Fritz Truan: World War II's Cowboy Hero

Remembering a bronc rider-turned-Marine.
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Remembering a bronc rider-turned-Marine.
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Photos courtesy National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Dickinson Research Center

World Champion Fritz Truan gave up rodeo fame for love of country when he loaned out his bronc saddle and joined the Marine Corps in 1942, months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“In the first place, Fritz had that indefinable something that sports heroes are made of, color in action and in personality. I’m speaking now of the color that made Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth the best known names in the world,” wrote PRCA Hall of Famer Gene Pruett in a letter to Joe Koller of the Golden West Magazine on Feb. 16, 1965. 

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Sgt. Fritz Truan died Feb. 28, 1945, in battle in Iwo Jima. But, as Augustus McCrae said, “It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living.” And live Fritz Truan did.

Born in Seeley, Calif., Truan learned to ride bucking horses in competition in small rodeos around his hometown, according to Pruett (who won the world in the saddle bronc riding in 1948 and went on to have a long career working for the PRCA). Truan’s bronc riding talent grew quickly, and he won the world in 1939 and 1940, as well as the all-around title that year in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“He gave any bucking horse better than an even break,” Pruett remembered. “People that could ride as good as Fritz didn’t need to take the best of it. He wanted them to buck their best, and it was an accident any time a horse bucked him off. In my opinion, he was the toughest bucking horse rider of them all, with the possible exception of Pete Knight.”

Pruett had been a member of the Cowboy Turtles Association since 1936, but never took a leadership role in the organization, Pruett wrote. He was, however, a “loyal, strong member.”
Before his time in the service, Truan befriended the likes of John Wayne, Harry Carrey Jr., Ben Johnson and Yakima Canutt, and Wayne’s film, The Sands of Iwo Jima (1950), was based on Truan’s final years. 

Truan still rode broncs every chance he got while in the Marine Corps, and he won the Hawaiian Bronc Riding Championship in 1944. The Marines gave Truan a one-month leave in 1944, and he used that month to put on a rodeo in Honolulu for the benefit of his injured comrades. That arena, on the Marine Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, is now named in his honor.

When Truan died, the headlines of the day read, “Sergeant Fritz Truan, King of the Cowboys, Killed in Iwo Action.” The Marine Corps posthumously awarded him the Victory Medal and the Purple Heart. 

The Rodeo Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum posthumously inducted Truan in 1961, and the ProRodeo Hall of Fame followed suit in 1995.