According to my records and my memory, I did not previously post this at AAPK. If I am in error I apologize for the repetition.
I WAS THERE
I was there on the day the U.S. Cavalry ceased to exist. It was May 1968 and a rainy morning at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Ft. Riley was an old cavalry post but the horses and stables were long gone, replaced by the horsepower of tanks, helicopters and other implements of the modern battlefield. The only remnant of those vanished days was the stone house used by George Custer and his wife Libby.
There was one other connection with times long past when the trumpet daily sounded “Boots and Saddles.” That connection was Chief, the last surviving cavalry horse on the rolls of the U. S. Army. Horses were steadily used until the beginning of World War II when mechanization quickly replaced the service of horses. The last cavalry unit to fight was in the Philippines against the Japanese.
Most Army horses were retired, adopted, or in some manner put out to pasture. But a few were retained, mostly for tourists and recreational riding. Today there are horses near Washington D.C. for special events but they are not Cavalry horses. They are categorized as a special ceremonial unit. The most famous of these was named Blackjack. Countless millions saw him being led through the streets of Washington as he accompanied the casket of John F. Kennedy. Riding boots were placed in the stirrups in reverse position signifying a fallen rider.
The true cavalry horses, designated as such by the Army, gradually died off until only Chief remained. He was foaled in 1932 and entered the Army at about 8 years of age. He died at 36 years of age. A ripe age for a horse. He was popular with the kids living on post. They would often bring him a carrot or piece of sugar.
On the day in question, I was serving as Battalion Adjutant with my office adjacent to that of the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col Hauser. I had gotten into the office early despite a heavy rainfall. When the CO arrived I was surprised to see him wearing his Class A uniform, not the usual fatigue uniform. He wore the Army raincoat but officers are not allowed to carry or use umbrellas so not surprisingly he was dripping wet.
The Colonel explained that Chief had died during the night and all the battalion and brigade commanders had been required to turn out in the early morning hours for the burial. I would have liked a photograph of so many rain drenched field grade officers.
Chief was buried in a horse hero’s casket, meaning he was buried standing up.
A special ceremony was to be held commemorating the closing of the Army cavalry rolls. Many VIPs would arrive from Washington: generals, Secretary of the Army, Under-secretary of the Defense Department and a variety of politicians. For the following days I was plunged into the planning and preparations for this event along with scores of other staff and command officers. All the battalions would be marching, a “pass in review” as it is termed. With so many VIPs present the marching had better be flawless. So, after days of rehearsal the microphones and amplifiers were set up on the parade ground; a large stage constructed where the invited guests would sit; bunting was draped on stage and bleachers; the parade ground was carefully mowed and trimmed; the marching bands practiced; further, preparations had to be made for a substantial lunch for the VIPs following the ceremony. The Army does indeed “march on its stomach.”
In the military, whenever one is involved in the preparation of such special events, there are only two possible outcomes: either a letter of commendation for a job well done or an evaluation that effectively ends any hope of a career. The Army is not a forgiving institution. To put it another way, if a junior embarrasses his senior...well, you know what they say about karma.
The great day arrived and, to my relief, all proceeded splendidly. But the highlight of the event for me took place just a few minutes before the bands struck up and the battalions began to march behind unfurled flags. There was an elderly gentleman standing in the crowd, he had not made it into the bleachers. He had a neatly trimmed short white beard. But what really caught my attention was his apparel. He was immaculately dressed in a U.S. Cavalry uniform of the 1930s: brown uniform, Sam Brown belt with a supporting belt crossing diagonally from his shoulder to his belt, tall cavalry boots almost up to his knees. His leather and buckles gleamed as did the visor on his cap. His insignia of rank revealed he had been a Lt. Colonel. Nearing 80 years of age he was a living Horse Soldier.
What happened next was especially fine. A 4-star general left the viewing platform and approached the former officer. The general saluted and the old timer rendered a snappy salute. (Normally a junior officer first salutes the senior.) Then the general took the cavalryman by the arm and led him up the stairs onto the stage and introduced him to the other generals and VIPs. Each shook his hand. Then he was made to accept a choice seat in the front row. I believe a Major General gave him his chair and moved to the back.
While the troops marched and the bands played “Gary Owen”, the unit march of the 7th Cavalry, the old officer stood ramrod straight with tears glistening.
The main speaker pointed out that the day’s ceremony was not primarily about Chief, rather it was fitting to mark the official closing of an important era, important not only for the Army but an important era for our nation as well. And so it was: the Cavalry was no more, the Horse Soldiers were no more, and Chief was no more.
"Life is good if you don't weaken." AG Russell