Custer County's very own Rough Riders were ready to fight

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were a volunteer cavalry unit during the Spanish-American War that got a lot of publicity. The Rough Riders were made up mostly of men from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, described as “a diverse bunch of men consisting of cowboys, gold or mining prospectors, hunters, gamblers, Native Americans and college boys — all of whom were able-bodied and capable on horseback and in shooting.”

The Rough Riders didn’t last long. Then, neither did the war with Cuba.

During World War I, Roosevelt tried to organize a new Rough Riders to take to Europe. Congress actually authorized Roosevelt to create four divisions of cavalry. Unfortunately, a number of people, including the Secretary of War and the President, were less enthusiastic and the plan came to nothing.

When war was declared in late 1941, a group of area cowboys decided they were ready to be the next generation of Rough Riders, although they weren’t planning on leaving the United States in their duties.

Tom Gilmore, a well-known cowboy in eastern Montana, started recruiting in Powder River County. He wrote the Secretary of War, asking for permission to organize “a cowboy corps of sharpshooters or mounted scouts.”

The movement quickly spread even before the answer came from Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war in 1942. Perhaps Gilmore thought that Stimson, who had been one of the officers Teddy Roosevelt appointed during his abortive World War I Rough Riders effort, would be sympathetic.

Milt Venable, whose family still ranches north of Miles City, was the spokesman for the Custer County effort. “We had a meeting last week when we talked this thing over,” the Star reported him as saying. “Our idea is to form a group of hard-riding, straight-shooting, and fearless riders and offer our services to the government under an experienced Army or Cavalry man — and then we’ll see if the Japs can pull any of that parachute stuff on our shores!”

Parachuting men into battle was a new combat technique and it made people nervous. A high-flying, barely audible airplane could drop enemy combatants right into your own yard.

The Star story went on to quote other cowboys. “Count me in,” said Hod Crosby, a lanky, sun-tanned range rider. “I’ll ride a government horse or bring one from the ranch. I’ve got a saddle, scabbard and gun, and my trigger finger is still steady; fine idea, I’m for it.”

Venable emphasized that the “cowboys desire to have the unit ‘formed according to Hoyle,’ with all the rules being carried out where recruiting would be followed by swearing in and placement of the unit in action wherever needed.”

Another cowboy, Carl May, said “I’ve got my Appaloosa, and my saddle and my shooting iron and some experience from the first World War that will help a lot.”

One caveat, admitted Venable, was that “most of the cowboys will be registered under the new draft act.”

Which meant the cowboys young enough to be drafted would probably end up in general service. And those older cowboys, with World War I experience and still steady trigger fingers, were probably aware that they were a bit on the old side for actual action.

In the end, after a cheerful and possibly not entirely serious burst of enthusiasm, the idea faded away. World War II would not be fought by sharpshooters on horseback and would, in fact, end in a way no one imagined as those brave horseman volunteered.

High-tech warfare was arriving and the cavalry unit, which had really been obsolete by the end of World War I, would not be needed in World War II.