January 11, 2011

The Wyoming Cowboy in WWII

Dick Winters has passed away.  He was 92.  He was one of the brave WWII soldiers who was the subject of the Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and the subsequent excellent HBO series. This brings to mind my dad Royce Tillett.  Like Winters, he was born in 1918, and like Winters, he served in WWII.  This also reminded me of all the other very brave Wyoming soldiers, and I thought I'd post an article I did in 2004  for the University of Wyoming Alumnews about the 115th Cavalry.

The 115th Cavalry (Horse-Mechanized) in W Formation. 
Ft. Lewis, Washington, 1941.  Courtesy Wyoming Militia Historical Society.
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,
Ft. LewisCourtesy Fred Laing.
 My father, Royce Tillett, was one of them. A ranch kid from Lovell, Wyoming, he came to UW and took geology classes from S. H. Knight and history classes from T. A. Larsen. But before he was to graduate, he quit school to join the 115th Cavalry.

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 Wyoming State Archives.
 My dad told stories of riding and shooting drills. In these, each man had to ride a horse at a gallop while firing a pistol at targets. Once past, he had to turn the horse while pulling the clip from the pistol and replacing it with one in his belt. Then he returned down the line, firing again at the targets. Dad says, "I'll be darned if the raunchy horse they gave me didn't run away with me. I fired wildly at the targets as I rode past, and when I reached the end and tried to turn that stubborn son-of-a-gun, he jerked his head and made me drop my replacement clip. But, you know, I hit every one of those targets."

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.
The 115th was then ordered onto Coast Patrol. Their sector extended along almost all of the Oregon coast and into northern California, a vast amount of distance. The 115th was ordered to repel or hold enemy attacks on the beaches. If not possible, they were to blow up bridges, fight delaying actions, and then hold the designated north/south line of final resistance at Hood River, Oregon.

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.
When the 115th was dispersed, Harold Roum (Laramie) was assigned to the 16th Cavalry Reconnaissance, a light armor squadron. There he trained other servicemen, and in September 1944, he fought in France and Germany, where his squadron lost many men. After V-E Day, he was sent to invade Japan. He was halfway to the Panama Canal on V-J Day. After the war, he continued to serve in the Wyoming National Guard until 1965.

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.


David Abrams said...

Wow, what a wonderful, well-told slice of history. The image of that horse jumping over a Jeep is unforgettable--and very symbolic.

P.S. Your dad sure was a tall drink of water!

Ken Olsen said...

What a great retrospective -- of the mechanized cowboys, your father's role in the greatest generation, and the history of Japanese incursions along the West Coast. Love the photos as well.

Tamara said...

David - Thank you so much! Yes, very symbolic. I hope I did the subject justice in a small way. (Yeah, they called my dad bean pole. :-) )

Ken - Thank you thank you! There's this great book about the history and engineering of balloon bombs where they have a table of every recorded one that landed. I don't know that many people remember that there actually (small) attacks on the west coast.

David and Ken, do you know each other? Have you seen each others' blogs? You should (both) - you have a lot in common.

Ken writes a blog called Veterans Voices ( and does fabulous stories about veterans and is writing a memoir. He's originally from Wyoming and now lives in Oregon.

David writes a blog called the Quivering Pen ( and writes great fiction and reviews. He lives in Montana and, I'm thinking, also does some reporting (?).

~ Tamara

David Abrams said...

Yes, you certainly did justice to the subject matter. You had me screen-bound from start to finish.

That Japanese balloon war campaign has always fascinated me, starting when I lived in Oregon and learned about the family killed while having a picnic in the woods. There was a pretty good novel written about the "balloon war" several years ago: "Cloud Atlas" by Liam Callanan. It had the misfortune of coming out the same year as David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas," and so it never made a very big blip on readers' radars. But it's well worth hunting down and reading.

Ken, nice to meet you! I checked out your blog and enjoyed what I saw. Keep up the great work on behalf of veterans.


Tamara said...

D - am switching over to order Cloud Atlas ... now!


Thank you!

Tamara said...

Hey, I found that great report about balloon bombs online, in case you're interested!

Fascinating stuff.

Mike Milich said...

Thanks very much for this well written story about the 115th. My father, Leo Milich, was also a member of this regiment. He joined in October, 1938, while a student at the University of Wyoming. He was originally from Illinois and drifted west after being orphaned at 15. He had "cowboyed" a little and said he joined up because he enjoyed riding and also because the pay helped with the tuition at U of W. He was a corporal in D troop at the time of the move to Fort Lewis and was later promoted to Sgt. in May, 1941. He spent the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor patrolling the Oregon coast in a D troop scout car. He and many other noncoms were then sent to the cavalry officers school at Fort Riley, Kansas. After being commissioned as a 2nd Lt., he was assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the First Cavalry Division at Fort Bliss Texas.While training in Australia he was assigned to lead one of the four platoons of the the divisional reconnaissance troop. One platoon was assigned to each of the four calvalry regiments(5th, 7th, 8th,and 12th) which comprised the First Cavalry Division. He saw action in the Admiralty Islands and on Leyte Island in the Philippines before being wounded and sent home. He never talked much about his war time experiences other than to say shortly before his death in 2005 that he felt lucky to have survived when so many did not. One of the few things he kept to remind him of those times was the photo of the 115th taken at Fort Lewis that appears in your article. It hung on the wall of his office for many years and he told me that he always thought of the 115th as "my regiment". Thanks again for writing this, it filled in some blanks and was very evocative for me and other members of my family.

Mike Milich

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

Tamara, nice entry. You might recall we corresponded on the 115th a couple of years ago, and your article is great. Nice job.

For those who might want to see a few more photos of the 115th, we have quite a few up at the SMH website (

Nils Andreas Erstad said...

Haarold Roum was my mother's cousin, and I had the privilege of meeting him at the airport when he visited Norway in the 1990es.

He told me that he was among the invaders of Italy (Sicily I believe) and went over the Alps into Germany, loosing almost all of his comrades.

He also insisted that the story about how they were shot at by their own from the rear if the commander felt they were not progressing fast enough is true.

I also met his brother Gilbert, who served in Thule, and it seems that Harold had paid a much higher prize for his war efforts. He told me about sleep problem and mood problems. I guess also some alcohol problems?

When he was to go home, his plan was to meet one of the very few comrades from back then in Copenhagen.

But as things happened, he was not able to call his friend, too many bad memories or whatever, so he stayed in the hotel until his plane were to leave.

For some reason it was like we had an instant connection. For me he will always be remembered as one of those unknown family members where some instant "recognition" happened.

Donald Hale said...

Hi, Tamara -

My father, Thomas S. Hale, was in the 115th out of Torrington strictly as a horseman. He lied about his age to join - he was only 16! $21 is correct. He asked me to look into it, as he thiks he is the only surviving member of the 115th. He loves to tell the story of how they went to Washington State to manuver with the Army and how they kicked ...

VFW Chaplain Ken Estes Montesano, WA said...

Wayne M Sims passed away May 20, 2014. He too, served in the 115th. Another of our Greatest Generation gone to Ride with our Father in Heaven.

Karl Brauneis said...

Hi Tamara, You are amazing! I am the forester who put together the National Forest Honor Day in 2005 to help in part honor the service the 115th made in patrolling for the balloon bombs. I met you at the ranger station in Lander.

I remember when Mike Dabich and I introduced you to Col. Gallinger and when the Col. told you that your dad was the best company clerk he ever had. It brought tears to all of our eyes.

I have a jpeg of Col. Gallinger's obituary that I can send if you would like. I'll also send your link to the Forest History folks at Missoula, Montana as I consider you to be the resident expert in this very colorful time in Wyoming history.

God Bless you Tamara and all the great work you do for Wyoming,

Karl Brauneis
Lander, Wyoming