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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday Entertainment: Spike Jones Song Explains the Horseshoer's Comeback During World War II

Here's another bit of horseshoeing history disguised as entertainment. The catchy Blacksmith's Song video posted today is a short film from 1942 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. First of all, the date is 1942 and here's an able-bodied young man not serving in the military in the Pacific or Europe. How can that be?

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, but the reason for that was mainly to discourage driving, which required rubber tires. And rubber for tires came from Asia, mainly from countries occupied by or influenced by Japan. 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 persnickity...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.

Notice that the sign over the smithy door says, "Grand Re-Opening"; this refers to the comeback of horses during the war, and a renewed demand for farriers.

In the cities, horses made a temporary comeback for delivery vehicles. And while the new age of leisure horse sports wouldn't really blossom until the 1950s, the farriers not off fighting the war were happily busy keeping whatever horses were around going, which helped keep cars and trucks off the road. Of course, many horseshoers did head overseas with different branches of the military, and most fought as soldiers, instead of working with the veterinary corps as horseshoers.

Another place horses were need 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.

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 the horse's appearance prompts the band to play a military or patriotic tune. 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 farrier school at Fort Riley, Kansas until 1949. Many post-war farriers credited their careers to an army that thought it still needed 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, exempt farriers worked at night as firemen to help with 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.

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

Information on farriers and horseshoeing in US military history--or any history--is dismally scarce. Popeye and Spike Jones gave some great clues.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. No use without permission. You only need to ask.

Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page).

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