Military Book Reviews

A Young Man of Montana: From Hard Youth to Hawaii Muleskinner

A Young Man of Montana: From Hard Youth to Hawaii Mule-skinner, by Dr. Daniel T. Miller (Sweetgrass books, November 1, 2021, 160 pages)

Experience the depths of a Montana man surviving a hard youth in Montana and the lead up to World War II in Hawaii as a muleskinner. Irvin Atchison lived a hard life as a young man growing up around Sidney, Montana, in the difficult times of the 1920s and 1930s. He had a way with horses and a hardscrabble life. When he joined the US Army, he had no idea that his skill would take him to the mountains of Hawaii to train mules in preparation for the coming War. The early loss of his father, a childhood spent bouncing from home to home, and the economic hardships of living in a drought- and grasshopper-plagued region in the years of the Great Depression didn’t break him, though. Atchison’s story of a determination to rise above circumstances is inspirational and informative, set in the context of its time and place. He would eventually make his way to San Francisco, join the US Army, and ship out to Hawaii, where his experience with horses translated to a job working mules as part of erroneous preparations by the military in Hawaii in the 1930s. The largely untold story of the Army’s strategic maneuvers in the lead-up to war makes this story of determination a fascinating addition to the literature of World War II.

In A Young Man of Montana: From Hard Youth to Hawaii Mule-skinner, Dr. Daniel T. Miller chronicles the story of army soldier Irvin Atchison. He embarks on a journey from the windswept badlands of Sidney, Montana to serve in Hawaii during Imperial Japan’s early conquest of mainland Asia. The Montana of Atchison’s youth was a hard and beautiful place where the Indian Wars and closing of the American West were fresh in history’s memory.


Coming of age in the Great Depression, Atchison viewed military service as a path toward upward mobility; first in the Montana National Guard and later in the active Army. Upon completion of basic military training, they assign Atchison to the 21st Infantry Regiment at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Although Atchison finds himself in a beautiful, yet unfamiliar place, he finds his niche as the company muleskinner; a person who specialized in handling mules. The apex of Atchison’s army service would be in an exercise validating War Plan Orange for the defense of Oahu, Hawaii. War Plan Orange relied heavily on light infantry units fighting in the rugged Hawaiian mountains. Atchison and his mules were integral to their movement and resupply. The 21st Regiment performed well in the 1935 validation of War Plan Orange directed by Major General Hugh Drum, and they would discharge Atchison shortly after; he then moves back to Montana. Although War Plan Orange was tactically sound, it would prove to be based on faulty assumptions because of a misreading of Japan’s operational objective in Hawaii.


Miller’s prose is clear; he is careful to contextualize the arc of Atchison’s service with the broader events happening in the world around him. Although Miller’s book is not a critical historical study of military operations or strategy, he offers an authentic portrait of life as a peacetime soldier in an America slowly awakening to the reality of confronting global fascism. A Young Man of Montana is a quick and engaging read. Not only does it offer a glimpse into Army life during the interwar years in Hawaii, but it also paints a portrait of a young Montana man whose honorable service, to his state and nation, would be the building block of a life well lived.

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