Imagine standing at the ocean’s door in 1942 and seeing one of your favourite show jump riders, jockeys or polo players galloping along the beach scanning the horizon for enemy ships. In World War II, this was a very real possibility.
As far back as 1871 American beaches had been patrolled on foot by the Life-Saving Service, the predecessors of The Coast Guard. Their job was to watch for ships in distress, but they did use horses to haul boats from sheds to launching points before tackling the seas and going out to the floundering ships, and sailors.
During WWII there was understandable concern amongst American regarding their coast lines. The beach patrols became increasingly important as they upheld three important functions: they looked out for suspicious ships, they reported and prevented any enemy landings, and stopped communications between ships and people on shore. In doing these three duties, while they were not expected to repel a sea invasion, but they certainly provided reassurance.
After the attack on Pearl Harbour in WWII on December 7, 1941, the mounted beach patrol and Dog Training Centre in Hilton Head, South Carolina leapt into action. There was a call out for experienced riders, and all those who could handle a horse enlisted to become part of the Mounted Beach Patrol.
The horses involved came from the U.S. Army and Army Remount Service and they provided all the riding gear while the Coast Guard offered the uniforms for all the stunt riders, jockeys, riders, show jumpers, rodeo riders, Army Reserve cavalrymen and others who volunteered. Their training took place at Elkins Park Training Station in Pennsylvania and at Hilton Head, South Carolina where dog training schools were already established.
Within a year 3,000 horses were assigned to the Coast Guard, and in using the horses, radios, equipment, and rifles were more easily carried than by a man by himself. Horses were also much faster at running down a suspect. Mounted patrols worked in pairs and often a dog was included in the team fitted out with canvas shoes to protect paws from oyster shells on the beach.
Not all beaches were suitable for mounted beach patrols such as New England where winter made them inhospitable. Other beaches were not suitable because of a shortage of food and water for the horses. The mid Atlantic beaches were excellent as the vantage point made viewing the water very good. The Texas and Oregon patrols also worked well, and in 1942, in Florida and New York, two Nazi saboteur teams were discovered being put ashore by German U-boats.
The success of the U.S. Coast Beach Patrol saw a team of patrol exports go to China in 1944 to help train the Nationalist Chinese Army in the use of dogs and horses. 21 enlisted Coast Guardsmen and three officers made up the team along with three vets; together they helped to train over 500 Nationalist Chinese Army Troops.
By 1944 the demand for beach patrols was waning. The horses were sold at public auctions in various coastal areas and the prices were very broad. In Tillamook, Oregon, 49 horses were sold for an average of $117 each. The dogs were often kept to be used by for sentry duty by the Coast Guard.
A declassified report gives us some insight into the men who worked the beach patrol:
“Despite the many difficulties encountered and overcome, the morale of the men was universally high…Where horses and dogs were used, consideration of the animals was often more important than the comfort of the men. Upon them, as much as upon the welfare of the handlers, depended the sustained vigilance of the patrols…The methodical tramp tramp of weary feet plodding their beats back and forth, amid fair weather and foul, stood as a constant reminder that the military duties on the home front are often as essential to victory as the more exciting activities to the far-flung battle line.”
While I wasn’t able to find a horse hero who stood out, I did find a story about a dog named Nora who had been bought a few weeks earlier for .50 cents from a local family. Her story demonstrates that animals can sense when something is wrong. An 18-year-old coast guardsman Evans E. Mitchell had fallen unconscious on a remote section of beach at Oregon Inlet, and Nora alerted the other coast guardsmen saving Mitchell’s life before he died from hypothermia. For her efforts Nora was awarded the bronze John P. Haines medal from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City.
The U.S. Coast Guard has not used mounted patrols since WWII but the fact that they chose horses over mechanization in the dark days of WWII shows that, in their estimation, the horses were better suited for the job.