In the early twentieth century a polo match would have been commonplace on Army bases, and now after decades of decline, polo is making a comeback, returning for the second consecutive year to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
The Southwestern Circuit General George S. Patton Jr. Final took place on Saturday, March 30, on the parade field between cross streets of Henry T. Allen and Schofield Roads. The match was free and open to anyone with access to the post.
Historically polo has been a popular and significant sport within the military community. Practically it functioned to help improve the riding skills of cavalrymen, but many Army leaders realized it also taught leadership, teamwork and strategy. Notable advocates and players included General John Pershing, General George Patton Jr., and Medal of Honor recipient Colonol Gordon Johnston, who the United States Polo Association created a national award honoring.
Presented for the first time at the final, the “Col. Gordon Johnston Sportsmanship Award” was adopted by the USPA as a national award in 2019. It is awarded to the player who demonstrates the greatest courage and sportsmanship.
Johnston, who was stationed at Fort Sam as the Chief of Staff for the Second Division, died when he was 59 from injuries sustained in the midwinter polo tournament on March 8, 1934. During his career Johnston was called “the most decorated man in the United States Army.” He was awarded every medal the nation was authorized to confer and seven additional foreign awards. Along with the Congressional Medal of Honor, Johnston’s awards include the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. He also wore three silver stars for his actions in the Philippine Insurrection and the Spanish American War. While in the 82nd Infantry Division he took part in the successful rescue effort for “MAJ Whittley’s Lost Battalion” and he was an early founder of the American Veterans Association, known today as AMVETS.
Polo first arrived in Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1896 where over 17 Army installations would host polo programs by 1914, including Fort Sam Houston. After the end of World War II however, polo would decline across the Army, especially as the need for horsemanship skills was less in demand. Despite the decline after World War II, a growing movement to connect horses with wounded warriors has renewed interest in recent years, bringing the sport back to Army installations.
“As appreciation for equine therapy has grown, the interest in polo has increased which has begun to reconnect the military with its roots,” said Karl Hilberg, South Texas Regional Director for USPA’s Armed Forces Committee and a retired Navy Commander. “It’s a fun game and anybody, no matter their age or background, can pick it up and enjoy it.”
This year marks the second consecutive year the U.S. Army North, USPA, Central Texas Polo Association and Texas Military Polo Club have worked together to share the sport on Fort Sam Houston. “Last year we had an event on post and it was our chance to celebrate San Antonio’s tricentennial and the long shared history of the military in the city. It was a natural fit to invite the USPA Armed Forces Committee to coordinate a demonstration match and celebrate it as part of the military history of the Army and Fort Sam Houston,” Army North Commanding General Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan said. “It was also just a fun experience, the game was great, and we thought it was worth doing again this year.”
This year’s match between the Army and Air Force was similar to last year’s with players who have some association with the military. Three players (Gal Shweiki, John Greening, Javier Insua) returned from last year’s winning team and were joined this year by 2LT Walker Hobby, USMC. The Army team again proved victorious, convincingly defeating the Air Force team comprised of Sgt. Rob Phipps, USAF (HD), Brady Williams, CDR Karl Hilberg, USN (Ret) and Pud Nieto.
Lt. Col Tommy Hitchcock, Air Corps, Most Valuable Player was awarded to John Greening. The Col Gordon Johnston, USA, Sportsmanship Award was presented by General Buchanan to 2LT Walker Hobby. The SGT Reckless, USMC, Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to Sonita, owned and played by Brady Williams.
All photos ©David Murrell.