Last Military Pack Animals

Pack animals were used throughout history to move military supplies, ammunition, equipment, and guns. In recent centuries, horses and mules predominated, but other species such as camels, elephants, oxen and many other varieties have been employed. At the opening of the 20th Century, the U.S. Army marched or rode on horseback, horses and mules pulled wagons and artillery, and pack trains moved bulk supplies. Four decades later, at the beginning of World War II, mechanization of the Army had replaced most of the horses and mules with tractors and trucks. While pack animals were used during World War II, such use was only a vestige of the former complete reliance. After the Korean War, pack animals were a lost art in the U.S. Army, but the lessons of the horse soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001 has renewed interest in pack animals for the 21st Century.

Mules with soldiers in the barn area at Camp Carson, CO
Mules with soldiers in the barn area at Camp Carson, CO.

See also:

  • The Last Field Artillery Horses
  • The Last Cavalry Horses

Today in WW II: 22 Sep 1943 Operation TOENAILS completed, with the occupation by US troops of all important islands in the New Georgia group, Central Solomons.  

The Last U.S. Military Pack Animals

Recoilless Rifle mounted on a mule, Fort Leavenworth, KS
Recoilless Rifle mounted on a mule, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

After World War II, there were a few notable uses of pack animals by U.S. forces. During the 1948-1949 struggle with the insurgency in Greece, General Van Fleet used more than 10,000 pack animals (mostly mules) in the successful campaign against communist-led forces. During the Korean War, mules were used by the North Koreans and China leading to American use of captive animals in some sectors.

Even though the Korean conflict once again demonstrated that there was no substitute for pack animal transportation in mountainous terrain, the U.S. Army Remount Service was deactivated after the war. A small cadre of pack animal experts, equipped with mules and a small number of horses, was maintained for a while in two units at Fort Carson, CO, the 4th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack) and the 35th QM Pack Company. But on 15 December 1956, Battery A of the 4th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack) was redesignated, and the 35th Quartermaster Company (Pack) was inactivated. In ceremonies befitting and honoring the long service of the sometimes cantankerous animal, mules were officially mustered out of the Army. Upon retirement of the colors and guidons, "Trotter" from the 35th QM Pack Company and "Hambone" from the 4th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack), were brought before the commanding general, and each was given a citation. The 322 mules of the two units were sold or transferred to other Government agencies, including the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture and the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. Until the mule barns were razed in 1970 to make way for a maintenance facility, pack mules returning to the post for ceremonial events would head directly toward the familiar surroundings of their former stalls.

Hambone: An Honored Army Mule

Hambone, the white mule, carries his 1st Sergeant over Ute Pass, west of Colorado Springs, CO
Hambone, the white mule, carries his 1st Sergeant over Ute Pass, west of Colorado Springs, CO.

"Hambone" (Hamilton T. Bone) was the pride of the 4th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack). Year after year, he carried the First Sergeants of the 4th up Ute Pass to Camp Hale, CO, or along the foothills of the Rockies to Cheyenne, WY, for the Frontier Days Rodeo. His silvery-white coat and entertaining antics as a jumper won him fame in July 1949 when Life Magazine printed a feature story on the four-footed soldier.

After serving 13 years at Ft. Carson, at the end of 1956 Hambone was retired along with the other mules. He spent his retirement years as a star attraction with the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo and the Pikes Peak Range Ride. By the summer of 1970 Hambone showed signs of advanced age. and he was returned to Fort Carson for the "last mile" a few months prior to his death on 29 March 1971. Feelings for Hambone ran deep, and his death made newspaper headlines locally. He was buried with appropriate military honors in front of Division Artillery Headquarters. The legendary Hambone is still acknowledged as king of a great era. A memorial made of stone quarried on the reservation, was erected over his grave.

The Mechanical Mule

In general, Army pack animals were replaced by trucks and helicopters, vehicles that do a fine job of moving mountains of supplies, as well as soldiers, when and where needed. For more demanding terrain, the special ability of the mule was honored once again by designating a specialized small platform vehicle the M274 Mechanical Mule. By the 1990s, the U.S. military began to procure modern All-Terrain Vehicles such as the M-Gator and others, retiring the military standard M274.

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