Herr insisted, had the unique ability to maintain its mobility by foraging for fodder, while mechanized units could not easily obtain fuel and parts in enemy territory.
Herr appears to have been well-liked within the cavalry branch, and respected by subordinates. But once war broke out in Europe and newsreels of rampaging German panzers played across the United States, pressure grew to do away with the horse. Herr objected strenuously, and his personal relationships frayed. During the 1940 Louisiana Maneuvers the 1st Cavalry Division performed well, but Chaffee and other officers went behind Herr’s back to propose a separate Armored Force. Herr never forgave what he perceived as treachery, and insisted that all cavalry officers swear allegiance to the horse. In response, many sought transfers to the rapidly-growing tank units.
While the German panzer divisions caught the imagination of the public and many Army officers, Herr pointed to other reports coming out of Europe, using public speeches and the semi-official magazine Cavalry Journal as his soapbox. The German Army retained a cavalry division and many separate squadrons for scouting because of their doctrine, Herr insisted, and not because of economic reasons.
Herr also cited the large cavalry establishments in Poland and the Soviet Union. These armies had the means to maintain cavalry – an infrastructure of stud farms and riding schools – and considered cavalry to hold an important role in maneuver warfare. The Russo-Polish War of the early 1920’s had shown the value of large-scale cavalry maneuvers; Herr may have been the only American officer who could pronounce Konarmiya. Other armies did not maintain large cavalry branches because they lacked the means; the United States with its large population of horses and skilled riders need not follow their bad example.
On the tactical level, Herr preached the gospel of mounted infantry. Though Herr restored the saber (abandoned in 1934), he considered this a peacetime morale boost. During actual combat cavalry should not charge the enemy, he wrote, but use their horses to reach the battlefield quickly and seize favorable positions. To hold those positions, Herr equipped his regiments with a relatively massive array of automatic weapons; machine gun platoons equalled the number of carbine-armed platoons. And while the infantry issued the awesome M2 Browning .50-caliber machine gun in very small numbers, Herr gave his horsemen entire platoons armed with the weapon.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Herr’s horsemen were ready. The 1st Cavalry Division was one of only a handful of units immediately deemed combat-ready at the moment war was declared, with the 2nd Cavalry Division and Washington Provisional Cavalry Brigade reported nearly so. Yet the orders to deploy did not come, and the 1st Cavalry Division found itself patrolling the Rio Grande while new formations made ready for battle.
Herr objected strenuously, seeking a spot for his well-trained 1st Cavalry Division in the upcoming Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. Army chief of staff George C. Marshall refused; Marshall’s predecessor, Malin Craig, had been a friend and patron but Marshal had no patience for what he saw as 19th-century thinking. Marshall abolished the Cavalry branch in March 1942, along with the other combat arms chiefs, and transferred their functions to the Army Ground Forces command. Herr, by then 64 years old, resigned and retired.
The 1st Cavalry Division remained at Fort Hood, Texas when American troops landed in North Africa. And soon a number of American generals, including the “traitors” Patton and Truscott, were asking for mounted reconnaissance squadrons for use in the rough mountains of Tunisia. The American commander in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower, agreed and endorsed the request. But once he had sent the cavalry to the knackers, Marshall would not be moved.
Herr’s strident personality no doubt helped the cavalry “lose it all,” as he put it afterwards, but he apparently crossed another line as well. Herr had overseen the creation of the 2nd Cavalry Division as an integrated unit, with one brigade of white troops and one of “Colored” units. Even though the troops remained segregated in their billets and mess halls, they occupied the same post at Fort Riley, Kansas. Seventy-five years after 600,000 Union soldiers died to assure that one man would never again own another, the U.S. Army had forgotten their martyrdom and become a rigidly segregated institution. Herr, the son of New Jersey judge Henry Burdette Herr, learned from his father a strong belief in individual rights. His perceived “softness” on segregation no doubt irked Marshall as much as his constant demands for more horses.
The 1st Cavalry Division would eventually see action in the Philippines after giving up its horses to fight as infantry. The 2nd Cavalry Division was split, with its white troops forming the cadre of 9th Armored Division and its black troopers – highly trained, long-service professionals - shipping out to North Africa where they were employed as stevedores unloading equipment and supplies.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.