As the nation and Wyoming commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, it’s fitting that a group of soldiers and horses celebrating the history of U.S. Army field artillery – a primary mission for the Wyoming Army National Guard – should visit Cheyenne for a number of Cheyenne Frontier Days performances.
Fort Sill’s Field Artillery Half Section, a mounted unit that recreates the World War I era use of horse artillery and light batteries of horse-drawn field guns, rolled into town to thrill audiences at the rodeo, a wild west show, a parade and demonstrations at F.E. Warren Air Force Base’s Fort D.A. Russell Days.
The unit consists of a six-horse team and accompanying mounts and a model 1897 French 75mm field gun. The group, formed in 1963, is called a half section because a full section consisted of two half sections, one for the cannon team, and one to pull a caisson with the ammunition.
During their full routine, the horsemen and gunners ride around the arena, halt to unhitch the cannon, quickly load the ammunition, and fire a round before hitching it back to the limber. Once secured, the two gunners hop into their seats first, then the middle soldier, or wheel man, leaps between them before the team gallops off, drawing huge applause from the assembled crowds.
It’s astonishing that many of the young active-duty soldiers, from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, had never ridden horses before joining the team for one-year stints.
Pfc. Mark Agtarap has been with the half section for four months and was performing as a gunner for just the third time at Sunday’s exhibition at F.E. Warren. Four months ago he was directed to leave his job as an artilleryman, and join the team for a year.
The gunners perform very athletic drills that involve jumping off the bench to unhook the cannon from the litter, prepare and fire the gun, rehook it, and then jump back onto their bench with precise timing.
”The learning process is difficult,” Agtarap said. “I had to learn to ride horses. I always thought it looked easy, but there’s a lot to learn. I think we all enjoy being in the half section.”
Keeping the team trained and motivated for the last 10 years is Section Chief Gerald Stuck. He was a member of the unit from 1992 – 1993, and like the current enlistees, was working in another section at the Oklahoma post that is home to the U.S. Army Field Artillery Center of Excellence, when he got called on to join for a year.
“I have the best job in the Army. I get to go out and ride while everyone else is stuck in an office,” the retired soldier said. “I love meeting with the public and sharing the history of field artillery.”
Stuck said the team performs hundreds of times a year, generally on post for changes of command and other ceremonies, as well as community events and military holidays; usually within a 200-mile radius from the post. He said he and his team were glad to make the long drive to Wyoming to help kickoff the 122nd CFD celebration.
Sgt. Jared Nedbalek said he wants to come back to Cheyenne even if he’s not part of the half section.
“This is wonderful,” the three-month veteran of the half section said. “It’s 114 degrees in Oklahoma. I don’t want to go back home. I’ll take leave to come back up.”
Welcoming the unit to Cheyenne, was Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner, Wyoming’s adjutant general; and the Assistant Adjutant General – Army, Brig. Gen. Brian Nesvik. They hosted a barbecue at the state headquarters for the team when they arrived, and thanked them for preserving the history of the mission our state holds near and dear.
“You all represent the Army so well,” Reiner told the group before presenting each member with his challenge coin. “Wyoming is a real artillery state with so much history, and we appreciate you preserving that history.”
The half section didn’t become a permanent fixture at Fort Sill until 1970, the year after the post’s centennial celebration. The horses are selected with the guidance of old photographs and 75-year-old specifications depicting the ideal artillery mount. Original saddles and hardware were furnished by the Field Artillery Museum at Fort Sill, while the uniforms are replicas of those worn from 1918 to the 1930s.
The French cannon weighs about 6,000 pounds and the horses ride in draft so that they all pull the weight evenly. Stuck said the riderless horses are available to the gunners, “should their gun be destroyed, they can ride off.”