February 1942, Fort
Clark had been guarding the Texas border for nearly 90 years.
But the world was changing. Since Germany’s Sept. 1, 1939 blitzkrieg
in Poland, even most die-hard cavalrymen had begun to understand
that men on horses made no match for machine guns or tanks. Still,
the U.S. Army kept mounted soldiers at the venerable post on Los
Moras Creek across from Brackettville,
125 miles southwest of San
Most of the soldiers belonged to the 112th Cavalry Regiment, a component
of the Texas National Guard’s 56th Cavalry Brigade. Patrolling regularly
between Del Rio
and Sanderson, their
job was to keep the Southern Pacific Railroad safe from sabotage.
7, The Centaur, the fort’s weekly newspaper, appeared with a banner
headline that must have caught most readers’ eyes in a hurry: “Soldier
Inventor Solves Submarine Defense with Oil Paint Bombs.”
A hell-for-leather horse soldier thinking about submarines?
Indeed, as the story explained, “Unauthoritative and unreliable
sources revealed this week the discovery of a secret weapon to be
utilized in submarine warfare. The invention is credited to Pfc.
Vernon Skinner of Troop A, 112th Cavalry.”
Said Skinner: “My weapon will revolutionize submarine warfare. It
will be as effective as a trench mortar in a telephone booth.”
Skinner, whose company came from the Dallas
area, envisioned his weapon as standard armament for all ships operating
in sub-infested waters.
“The bomb is filled with an oil paint the exact color of the sea
water,” the story continued. “When a submarine is suspected to be
near the convoy, the ships release a number of these bombs. The
bombs burst and spread a film of paint over the surface of the ocean.”
The way Skinner
had it figured, the story went on, when a submarine rose to periscope
depth paint spread on the water by his “oil bomb” would cover the
lens. Not able to see, the enemy captain would not know when his
boat reached the surface “so the submarine just keeps on rising.”
Once the boat rose 300 or 400 feet into the air, it could be shot
down with anti-aircraft guns, the horse soldier postulated, bridle-bit-in-cheek.
“The weapon will be tested Sunday at midnight on the surface of
the Rio Grande River near Eagle
Pass,” the Fort
Clark newspaper concluded. “The Nazis have obligingly loaned
Pfc. Skinner an old Munich Pact submarine to be used in the experiment.
Great secrecy will surround the proceedings. Only foreign spies
and fifth columnists will be admitted.”
Two months after Pearl
Harbor, the phony story must have provided a little comic relief
to the Texas men stationed on the border.
But in a way, as the story reflects, the war was not all that far
Clark. In 1942 and continuing into 1943, the German navy had
more than 20 U-boats operating in the Gulf of Mexico. The Nazis
skippers had orders to sink oil-laden tankers departing Texas and
For a time, Germany was winning the war in U.S. waters. The so-called
Wolf Packs sunk 56 ships, 39 of them off Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
This “like shooting fish in a barrel” stage of the conflict drug
on until late 1943, when a concerted U.S. military effort, along
with the use of armed convoys for merchant ships, the development
of the Intracoastal canal and the “Big Inch” pipeline from Texas
to New Jersey finally thwarted the German operation.
And soon enough,
the horse soldiers of the 112th got into the fight. Shipped overseas
on July 8, 1942, the Texas cavalrymen served in the Pacific theater
throughout the rest of the war. Proving they had more than a good
sense of humor, the outfit spent 434 days in combat, losing 224
men while claiming an estimated 7,200 Japanese soldiers.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - January
20, 2006 column, modified May 4, 2015
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