Famous saddle returns to Nevada for museum display

CARSON CITY – In March 1945, Adm. William "Bull" Halsey vowed at a Washington news conference that he would ride Emperor Hirohito’s beautiful white stallion through Tokyo once the United States won World War II.

That vow became a rallying cry for Americans, angered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the many bloody battles with their enemy in the Pacific.

Hirohito was considered a god in Japan and was often photographed – even on the cover of Life Magazine – riding Shirayuki (White Snow) while reviewing Japanese troops. Halsey’s pledge was an outrageous slap at his divinity and an example of his determination to defeat the enemy.

As the war drew to a close, the Reno Chamber of Commerce commissioned a silver-laden saddle, known as the Halsey saddle, for the admiral to ride through Tokyo. Newspapers followed daily its journey on battleships toward the surrender ceremonies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay that ended the war on Sept. 2.

For the past 22 years, the Halsey saddle was hidden in a storage room crate at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Md. On Thursday, it was returned to the Silver State for display at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.

"This is a great moment for the state of Nevada to bring the saddle home," said Gov. Brian Sandoval before grabbing an electric drill to open a wooden crate containing the saddle. "It is a holiday gift a few days early."

The saddle will remain on loan in Nevada for the next three years and become part of a traveling museum during the state’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2013-14.

Peter Barton, the director of the state Division of Museums and History, said the Halsey vow to ride Hirohito’s horse and the saddle saga have been "lost to history," forgotten to everyone but history buffs. His agency must do "some educating" on the importance of the saddle for Nevadans in coming years.

He credits Washoe County Family Court Judge Chuck Weller with discovering the story during research on Nevada’s role in World War II for his coming book.

The saddle was on display at the Naval Academy museum from 1948-90. The museum was then rebuilt, and the saddle placed in storage. Weller found it during a trip to Annapolis.

Still lost are a pair of buckskin beaded riding gloves that the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe crafted to go with the saddle as a gift for the admiral. Barton said they may have the History Channel help find the gloves.

Weller said Thursday the saddle is priceless but was insured for $200,000 for the trip to Carson City.

He does not know whether any of the people who built the saddle are still alive. But in 1945, a typical saddle took four days to make. The Halsey saddle took nearly six months.

The irony of the saddle story is the admiral never was permitted by the American government to climb on the saddle and ride White Snow through Tokyo.

To the outrage of many at the time, Hirohito was not tried for war crimes, although indications are he authorized the Pearl Harbor and other attacks.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Occupation Army in Japan, considered it wise to let Hirohito remain in a figurehead role to pacify the Japanese during the occupation. White Snow remained the emperor’s property.

Hirohito was emperor for 63 years and honored at state dinners at the White House as the United States and Japan became close allies and trading partners.

Halsey never rode on the saddle. Halsey was terrified of horses, but eventually rode a white horse, albeit very slowly, on the outskirts of Tokyo after the war.

When he dismounted, he was heard saying he never had been so scared in his life.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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