By Pennee Murphree, Retired Arizona farmer and Genealogist
Waldo Ward Fincham, born in Iowa in 1913, was a gunner in Patton’s 2nd Cavalry in World War II. After the war he gave a snaffle bit to my cousin, Jennifer Bell. He told Jennifer that he got the snaffle bit when the Army rescued the Lipizzin horses. We called him Uncle Waldo but he was really my mom’s cousin.
In late April 1945 U.S. General George Patton’s 2nd Cavalry was holed up in west Bohemia near the dividing line agreed upon earlier that year by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet leader Josef Stalin at the Yalta conference.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, on the Soviet side of the Yalta line, some 300 Lipizzan horses from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna had been moved to a farm in Hostoun, Czechoslovakia, in 1942. As the famished and fatigued Soviet Army approached from the east, the Germans worried that the horses were in danger.
A Wermacht veterinarian, Capt. Rudolph Lessing, thought the Lipizzaners “would have been horse burgers for the Russian soldiers,” as he put it at a 2nd Cavalry reunion years later.
Knowing that the Americans were near, Lessing sneaked behind enemy lines to the U.S. side with two Lipizzaners to convince the Army to rescue them from what he feared was certain death. U.S. Col. Charles Reed, an equestrian aficionado, immediately recognized the significance of the horses.
Austrian rulers began breeding Spanish horses in the mid-16th century. Within a few decades, they established a royal stud farm in Lipica, in present-day Slovenia, from which the breed gets its name. In that mountainous region, the white horse gained its reputation as a sturdy and highly trainable animal. The breed became the exclusive stock of the nobility, and was used for battle and transportation by the Habsburg elite for centuries. Reed realized that if the horses died, the famous breed would go with it. Lessing convinced Reed to launch Operation Cowboy in response.
Reed sent Alpha Troop, 42nd Cavalry Squadron, to Hostoun to gather the horses and herd them to Bavaria. Soldiers put foals, which would not have been able to walk that distance, in trucks. Only later did Col. Alois Podhajsky, the head of the Spanish Riding School, officially ask for protection by Patton’s army, which was granted. The Army returned the horses to the stables a few months later.