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In Defense of Honor:  General Douglas MacArthur and the Horse Cavalry of 1934


Bob Seals

 June 17, 2008

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!”[1] 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.”[2]  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.[3]  

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.”[4]  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, seven Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts, 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.[5]  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.[6] 

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.[7]

The cavalry, as a branch, was also at a low ebb in the early 1930’s.  The branch was down to some 14 under strength 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.”[8] 

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.”[9]  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.[10]  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.”[11]   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.” [12]  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.[13]  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.[14]

In the film, Sergeant Libby; of course, reacts to the saber turn in by getting drunk and attempting to destroy their modest barracks before being wisely restrained by the new Lieutenant.  Additionally throughout the film the good sergenant 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.[15]

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.”[16]  

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.”[17]  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 take place.

First, as per existing 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.[18]  Additionally no trace exists in the records of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, or in the recollections of the troopers who served in the 12th Cavalry at the time, who are/were understandably upset by the allegation and movie.[19] Sadly, with the passage of time, fewer and fewer troopers are alive from 1934, but veterans from that period were adamant that no such event occurred.  Second, the Quartermaster 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.[20] 

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.[21]  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.[22]  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.[23]

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.”[24]  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 faithfully 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.[25]

The entire decade of the 1930s 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 or maligned 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.

Author: Bob Seals is employed by General Dynamics Information Technology as an Operations Analyst in the Battle Command Exercise Division of the U.S. Army Special Operations Digital Training Center on Fort Bragg.  A retired Special Forces officer, he served with the 1st and 3rd SFG (A), the 1st Special Warfare Training Group (A), the U.S. Army Special Forces Command (A), the Security Assistance Training Management Office, and Special Operations Command-Korea.  He is proud to count among his friends LTC Ret. Ed Ramsey, 26th Cavalry (PS), who led the last Horse Mounted Cavalry Charge in U.S. Military History.


“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),, accessed on 29 November 2007.

The story behind ‘In Pursuit of Honor’, question/index?quid=2007111916444AApZxkl, accessed on 29 November 2007.

In Pursuit of Honor Reviews,, accessed on 29 November 2007.

History of the 12th Cavalry Regiment-Homepage,, accessed 29 November 2007.

In Pursuit of Honor, dir. Ken Olin, 111 min., Home Box Office (HBO), 1995, DVD.

In Pursuit of Honor homepage,, accessed 29 November 2007.

D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, Volume 1 1880-1941. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.

“Last Cavalry Horse Is Historic Symbol,” The Pentagram News, Washington, DC, 24 March 1966.

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,, 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 Company, 1942.

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.

[1] George J. Church, “Give Me Back My Reputation!”, June 08, 1987.

[2] Susan King, A Few Good Cavalrymen, March 12, 1995, Los Angeles Times, Home Edition TV Times, 4.

[3] King, 4.

[5] Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers, Volume I, 1885-1940, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), 585-6.

[6] Maurice Matloff, General Editor, American Military History, (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, 1969), 405-415.

[7] Ibid, 410-411.

[8] 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.

[9] George F. Hoffman, Through Mobility We Conquer: The Mechanization of U.S. Cavalry,  (Louisville, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 147.

[10] In Pursuit of Honor, dir. Ken Olin, 111 min., Home Box Office (HBO), 1995, DVD. Hereafter referred to as Honor film.

[11] Blumenson, 896-7.

[12] D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, Volume 1 1880-1941. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970) , 408.

[13] U.S. Army Center of Military History, fax, 03 May 1995.

[14] Randy Steffen, The Horse Soldier, 1917-1943, (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 76-77.

[15] Honor film.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Center of Military History Fax.

[19] Saber, 1st Cavalry Division Alumni Newsletter, January/February 1997.  See comments from Troopers A.J. Timpano and John D. Skirvin.

[20] 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.

[21] “To Sell Army Horses and Mules.” The New York Times, January 2, 1919.

[22] 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,, accessed 15 April 2008.

[23] “Horse and Mule Decline Found Adding to Food Surplus of U.S.”  The Washington Post, March 14, 1935.

[24] The Officer’s Guide, 9th edition.   (Harrisburg, PA: The Military Publishing Company, 1942), 324.

[25] “Last Cavalry Horse Is Historic Symbol,” The Pentagram News, Washington, DC, 24 March 1966.


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