Sunday, January 11, 2009

World War II: Spike Jones' comic horseshoer, beach patrols by horseback, and a Chinese horseshoeing school

Here's a bit of horseshoeing history disguised as entertainment. The catchy Blacksmith's Song 1942 video posted today was created by Spike Jones, who plays the role of the bare-chested horseshoer. You have to love the desktop anvil!

You might have to watch this film a couple of times to get the socio-political messages that are carefully placed around the set and in the lyrics.

Farriers and blacksmiths were considered vital to the war effort, whether on duty overseas or working at home. Many people have heard about gas rationing during World War II. The government did want to discourage driving, but largely because it required rubber tires. And rubber for tires came from Asia, mainly from countries occupied by or influenced by Japan during the war. Any shipments of rubber to the USA from Asia would have had to cross the war-torn Pacific Ocean.

The lyrics to the song say, "The smith is getting persnickety...since rubber went on priority." In the United States during World War II, as much research and development money was put into developing synthetic rubber as was dedicated to the atomic bomb.

In the cities, horses made a temporary comeback for delivery vehicles during the war. And while the new age of horse sports and shows wouldn't really blossom until the 1950s, the farriers not off fighting the war were happy to keep whatever horses were around going, which helped keep cars and trucks off the road.

Illinois horseshoer Norman Skala was a long
way from home when he was airlifted from
Burma to 
remote Lololand in southwest China to 
shoe horses and mules for the Chinese.
He made the cover of Yank, an
army newsmagazine for the folks back home.
Thankfully, he returned to the USA after the war.

Another place horses were needed at home was on the beaches. Horse owners volunteered to patrol beaches for the Coast Guard, and watch for German U-boats off the coast. The Coast Guard itself purchased thousands of horses and trained servicemen to ride on patrol.

In the April 1942 edition of Western Horseman magazine, horse owners were told that if they owned a mare, it was their patriotic duty to breed it. In Chicago, 3000 women on horseback trained to be part of the Military Order of Guards, a home-defense group that learned Jiu Jitsu and cavalry-style riding.

Local horse groups were encouraged to host shows and rodeos "to keep up morale" on the home front. You'll notice in the Spike Jones film that when the horse is offered a second lump of sugar at the end of the film, he patriotically refuses, since sugar was rationed during the war.

While the US military decision-makers were moving toward mechanization and abandoning the mounted cavalry paradigm, the army kept breeding horses at the remount stations (12,000 foals in 1943 alone!) and ran a horseshoeing school at Fort Riley, Kansas until 1949. Many post-war farriers credited their careers to an army that wisely hedged its bets and thought it might still need horseshoers.

One place that the army did need horseshoers was in China, Burma (now Myanmar), Tunisia, and Sicily, where over 10,000 mules were used in the mountains. In China, the US military set up farrier schools and built horse (mule) shoe factories because horseshoes could not be flown over the Himalayas. They could fly in lightweight nails, though, and ordered 10,000 pounds of horseshoe nails a month in 1945. The US military is credited with "upgrading" hoofcare of Chinese horses and mules; only 10 percent were shod when the Americans arrived.

While horseshoers may have had some leeway about staying out of the service, they worked hard for the war effort at home. In London, England, some service-exempt farriers worked at night to help fight fires started by bombs.

When James P. Byrne, War Mobilization Director, finally banned horse racing in the United States in January 1945, his manpower division made special compensation for the horseshoers, and pledged in the New York Times to help the shoers find work at home, since even at Belmont Park, the horseshoers had been classified as "essential personnel" to the war effort. By comparison, Byrne suggested that jockeys could be helpful working in the tight nose spaces aboard heavy bombers in Europe.

It looks like the Coast Guard bought some pretty nice horses for its shore patrols. These could easily be Thoroughbreds. Notice that the men are all African American; the US military was still segregated in World War II, and apparently the Coast Guard was, too. (National Archives photo)

If you'd like to learn more about horses and mules in World War II, information is not that easy to find. Information for this article was helped by the archives of Western Horseman magazine, the US Coast Guard, and a wonderful book you can read online, United States Army Veterinary Service in World War II, published by the Surgeon General's Office. The photo of the Chinese horseshoeing school is from that book.

One of the best books on horse history published in recent years is Horses of the German Army in World War II, available from Schiffer Books.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. No re-publication without permission but feel free to share this story via social media.

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