As the Depression waned and the winds of war stirred in Europe, dad joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1937–and was promptly trained in mounted combat–mounted, as in “horse,” not “tank.” Yet change was also in the wind, and by 1941, their steeds had been joined with steel and for a brief season the cavalry straddled not just saddles, but the 1800s and the 1900s.
But more was afoot than making ready for war, and that included the Guardsmen exercising their mounts. Dad soon discovered that the ride from Harrisburg up the Susquehanna to the tiny town of Dauphin not only was great for the horse, but great for his future. Seems this sweet young blonde girl he met at school lived there, and I remain profoundly grateful to Pennsylvania taxpayers for financing what must have been one of the last horseback courtships in the U.S.
Yet war would not wait; dad staged in England then landed with “Patton’s Ghosts,” the Second United States Cavalry (Mechanized). And leading the rolling thunder of Patton’s tanks was the Second–often well ahead of front lines, behind enemy lines, scouting here and testing resistance there, for ten months the lightly armed and armored cavalry fought its way through France, Germany, and into western Czechoslovakia. Dad collected two wounds and a blasted eardrum; the bullet that pinned his helmet to his head in France rests beside his Purple Heart on my shelf.
But the war ended, and the Second shifted to an occupation force in the wake of unspeakable devastation: millions of displaced persons filled highways, byways, fields and ruins; Germany’s economy had collapsed more thoroughly than the endless blasted towns.
As peace settled uneasily on the land, some enterprising cavalryman thought that buying some surplus German horses would serve both to help the local economy, and to divert the still-horsey cavalrymen who longed stirrups and saddle. And that leads us to July 4, 1945.
What more American way could there be to celebrate July 4 than a horse show? Not only had the Americans been informally remounted, the Russians they met as Germany collapsed and the Allies came together just happened to be Cossacks, who had retained horses through the war. Dad took the opportunity to learn to ride like a Cossack, and the Second latched on to some of their saddles. And so in a great field outside Neukirchen, Germany, the thunder of American cavalry hooves was heard once more. Dad rode–and won–in the hack class.
For years his silver trophy cup nestled here or there in our childhood home. As he aged and I took over his affairs, I became acquainted with Bob Damon, the mechanic for his platoon during the war. Bob and I swapped some memorabilia, and shortly after dad passed in 2012 a large manila envelope appeared in the mail. Noting Bob’s return address, I knew this would be something special. And it was–an original program from that horseshow. That made a trifecta of history for me: the cup, the program, and a photo of Col. Hargis presenting one of the award cups that day in 1945.
Seventy-six years have passed since that day, and the generation that won that day has also largely passed. Their courage still echoes in the free lands of Europe–even today in the Bohemian lands of western Czech the memorials to their American liberators are bedecked with red, white, and blue flowers. And far more importantly, so many Europeans live in freedom today–a freedom that was won not by chanting “diversity, inclusion, and equity” but by confronting the deepest evils our world has known and discharging their highest duty, whatever the cost.
So this July 4th, I’d suggest we join dad in his hope, as he expressed it to the citizens of Myslív, CZ–the last town liberated by his troop. “May God grant us a long and lasting peace.”