|The 115th Cavalry (Horse-Mechanized) in W Formation. |
The Wyoming Cowboy in World War II: The 115th Cavalry Horse-Mechanized
When people think of Wyoming, they think of the Wyoming Cowboy. So why have some of the most colorful, most courageous, and hardest working Wyoming cowboys—the men of the 115th Cavalry Wyoming National Guard—been forgotten?
It's simply bad timing. The 115th Cavalry Regiment was formed after World War I from the First Regiment of the Cavalry, Wyoming National Guard, in 1921. Then, in anticipation of World War II, the 115th was activated, but within a year or two they were dispersed to other units. Some of its members performed valuable service on the home front, and many saw action but not as the 115th Cavalry Regiment. Because the unit was broken up early in the war, they are forgotten.
|My Father Royce Tillett, |
Initially, all 115th Cavalry troops were horse troops. Then, they began to be mechanized, and Troop A (Lovell), Troop B (Sheridan), and Troop C (Lander) stayed horse units, while Troop D (Laramie) and Troop E (Torrington) were mechanized. Troop F (Douglas) rode motorcycles, and Headquarters Troop (Casper) had both horses and was mechanized.
Some men resented the extra duties of tending a horse and so welcomed the change. Others hated to lose their horses, and there were rumors of suicides. Kenny Anderson (of Cody) said that "they took my horse away and gave me a jeep, and I never forgave them for it." But even those in favor of keeping their horses realized what they were up against. Irving Garbutt says, "against Hitler's Panzer division, going to war on as horse cavalry seemed outdated."
The University of Wyoming was also preparing for war. Eventually, they would provide training in engineering and other fields to soldiers. Some members of the 115th attended UW before they were activated, but, with current information, the proportion is unknown.
The 115th Cavalry was activated nine months before war was officially declared. The entire 115th Cavalry Regiment, all 1,086 men, was inducted into federal service on February 24, 1941, the day they boarded a train for Fort Lewis, Washington.
Like all wartime training facilities, Fort Lewis was unprepared for the influx of soldiers. The men trained with stove pipes for cannons, sticks and brooms for rifles, and jeeps marked "TANK" for enemy armored vehicles. Aircraft used sacks of flour for bombs.
|An Officer of the 115th Cavalry Jumping |
a Jeep. Courtesy
After the initial excitement, life settled into a dull routine—marching, horse maneuvers, attending to the horses, and keeping things organized. The portly Colonel Hazeltine, whom the soldiers called "Colonel Die-and-shine," seemed more concerned with spit and polish than military maneuvers. The colonel was determined to have the best parade outfit on the post—and he did. The 115th was popular in public parades and demonstrations.
Colonel Hazeltine was known for his high standards in shoe maintenance. The soldiers used Cordova polish, a red dye, to polish the brown leather boots, and the colonel, crop in hand, would personally inspect each soldier's feet. The boots had to shine like a mirror. Some joked that the boots were intended to dazzle the enemy and blind them.
Some reports say the cavalrymen made $21 a month. Some raise that figure to $36.
Back home in Wyoming, families organized loads of gifts for the men. For example, the Lingle Legion Auxiliary mailed Christmas boxes full of goodies, and the people of Lovell raised enough money to buy them a juke box.
The men all had sweethearts, and today there are a lot of Wyoming transplants in the Washington-Oregon area due to marriage. My dad, tall and dashing in his uniform, saw my beautiful mom across a dance floor, and they were married before he shipped overseas. My mom, Marian Fisher, was originally from Iowa and was attending Willamette University at the time.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Fort Lewis heard over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. At that time, many men were away on 36-hour passes. When they returned, they found all gates barricaded by barbed wire and covered by machine guns. MPs at checkpoints searched all vehicles.
|Unknown, Fred Laing, and Royce |
Tillett, Ft. Lewis. Courtesy Fred Laing.
Each man had a carefully designated travel kit that included clothes and toiletries, gear for himself and his horse, food, water, bedding, guns and ammunition, a sewing kit, a compass, and half of a pup tent—the other half was provided by another man. Standard Operating Procedure called for trotting the horse for 40 minutes, walking 10, then resting 10. The horse always came first; on hills, the trooper got off and walked. In the evening, the horse was unsaddled, brushed, and its hooves cleaned, and it was fed and watered and then hobbled or picketed. After that, he could set up his tent and, as Jake Benshoof says, "if the trooper was in a reckless mood, consuming the C rations is attempted." During the night, guard duty was 2 hours on, 4 hours off.
In addition to Coast Patrol, the members of the 115th provided the valuable service of training other troops, and they were often called upon to act as enemy forces. A number of units passed through and trained at Fort Lewis on their way to overseas destinations, including the 41st Infantry Division.
Their Coast Patrol mission was not merely a precautionary measure. On September 9 and 29, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-25 surfaced off the coast of southern Oregon and launched a Glen seaplane, which dropped bombs inland. Luckily, the recent rains pre-empted what could have been large forest fires. Subsequently, the I-25 sank two ships off the coast of Oregon—the SS Camden and the SS Larry Doheny. The I-25 was finally sunk on September 3, 1943, by the USS Ellet and the USS Patterson.
The 115th Cavalry defended against another little-known threat in the form Japanese balloon bombs. From November 1944 through April 1945, the Japanese launched 9,300 balloon bombs into the jet stream that crosses over the Pacific Ocean and then the continental U.S. The public was not aware of this threat because, on January 4, 1945, the Office of Censorship requested that newspapers and radio broadcasts observe a publicity blackout. This voluntary censorship was strictly adhered to. The reason for the blackout was to discourage the Japanese from sending more bombs; if they did not know the results of the initial wave of bombs, they would doubt their effectiveness. The balloons were made of three or four layers of tissue paper sealed with an adhesive made from Japanese potatoes. Of the 9,300 launched, there were 285 confirmed sightings of balloons or parts of balloons in North America, as far east as eastern Michigan and as far north as northern Alaska. The only published account (prior to the publicity blackout) occurred near Thermopolis, Wyoming, and the only known casualties from this weapon were a woman and five children near Lakeview, Oregon.
Lives were lost while on Coast Patrol. On March 12, 1942, at Corvallis, Oregon, four men lost their lives in a barracks’ fire, among them Sergeant Harry Boles, Corporal John "Jack” Williams, and Sergeant Elmore J. Howell.
In 1943 and 1944, the 115th Cavalry began to be split up.
Some men stayed together and remained within the U.S., continuing to provide training, homeland defense, and other duties. They were stationed in California and at Camp Hood, Texas, and Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
After the 115th Cavalry, some went to North Africa and Europe.
Joe Heyer, who just passed away in July of 2004, was sent to North Africa in 1942 and was part of some brutal campaigns.
|115th Cavalry Bars and Unit Pin.|
Those who stayed with the 115th Cavalry became the 115th Cavalry Group, commanded by Colonel Garnett Wilson. In February 1945, they relieved the 15th Cavalry near the seaport of St. Nazaire, France, to hold pockets of German resistance. On April 25, the 115th was attached to the 103rd Division near Stuttgard in southwestern Germany. Once across the Danube River, the 103rd captured Landsberg (near Munich), the town in which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. Near this town of 30,000, the elements of the 103rd liberated six concentration camps. They helped push south into Austria, alongside the famous 101st Airborne. Then they captured Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps on May 4 and, at Brenner Pass looking down into Italy, they met members of the U.S. 88th Division, who had fought hard up the Po Valley.
Ike Prine was in the 115th Cavalry Band and played in many parades at Fort Lewis. He was sent to France and helped hold the St. Nazaire pocket. He did not continue with the 115th Cavalry Group, though; he was transferred to the Third Army and stayed in France until V-E Day.
My dad part of the 115th Cavalry Group, and he went to France, Germany, and Austria. Like Radar on MASH, he was the company clerk of Headquarters Troop—he could type 120 words a minute. He used to laugh when he said, "I thought as company clerk, I might stay at the rear and type reports. Turns out I rode up front in the jeep with the Colonel."
After the 115th Cavalry, some went to the Pacific, and a lot of men went to the 41st "Sunset" Division.
As part of the 41st, Jake Benshoof trained Russian, English, Canadian, French, and Greek troops in Pershing Tank operation, and then he was trained in amphibious armored warfare. He was shipped to the Pacific, where he was in the Caroline Island Group. Like many of the 41st, he shipped back to the U.S. through a huge typhoon.
Raymond McKinsey (Casper) was also reassigned to the 41st and sent to Australia and the South Pacific. In a letter from the Pacific dated 1943, he wrote: "Last night in bed we got to talking about snow storms and how we enjoyed them—we were sweating at the time and wondering what would happen here if it got 10 below zero." In Mindanao during the April 1945 Philippines campaign, he and his group surprised a force ten times their number. Thinking that they were outnumbered, these Japanese fled. Two months before the war ended, he returned to the U.S. on the point system. McKinsey received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and his final rank was General.
George Welch (Casper) joined the 115th in 1938 when he was 16 years old. He went to the Pacific with the 77th Division, including the Leyte and Cebu Islands in the Philippines. On August 9, 1945, the day the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, they were preparing to land on Japan. Welch says, "In my opinion, if the bomb had not been dropped, we would have had American troops piled up on beaches a mile high and casualties would have been far worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor."
Some men were wounded. Irving M. Stewart was a Japanese prisoner of war.
And some men were killed. Lieutenant Gorden Burt (Lander) lost his life in the battle at Leyte in the South Pacific after being transferred from the 115th. At present, though, there is no accurate record of how many former members of the 115th were killed in action in World War II.
In the end, no horses were transported overseas, and the reason given was that it was too expensive to transport and feed them. "While their thrift is to be commended," Jake Benshoof says, "the policy was never applied to troops going overseas."
After the war, many soldiers took advantage of Public Law No. 16 (for disabled veterans) and Public Law No. 346 (the GI Bill) to attend school. For example, Ike Prine of the 115th came to the University of Wyoming from 1946 to 1949, where he got a degree in education. He taught school in Laramie for 35 years, and both his sons and their wives attended UW.
The members of the 115th were some of the last military cowboys, and the myth of the Wyoming Cowboy appeals to something deep within us—just as it appealed to Americans during World War II. In May 1941, a Seattle newspaper reported: "Applause rose just once yesterday from the crowd of 10,000 which watched the greatest spectacle in the history of Ft. Lewis. ... The applause was for the horses and men of the 115th (Powder River) Cavalry from Wyoming. Perhaps it was for something else, too; something gay and romantic and gone forever." Our Wyoming Cowboys worked so hard and gave up so much.
I want to thank Jake Benshoof for his generosity and thoughtfulness. He was a tremendous help in writing this article.