NAIN, Va. — After joining the Army in 1942 at 19 years old, Robert Elliott didn't follow the typical soldier's path during World War II.
Now 93, Elliott found himself not with a rifle, but instead breaking pack horses in the Australian outback.
During a recent interview at his Nain-area home in Frederick County, Elliott spoke about his nearly four-year stint in the Army during WWII, which sent him to such far off places as Hawaii, New Zealand and New Guinea.
Elliott, however, is honest about his motivation for enlisting.
"I couldn't get tires, I couldn't get gas and there wasn't a whole lot of work," Elliott chuckled, "so I enlisted."
Originally slated as an anti-aircraft gunner, he completed three months of training on twin and single 50-caliber and 20mm guns at Ft. Eustis, near Newport News.
But when the men he'd trained with were shipped out to New York, Elliott was instead sent to Angel Island, Calif., — not far from the fabled Alcatraz prison — where he was eventually loaded onto the USS Mount Vernon, a former luxury liner converted for wartime use.
While the Mount Vernon at one time ferried well-to-do passengers from the U.S. to England and Germany, Elliott said his time aboard the ship during the eleven-day trip to New Zealand was far from a pleasure cruise, with troops crammed into berthing spaces and bunks spaced out roughly 18 inches from one another.
Originally bound for the Philippines, where American forces were embroiled in a last ditch effort battling the Japanese on the island of Corregidor, news of the fall of the island diverted the Mount Vernon to Australia.
After landing in Sydney, Elliott was selected to help break horses and was sent to the 343rd Remount Depot in Townsville, roughly 100 miles north of the coastal city. The horses, he explained, were to be used to carry supplies in terrain too rugged for vehicles.
In this June 7, 2016 Robert Elliott, 93, a U.S. Army veteran from World War II, poses at his home in Nain, Va. in Nain, Va.
Photo Credit: Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star via AP
With no previous experience training horses, Elliott said the work was difficult and sometimes dangerous. The weather, he said, was always hot.
"You got up in the morning, you tended to your horses, you cleaned the hooves out, shoed them and fed them," Elliott said. "Then you went to eat and you went back to your horses."
Each man, Elliott said, was given nine horses to break, a process that lasted roughly 45 days. And because the Australia government would not allow horses to be shipped into the country, Elliott and his outfit made forays into the outback, where they rounded up wild horses.
"It's a nice country, you could go for miles and never see a house," Elliott recalled, adding that the people were equally friendly.
"The men all carried a little tin bucket with a tea bag," he added. "They stopped, had a little fire, had a cup of tea and went about their business."
After their training, the horses were loaded up and shipped to wherever they were needed.
Elliott said he didn't often get attached to the horses that came and went, but there was one exception: 098.
"That was his serial number," Elliott said with a grin. "He threw me 27 times before I finally rode him."
Elliott's Australian service ended when he was sent to New Guinea to work in the Quartermaster Corps, shipping food, ammuniton and other supplies to various places in the Pacific theater.
He rounded out the end of the war in the Philippines, where he and his outfit were tasked with disinterring the bodies of American servicemen killed on the island.
Finally, he got his slow boat home.
"It took about 90 days getting back," Elliott said.
The ship he was on had to cautiously navigate the thousands of explosive mines dotting the Pacific.
His return to the states came on New Year's Eve 1945, when the ship passed underneath San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. From there, a train took him to Fort Bragg, where he was discharged as a Technician Fifth Grade.
A 44-acre farm in Mountain Falls, which he'd purchased while he was overseas, became his small slice of paradise back home. He also embarked on a new career as a plasterer.
Several months later, when he came into Winchester to pick up his mother from the Safeway store, he met his future wife, Bernice. The two have been married for 70 years and had four children.
In 1966, he and Bernice bought a piece of land where they now live.
Elliott's horse-breaking days, however, have been over a long time.
"No, I don't miss them," he said with a smile about the horses. "But you have to respect them. Because if you're scared, they know."
Information from: The Winchester Star, http://www.winchesterstar.com
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