It was late April, 1945. U.S. troops were sweeping across
southern Germany and storming Philippine beaches. Roosevelt had
just died. The Soviets had captured Berlin. Allied troops had
just liberated Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The Japanese were
fighting desperately at Okinawa. The end of World War II seemed
imminent, yet the world was still in turmoil. Amid this storm of
attacks, losses, hope and horror, an odd thing happened. A group
of U.S. soldiers from the Third Army, Second Cavalry, discovered
the Germans were keeping some 675 prize European horses in a
tiny village in Czechoslovakia, where they hoped to create an
equine master race. Included in the herd was the entire Lipizzan
breeding stock of Vienna's centuries-old Spanish Riding School,
one of only a few places in the world where haute ecole, the
highest level of classical dressage, was taught.
The Germans were about to surrender. But the American officers,
as well as the Lipizzans' German caretakers, many of them
cavalrymen, feared that the advancing Soviets would capture and
perhaps destroy these beautiful white horses. So U.S. soldiers
rescued them and herded them to safety, thus saving a breed and
a tradition for generations to come.
It sounds like a fairy tale, but Operation Cowboy truly
occurred. The rescue has been glamorized, of course--especially
in the Disney film Miracle of the White Stallions--for who can
resist a story of greed, heroism and dancing horses? But in all
the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the end of World
War II, this mission has been all but forgotten. Most accounts
of the war don't mention Operation Cowboy; one researcher at the
U.S. Army's Center for Military History thought it had something
to do with The Sound of Music.
Few of the 350 soldiers who took part in Operation Cowboy are
alive today. Yet those who know about the mission agree that it
was one humane episode in what had been a horrible war and that
it preserved an art form. "We thought we had a chance to save a
sliver of culture for the rest of the world," says Louis Holz,
71, who was a lieutenant in the Second Cavalry at the time. "We
sensed the end [of the war] was in sight, and we were in a frame
of mind to give credence to beauty once again."
The Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzan breed had been based
in Vienna since 1572, when Archduke Charles II of Austria
founded the school to continue the classical dressage tradition
developed by the Greek general and historian Xenophon around
400 B.C. By World War II the school was a national treasure and
the only place in the world where the elegant white Lipizzan
stallions still exhibited haute acole. This tradition's "airs
above the ground," as they are called, look like equine ballet,
but some people say that Xenophon developed them as cavalry
maneuvers. For instance, a rider might use the levade, in which
the horse crouches on its hind legs before standing up, to give
the rider's sword greater thrust. And the capriole, in which the
horse leaps into the air and kicks out its hind legs, could be
used to extricate horse and rider from nasty combat situations.
The school's commandant, Col. Alois Podhajsky, stayed in Vienna
until the bombing began to get close in January 1945. Then he
moved his performing stallions to St. Martins, Austria. In 1943,
however, German soldiers had taken the school's entire herd of
breeding stallions and mares, and most of the Lipizzans in
Europe, to Hostau, Czechoslovakia. There the Germans hoped to
"attain the ultimate horse," says Mary Lightstone of the U.S.
Lipizzan Registry. Podhajsky wanted his breeding herd back, for
without it the entire Lipizzan breed could be lost.
That U.S. troops discovered the stolen Lipizzans at all was a
fluke. The Second Cavalry, which by then rode trucks and tanks,
not horses, was holed up in the Bohemian forest. On April 26 the
regiment offered to accept the surrender of a German staff
intelligence officer who wanted to escape the advancing Soviets.
He surrendered, and over breakfast the next morning United
States Col. Charles Reed and a German general whose name appears
to have been lost began discussing horses. The general, it
turned out, was a former cavalryman and horse breeder, and he
pulled out photographs of the prize Arabian and Lipizzan horses
being held nearby at Hostau. He also told the colonel that 400
Allied prisoners of war were there, plus about 25 Red Army
The general suggested that the Americans take the horses for
safekeeping, for the Red Army "marched on its stomach," as Holz
says, and its lack of food might cause it to make the Lipizzans
into "horseburgers." Reed agreed. After negotiating through a
local forester, U.S. envoy Capt. Thomas Stewart and one of the
Hostau veterinarians returned to Hostau to arrange the
surrender. "Colonel Hargis, who was helping organize the
mission, said to me, 'You don't have to go in if you don't want
to,'" Stewart recalls. "I would have preferred something more
encouraging. But you know, people ask me all the time why I did
it, and after all these years I still don't know."
Hostau's German commandant, Col. Alois Rudofsky, was not as
enthusiastic about the mission as the Americans were, for his
orders were to stay and fight. "I knew Rudofsky was going to
shoot us if he saw us and that I was better off meeting with a
different commander, General Schultze," Stewart says. "So I went
into hiding until that could be arranged." The final meeting was
cordial if somewhat tense. But the men struck a deal, and
Stewart went back to the American lines riding one of the
On April 28, 350 American cavalrymen moved into Hostau. Although
the area was sprinkled with German snipers, the men had only one
firefight on the way. When they arrived, they found more than
1,200 horses stabled in the village, including 375 Lipizzans,
100 Arabians, 200 thoroughbreds and 600 Russian horses. The
soldiers freed the Allied prisoners and began counting and
caring for the captured horses.
At this point Podhajsky still didn't know his Lipizzans were
under U.S. protection. But on May 7, eight days after Hitler
committed suicide and the same day the Germans surrendered,
Podhajsky put on a performance in St. Martins for U.S. troops.
Gen. George S. Patton just happened to be there, visiting Maj.
Gen. Walton Walker.
Many accounts, including Disney's, credit Patton with ordering
and even leading the evacuation. But Patton actually hadn't
heard about the stolen horses yet, and his recollection of that
day's performance, in his autobiography War As I Knew It,
reveals that he was less than thrilled. "It struck me as rather
strange," he wrote, "that, in the midst of a world at war, some
20 young and middle-aged men in great physical condition ... had
spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle
their butts and raise their feet.... Much as I like horses, this
seemed to me wasted energy."
Still, Patton was a horseman--he had competed, after all, in the
1912 Olympic modern pentathlon--and he did find some merit in the
display. "It is probably wrong to permit any highly developed
art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth," he wrote.
"To me, the high schooling of horses is certainly more
interesting than either painting or music."
When Podhajsky asked Patton to put the horses under U.S.
protection, Patton asked an aide to investigate. "That's
probably how Patton got all the credit for the mission," says
Holz, now a retired economist and chairman of the Second Cavalry
Association. "He's the one who eventually got to say,
'Everything's going to be O.K.' But it really was Colonel Reed,
a sub-field commander, who took the initiative and showed the
compassion and intelligence to complete this mission."
On May 12 the U.S. soldiers began trucking, riding and herding
the horses 35 miles over the border to Kotztinz, Germany. The
Army sent a plane so that Podhajsky could come see the
Lipizzans, and he then took all of them to St. Martins, where he
kept his and sent the rest back to their owners. The other
horses, and some of the soldiers, went on to Mansbach, Germany,
where they spent the summer.
As a gift from Podhajsky, Col. Fred Hamilton, chief of the
Army's Remount, chose about 200 horses, worth an estimated $1
million, to take back to the U.S., including three Lipizzan
stallions and six Lipizzan mares. The ship on which they
traveled nearly capsized in a winter storm--the horses were
literally busting out of their stalls--but nary a sailor nor
horse was lost. Several years later, when the Department of
Agriculture disbanded the Remount, the horses went to private
Since then many other private owners in the U.S. have imported
Lipizzans from Europe and have even begun breeding them. It
couldn't have been done, however, without the help of the Second
Cavalry. "People risked their lives to get those horses out,"
Lightstone says. It wasn't the most dangerous mission in the
war, but there were snipers around Hostau. We should be thankful
the breed is still here."
The veterans themselves are rather modest. Holz even calls the
rescue an "evacuation." Still, he says, "I have spent two thirds
of my life trying to get the story right. I have a passion for
San Francisco-based freelance writer Susan Davis has written
several stories for Sports Illustrated.