|In Defense of Honor:
General Douglas MacArthur and the Horse Cavalry of 1934
by Bob Seals
In 1987, after his acquittal on all charges of larceny and fraud in connection
with a New York City subway construction deal, United States Secretary of Labor
Ray Donovan said to the prosecutor "Give me back my reputation!" Indeed, in
this day and age of mass, instantaneous communications such as the internet,
where does one go to get their reputation back, after damage has been done in
the form of second or third hand allegations passed off as truth? A case in
point, perhaps of interest to all familiar with the U.S. Horse Cavalry, was the
damage inflected upon reputations by the 1995 Home Box Office (HBO) movie
entitled In Pursuit of Honor, staring Don Johnson, Craig Sheffer,
James Sikking and Rod Steiger, to name but a few actors.
As the Los Angeles Times TV section described the film "The year was 1935. The
U.S. Army, under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was modernizing. The
cavalry was being phased out. But old traditions died hard, especially for five
soldiers stationed in Arizona who defied a direct order by MacArthur to take
hundreds of horses to Mexico and destroy them. The men stole the horses and
drove them from Sonora, Mexico, to safety in Canada." What a fantastic
story, as written by Dennis Lynton Clark and directed by Ken Olin. As per Mr.
Clark, this surprising tale is based upon oral history heard from cowboys
working on his father's ranch in Montana during the 1940's and was verified, in
a drunken moment no less, by an unnamed commanding officer during service with
an armored division in the U.S. Army in the early 1960's. In Pursuit of
Honor proudly proclaims "this film is based upon a true story," and
the truth is that many have accepted uncritically, and unthinkingly, this
cinematic version of an event that, based upon all available evidence, never
took place. The graphic violence against horses in the movie is disturbing and
makes an emotional impact upon viewers, so much so that internet sites and
comments reference the movie help to keep alive the canard that "MacArthur
(actor James Sikking) is willing to gun down old soldiers along with old
horses." The movie not only smears the reputation of General MacArthur, one
of our finest generals and patriots, but also the old U.S. Army horse cavalry
as a branch and the Army officer and non commissioned officers corps in
general. The intent of this short article is to present the movie In Pursuit of
Honor in a historical context and in doing so attempt to regain some
of that lost honor for General MacArthur, and unknown others. not in a position
to demand "Give me back my reputation!"
General Douglas MacArthur is not a figure from American military history that
one normally associates with horse cavalry. He would literally go from the
cradle, at Fort Dodge, Arkansas, to the grave, at Walter Reed Army Hospital, in
the United States Army. First in his class of 1903 at the United States
Military Academy at West Point, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in
the Corps of Engineers, in some respects the elite of the Army at the time.
General MacArthur branch transferred to the Infantry in World War One in order
to serve as Chief of Staff, Brigade Commander, and ultimately Commanding
General of the 42nd Infantry Division, the famous "Rainbow" Division of the
American Expeditionary Force in France. The most decorated officer to come out
of World War I with two Distinguished Service Crosses and seven Silver Stars,
he was described by no less an authority than George S. Patton Jr., after a
battlefield encounter at St. Mihiel in 1918, as the bravest man he had ever
met. After the "war to end all wars," his record of distinguished service
continued with General MacArthur serving as Commandant of the United States
Military Academy, Corps Commander and ultimately chosen as the Army Chief of
Staff in 1931. During the early years of the Great Depression, the position of
Commanding General was a difficult one, having to fight to maintain a force
capable of contributing to the nation's defense.
The United States Army faired poorly during the depression, as always, a
reflection of the society at large, on a smaller but more khaki or olive drab
scale. Following a reoccurring American military history theme of wartime
expansion and peacetime contraction, the Army, after expanding to a massive 4
million men during World War One, had fallen back to more traditional skeleton
like force levels. The Regular Army's authorized strength would be 280,000
enlisted and 12,000 officers with additional units and soldiers coming from the
Guard and Reserves on the event of mobilization. Army strength had never
matched the above authorizations and had been; in fact, on a slow, steady curve
of decline from 1920. That year, Regular Army personnel figures peaked at
200,000 enlisted and 12,000 officers total, falling to 125,000 and 12,000 two
years later in 1922.
These crippling figures would remain fairly constant for many years, with only
about 25% of officers and 50% enlisted authorized in almost all units. The Army
was in many respects a relic of 19th century frontier days, spread across the
nation in small, isolated posts, with some 34 posts having only a battalion or
smaller force permanently stationed at that location. Training and readiness
suffered, and making any sort of field training exercise above battalion level
almost impossible. Shortages abounded, and as could be expected, the Army had
to exist primarily on World War One surplus arms and equipment. Only meager
funds were available for experimentation and procurement of expensive new
weapons systems such as tanks and aircraft. Pay, and promotions, for the
average soldier were dismal, with rates little changed in over twenty years. A
private earned the magnificent sum of 21 dollars a month, and had little to no
hope of achieving the lofty rank of corporal, until well into his second
enlistment, some 5 or 6 years into the future. By the start of the new decade
in 1930, the United States Army had fallen to 17th in terms of strength
worldwide, ranking behind such small nations as Portugal and Greece.
The cavalry as a branch was also at a low ebb in the early 1930's. The branch
was down to some 14 horse mounted regiments with 4 of those regiments found in
the 1st Cavalry Division spread throughout Texas. Less than one thousand
cavalry officers remained on Active Duty with the future of the branch in
doubt. Mechanization was on the horizon with plans existing to modernize the
force with the use of tanks and combat cars. General MacArthur as Chief of
Staff would state in 1931 that "Modern firearms have eliminated the horse as a
weapon, and as a means of transportation he has generally become, next to the
dismounted man, the slowest means of transportation. In some special cases of
difficult terrain, the horse, properly supplemented by motor transportation,
may still furnish the best mobility, and this situation is properly borne in
mind in all our plans." The General is also said to have told the
Chief of Cavalry, General Henry, during an initial office call "MacArthur
pointed out of his office window to the parked passenger cars and said, 'Henry,
there is your cavalry of the future." Macarthur as Chief of Staff, due to
perhaps a lack of funds more than any other reason, would continue to advocate
decentralized mechanization for each branch of the Army, with the cavalry
attempting to find the right blend of motors and horses throughout the 1930's.
In Pursuit of Honor, again after informing viewers that the film is
based upon a true story, begins with the 1932 Bonus Army incident in
Washington, DC, a thinly veiled plot device to introduce the heroes and
villains in the tale, the hero one Sergeant John Libbey, Don Johnston, the
villain General MacArthur, James Sikking, and Colonel John Hardesty, Bob
Gunton. Sergeant Libbey, as a member of the Cavalry force ordered to
disperse the marchers, refuses to draw his saber and do so, earning the amenity
of Colonel Hardesty the Commanding Officer. The facts and legends of the Bonus
March are outside the scope of this article but it is interesting to note that
Major George S. Patton, Jr., executive officer of the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry
from Fort Myer who participated in the incident, commented that "If, during
this operation, a single shot had been fired many would have died, for in the
dark on a flat plane [plain] fire discipline could not have been maintained,
and there was no cover. It speaks volumes for the high character of the men
that not a shot was fired." MacArthur reflected also in his report to the
Secretary of War that "Thus a most disagreeable task was performed in such a
way as to leave behind it a minimum of unpleasant aftermath and legitimate
resentment." In the aftermath of the political firestorm caused by the
Bonus March eviction General MacArthur would offer his resignation to President
Hoover with the Commander in Chief not accepting the resignation.
Two years later in 1934, we encounter Sergeant Libbey again at a dusty small
post in Texas, now in the 12th Cavalry. Now Sergeant Libbey is under the
command of a crusty old Irish Commanding Officer, portrayed by Rod Steiger, who
does not have time to return a salute of subordinates or new Lieutenants, such
as Craig Sheffer, when reporting for duty. We learn that Sergeant Libbey is a
Medal of Honor recipient from the pre-war Mexican Expedition, who had received
his medal at the same ceremony as the new Lieutenant's father, many years
before. The fact is that only one cavalry soldier, Captain Julien Edmond Victor
Gaujot, Troop K, 1st U.S. Cavalry, earned our nation's highest award during the
Mexican Campaign. What is correct is that in the same year of 1934 the U.S.
Cavalry did turn in their M1913 Patton Sabers, as per War Department Order AG
474.71, Discontinuance of the Saber, ending a proud tradition forever. In
the film, Sergeant Libby; of course, reacts to the saber turn in by getting
drunk and attempting to destroy the modest barracks before being wisely
restrained by the new Lieutenant. Additionally throughout the film he never
seems to shave, perhaps one of the reasons he continues to be at odds with his
superiors. The crisis continues as our heroes are ordered by the new Commanding
Officer, enter stage left the dastardly Colonel Hardesty again, to destroy
their mounts since General MacArthur has given the unwritten order to "dispose
of excess horses," across the border in Sonora, Mexico, of all places, by
machine gun fire.
While the officers and non commissioned officers wrestle with their
consciences, the now replaced kindly Irish Colonel goes to Washington to
confront the all powerful General MacArthur in an attempt to have the
reprehensible order overturned. Everyone is afraid to face the General to
include newspapers unwilling to be the first in the nation to criticize
MacArthur, a made-for-TV luxury he most certainly never enjoyed in real life.
General MacArthur in his imperious best informs the kindly colonel that "I
can't afford cavalry we can't use," and best of all "I'm General Douglas
MacArthur, the country needs me, and they know it, the horses will be
destroyed." Meanwhile back out west, it is a dash north towards the
Canadian border as the new Lieutenant, Sergeant Libbey and a trusted few save
the herd from destruction. South deeper into Mexico would seem to have been a
more reasonable course of action but the chase is on. The now openly evil
Colonel Hardesty, while practicing his golf game in a red sweater, proclaims to
a member of the press that "I have the priviage of attacking my own men, again,
twice in one career." For anyone who has served his nation as an officer,
non commissioned officer or enlisted, no more reprehensible words have ever
been spoken on film. One thinks of Argentine officers as POWs after the
Falklands War ended in 1982 asking their British captors to be allowed to keep
their side arms in order to protect themselves from their own men, surely a
complete and utter collapse of effective leadership and caring for troops. Our
film has a happy ending, to a certain extent, as the renegade troops and the
horses make it safely across the border, are interred by the Royal Canadian
Mounties and are granted full pardons by then President FDR, perhaps due to the
efforts of the kindly Irish Colonel. No horses were harmed in the making of
this 1995 made for television movie shot on location in Australia.
What is the evidence to suggest that this planned destruction of excess horses
in 1934 never took place? The historical evidence consists of one, the total
lack of any documenting records from numerous organizations, two, the
regulations, policies and procedures dealing with public animals, to include
horses and mules, strictly regulating use, three, the intrinsic value of horses
at the time, and finally the Army Officers code of conduct itself. Weighed in
their entirety it seems rather obvious that such a disgraceful episode did not
First, as per the U.S. Army Center of Military History records, there is no
order or basis in fact for a 1934 incident involving the Chief of Staff
ordering cavalry remounts being destroyed or a herd driven from Mexico to
Canada in order to prevent their destruction. It comes as no surprise that the
12th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Cavalry Division, or the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police all have no record of such an incident ever have taken place.
Additionally no trace exists in the records of the MacArthur Memorial in
Norfolk, Virginia, or the troopers who served in the 12th Cavalry at the time,
who are understandably upset by the allegation. Sadly, with the passage of
time, fewer and fewer troopers are alive from this timeframe. Second, the
Quarterrmaster Corps Army Regulations of the prewar era were very specific
about the inspection, registration, branding, disposition, destruction and sale
of any public animal, to include horses or mules. Registration cards had to
maintained for each animal, with the original sent to an animal register
maintained by the Quartermaster General. Officers had to witness the
destruction or sale of animals and certify the same with appropriate reports
filed. Third, normal policies and procedures were not to destroy animals
due to their intrinsic worth. Regulations called for, and sales were made of
surplus public animals, such as horses and mules, after periods of peak
procurement. Given that the U.S. Army Remount Service had paid roughly
$100-150 per horse, the value of a herd of 500 mounts would be in the nature of
$50-75 thousand dollars during the Great Depression. In terms of purchasing
power today, this would be anywhere from @ 775 thousand to 1.16 million
dollars, surely a significant sum worth attempting to recoup in 1934, vice
destruction. Additionally there is evidence that a horse and mule shortage
actually existed in the United States during the 1930's, to the tune of an
estimated 10 million working animal shortfall, so it would stand to reason that
buyers could have been found for "surplus" mounts.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is the fact that the Army Officer's Corps
is bound by a code of ethics, succulently summarized in the 9th edition of The
Officer's Guide, dated 1942, as "Duty, Honor, Country. The code of Duty well
performed, of Honor in all things, of country above self is the unwritten,
unspoken guide on which the official acts of the entire Army is based." Not
all officers have maintained this knightly code, obviously, but only in the
realm of Hollywood could an officer relish attacking his own soldiers and
killing the very essence of his noble companion on the battlefield. This
author, thankfully, never had the distasteful experience of encountering such
contemptible officers as portrayed in the film In Pursuit of Honor during
his own modest Army career.
One of the anti-horse slaughter websites currently on the internet carries a
quote from Dante to the effect that "The hottest places in hell are reserved
for those who, in times of moral crisis, remain neutral." Perhaps a small
corner of Hades is also reserved for those who knowingly, or willfully, malign
or attempt to destroy the reputation of others, particularly those serving our
nation. Let the record reflect that the U.S. Army Horse Cavalry was an
honorable institution and attempted to the best of their ability to take care
of the thousands and thousands of horses that served the force. One only has to
look at the care and attention given "Chief," the last cavalry mount, who
served with the 9th and 10th Cavalry, to see how off base In Pursuit of Honor
is as historical fact.
The entire decade of the 1930's would be a lean one for the Army, witness
soldiers paid 21 dollars a month, training with sticks and trucks marked with
signs marked tank, stark examples of a lack of funds and interest. It is to
General MacArthur's everlasting credit that he maintained the integrity, morale
and leadership of the U.S. Army during those tough years against the forces of
apathy and economy. All who served in the Army cavalry during those years of
the Great Depression deserve to have their service honored and not destroyed as
ruthless men of dishonor. Let it be said that the Army, during some very trying
years of peace, in 1931-1935, was served by men just as honorable as any ever
produced by this great nation. To say or suggest otherwise is to mar troopers
who deserve much, much better from our nation, and history.
Show Footnotes and
. George J. Church, "Give Me Back My Reputation!", June 08, 1987.
. Susan King, A Few Good Cavalrymen, March 12, 1995, Los Angeles Times, Home
Edition TV Times, 4.
. King, 4.
. See websites: http://www.inpursuitofhonor.com and
. Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers, Volume I, 1885-1940, (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), 585-6.
. Maurice Matloff, General Editor, American Military History. (Washington:
Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, 1969) 405-415.
. Ibid, 410-411.
. Alexander M. Bielakowski, The Role of the Horse in Modern Warfare as
Viewed in the Interwar U.S. Army's Cavalry Journal , Army History, The
Professional Bulletin of Army History, Washington, DC.
. George F. Hoffman, Through Mobility We Conquer: The Mechanization of U.S.
Cavalry. (Louisville, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 147.
. In Pursuit of Honor, dir. Ken Olin, 111 min., Home Box Office
(HBO), 1995, DVD. Hereafter referred to as Honor film.
. Blumenson, 896-7.
. D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, Volume 1 1880-1941. (Boston,
MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970) , 408.
. U.S. Army Center of Military History, fax, 03 May 1995.
. Randy Steffen, The Horse Soldier, 1917-1943. (Oklahoma: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1992), 76-77.
. Honor film.
. Center of Military History Fax.
. Saber, 1st Cavalry Division Alumni Newsletter, January/February 1997. See
comments from Troopers A.J. Timpano and John D. Skirvin.
. Army Regulations 30-455 and 880-5. As per the Quartermaster Corps Museum
both regulations, with few changes, were in effect throughout the 1930's.
. "To Sell Army Horses and Mules." The New York Times, January 2, 1919.
. Major A.A. Cederwald, The Remount Service Past and Present, The
Quartermaster Review, November-December 1928, and Measuring Worth-Relative
Value of US Dollars, website, http://www.measuringworth.com/, accessed 15 April
. "Horse and Mule Decline Found Adding to Food Surplus of U.S." The
Washington Post, March 14, 1935.
. The Officer's Guide, 9th edition. (Harrisburg, PA: The Military
Publishing Company, 1942), 324.
. Last Cavalry Horse Is Historic Symbol, 24 March 1966, The Pentagram News,
"Horses, Horses, Horses." Time magazine, February 17, 1941.
"Horse and Mule Decline Found Adding to Food Surplus of U.S." The Washington
Post, March 14, 1935.
"Horses For the Army." The New York Times, March 12, 1926.
"To Sell Army Horses and Mules." The New York Times, January 2, 1919.
Alexander M. Bielakowski, The Role of the Horse in Modern Warfare as Viewed in
the Interwar U.S. Army's Cavalry Journal. Army History, The
Professional Bulletin of Army History, Washington, D.C.
Martin Blumenson, editor, The Patton Papers, Volume I, 1885-1940, Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.
Major A.A. Cederwald, The Remount Service Past and Present, The Quartermaster
Review, November-December 1928.
George F. Hoffman, Through Mobility We Conquer: The Mechanization of U.S.
Cavalry. Louisville, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2006.
Army Regulations Number 30-455, Quartermaster Corps, Branding and Registration
of Public Animals, Washington, DC, War Department, April 8, 1931.
Army Regulations Number 880-5, Department of the Army, Public Animals, Horses,
Mules and Dogs, Washington, DC, War Department, 1 September 1953.
In Pursuit of Honor (1995) (TV), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113399/, accessed
on 29 November 2007.
The story behind 'In Pursuit of Honor'?, http://malaysia.answers.yahoo.com/
question/index?quid=2007111916444AApZxkl, accessed on 29 November 2007.
In Pursuit of Honor Reviews, http://www.dvdbooty.com/dvds/in-pursuit-of-honor/,
accessed on 29 November 2007.
History of the 12th Cavalry Regiment-Homepage,
http://www.first-team.us/journals/12thrgmt/, accessed 29 November 2007.
In Pursuit of Honor, dir. Ken Olin, 111 min., Home Box Office (HBO),
In Pursuit of Honor homepage, http://www.inpursuitofhonor.com/, accessed 29
D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, Volume 1 1880-1941. Boston, MA:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Last Cavalry Horse Is Historic Symbol, 24 March 1966, The Pentagram News,
Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
Richard Meixsel, A Uniform Story, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 69, No.
3. (Jul., 2005), pp. 791-799.
Measuring Worth-Relative Value of US Dollars, website,
http://www.measuringworth.com/, accessed 15 April 2008.
Terrence J. Gough, U.S. Army Center of Military History, fax to MacArthur
Memorial, May 03 1995.
Susan King, Few Good Cavalrymen, Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1995.
Lieutenant Colonel Retired Ed Ramsey, US Cavalry, email correspondence with
author, 30 November 2007.
Saber, 1st Cavalry Division Alumni Newsletter, January/February 1997.
The Officer's Guide, 9th edition. Harrisburg, PA: The Military Publishing
Gregory J.W. Urwin, The United States Cavalry, An Illustrated History. UK:
Blandford Press, 1983.
James W. Zobel, MacArthur Memorial, personal email to author, April 27, 1999.
Copyright © 2008 Bob Seals.
Written by Bob Seals. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bob Seals at:
About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Special Forces officer employed by General Dynamics Information Technology in the Mission Command Exercise Division of the U.S. Army Special Operations Mission Command Training Center on Fort Bragg, the center of the special operations universe. He lives in North Carolina on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer, and son, who both ride polocrosse and hunt. His duties on the farm include Stable Sergeant, groom and horse holder. He is a graduate of the Norwich U Masters of Military History program.
Published online: 06/27/2008.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.