The Sun News

WINDHAM: Horses, mules have honored place in battle - still

By MARILYN N. WINDHAM, Sun News columnist

When we think of today's military, we typically think of the troops, the planes, tanks, ships, and weapons of all sizes and calibers. It is easy to forget the important role that animals have played in assisting our troops. We think of dogs first, but for thousands of years wars were fought by riding horses and using pack animals for transport.

Recently, while researching in an archival box at the Museum of Aviation, I found some information on horses and mules used in World War II. That led to seeking information on the 21st century and whether we use horses or mules today.

World War II was a highly mechanized war. However, there were large numbers of horses and mules used in the war. You can imagine how many animals used in war in the 20th century fared. Not very well, as so many of them were slaughtered in battle or slaughtered for their meat for starving soldiers. Mainly, horses were used in supply trains, with field artillery and in cavalry regiments.

According to one source about horses in WWII, "The U.S. Army still had its 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions. ... The U.S. Coast Guard used about 3,000 horses in 1943 for beach patrol. They were looking out for German submarines and boats. The last remaining U.S. Cavalry regiment to fight in combat was the 26th in 1942." All together the U.S. Army had 16,800 horses for use in the war effort. The Army also procured horses from local people in the area where they were located.

Germany seemed to have used the most horses during the war with 1.1 million. Japan and the Soviet Union, Poland and Romania were among other countries that were heavily supplied with horses for their armies.

Of course, having the horses was one thing, but getting them wherever they needed to be was certainly another thing entirely. It is said that more than 7,000 horses were airlifted by C-47 cargo planes into the China-Burma-India Theater.

The Army Veterinary Corps in 1945 gave a report on how the airlifting of these horses was accomplished and what they learned from the operation. The Army found that the C-47 was particularly adaptable to carrying 4-6 horses at a time along with their caretakers, feed and equipment. Weight was, of course, a great consideration as was where the horses should be in the plane.

The horses were loaded directly from a 2½-ton cargo truck into the plane rather than from the ground up a ramp. Plywood sheets were laid in the belly of the plane. Waterproof tarpaulin was laid over that. Then matting and loose straw were put down to help the horses keep their footing. Bamboo poles were used to set up the stalls.

There were things that were learned in this process of airlifting the horses. They were quiet after being in the air. They were sleepy at 14,000-20,000 feet. There was only minor damage to any of the planes due to the horses. If a horse became uncontrollable in the air they were humanely put down. That hardly happened.

Besides the use of horses, there was the use of mules. As you can imagine, because the mules were able to carry so many types of supplies in rugged terrain, they were indispensable. Mules could go even where horses could not. They were used in the mountains and jungles, particularly in North Africa, Italy and Burma. In northern Italy in 1944-1945, it has been written, 14,000 mules were used. Like horses, the mules were flown in C-47s to whatever location they were needed. Some mules were airdropped to some locations.

Mules and horses were pretty much phased out in the 1950s for our military. However, the U.S. did provide around 10,000 mules for Afghan forces in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. Horses and mules found their way back into use for the U.S. when the fight began against the Taliban.

The need to have horses and mules reintroduced into the military caused the creation of the Marine Corps Mountain Training Warfare Training Center in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains where conditions are similar to that of Afghanistan. The soldiers are taught how to pack horses and mules, groom them, feed them and handle them. Many of the participants in this 16 day course have never even ridden a horse. The training center is for mainly Special Forces.

The military is trying to develop a robotic version of the mule. The cost of the program is about $62 million. As one instructor from the Warfare Training Center put it, "I can buy a whole lot of mules for $60 million!"

Throughout history, animals have been used extensively in war and in peace for militaries around the world. They are to be honored for their efforts in helping their human counterparts and many times giving their lives trying to complete the task assigned.

Marilyn N. Windham is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at