The War Mule

                 Herb Mueller was born and raised on a farm in Idaho in the 1920’s and was used to working 16 hours a day to help his family make ends meet.  He was particularly skilled with horses and mules, which led him into a career as a mule packer.  He eventually gravitated to the Eastern Sierra in California, where he started a nice little business packing in rich hunters into the backcountry.  Suddenly, in 1943, the call came to go to war in Europe. It was an odd feeling for Herb to go fight against the same people that were his ancestors.  He felt no different than the Japanese Americans who enlisted to fight, or the blacks that were discriminated against.  They were Americans first, no matter what.

                The next thing Herb knew, he was parachuting into Germany and fighting his way toward Berlin.  Every day was hard, as the German soldiers didn’t want to give an inch to the Allies. Besides a horrendous array of military equipment, the German army used hundreds of thousands of horses and mules to transport food, supplies, weapons and munitions. They had a lot of experience with the animals in World War I and realized that in certain situations such as difficult terrain, including jungles and mud, mules were the only way to go.  They were preferred, because they didn’t spook like horses did and stayed calmer in battle.

                Herb soon regrouped with his company and continued to push hard toward Berlin.  After one nasty, exhausting encounter with the Germans, Herb and his buddies were preparing to get some sleep.  They heard a rustling sound in the bushes nearby, and jumped up to see what it was. “Don’t shoot boys, it’s only a dang mule,” said Herb.  “They must have lost him in that last fight.”  Out walked a large brown mule with a massive head and perfectly straight back.  He still had his pack, halter and lead rope on, just ready for Herb to grab onto.  “Now we’re talking business,” Herb told the boys.  “We’re going to use this mule to pack our machine gun, supplies, food and all kinds of stuff. Just you wait and see!”

                “What are you going to call him?” the boys asked. “I’m going to call him Old Todd,” Herb replied.  As he looked at Todd’s sad and lonesome face, Herb wished he could be back packing him in his beloved Eastern Sierra, rather than the hell they were in. Todd gave the boys a renewed feeling of confidence and kindled in them that strong bond between man and animal.  It gave them a little hope in time of war to know that Todd would give his life for them.

                The boys from the city just marveled at how Herb could get Old Todd to make life so much easier for them.  Easier meant less fatigue, which kept the boys more alert.  One thing they had to learn early on with Todd was that he would only respond to commands in German.  As the American soldiers pressed on through the rural farmlands, towns and cities, the fighting intensified. They knew that this battle to save their way of life was a do or die situation, like none that ever happened before.  The Germans were now sending young boys and old men into the front lines in a desperate effort to defend Berlin and their Fuehrer.

                Before long the men found themselves caught in the crossfire of an ambush.  Herb and Todd got separated from the rest of the group amidst the thick smoke of the heavy artillery shelling and tank fire.  As he searched for cover, he felt a sharp pain in his gut and knew he was hit.  As the blood began to drain from his body, the pain grew unbearable.  He slipped in and out of consciousness and awoke to see his old partner, Todd, standing faithfully over him. For a brief moment he thought he had awakened from a nap on a pleasant summer’s day in the Eastern Sierra on the grassy bank of a crystal clear stream.  He looked up at Todd, and with a loud groan, took his last breath.

                The mangled, bloodied bodies of men, animals and war machines lay intertwined together on the battlefield, as the stench of death crept up slowly from the maggot-infested soil. It was a sad day indeed when the boys found Herb dead, with Todd’s lead rope still in his hand.  The faithful mule stood over him for hours, as if to defend him. It was a scene that made the most hardened combat veteran shed a tear.

                As the word got around among the American soldiers about what had happened to Herb, they decided to ask one of the generals if Old Todd could be sent back stateside.  The only hang up was that President Roosevelt had signed a law in 1938 stipulating that no government mules could be returned to civilian hands after a war. “Hell, I know what the regulations are and that’s why I’m going to send this mule back to the Eastern Sierra, where Sgt. Mueller came from,” the general said.  “Old Todd can work for the forest service and that’s how we’ll get around that phony rule.  We need to show some respect for a good soldier and his faithful mule.  And by God, don’t let anyone brand him, because I don’t want him to suffer anymore than he already has.” 

                Todd was shipped back to Bishop, California and spent the rest of his life packing in trail crews to the wilderness.  He was loved and cherished by all who packed him for the next 40 years.  The story of what had happened to Herb on the battlefield was passed down to all who came to work for the forest service. Through Old Todd a part of Herb remained with them all their lives.  It was a story they would share with their children and grandchildren. 

                Todd never did learn to respond to commands in English.  When he died in 1980, they erected a little memorial to him and his beloved master, Herb, in the tack room.   It read, “There is no greater love than a man and his mule.”

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