Published in VFW Magazine
" Saluting Canine Courage "

Gaining notoriety during WWII as the famed K-9 Corps, dogs were used even more extensively in the Vietnam War. A memorial to their sacrifices is finally being dedicated this month (Feb 2001).     By Gary Turbak

Like many other GIs, these troops sometimes sport strange nicknames—Capy, Blitz, Pepper, Duke, Bruiser. But their bravery, courage, loyalty and dedication to duty come straight from the military manual. They fight hard, die for their comrades, save their buddies’ lives and in every other way perform as exemplary soldiers.

That they are dogs-not men and women-matters little. With decades of service, combat canines have earned a place of honor in America’s military annals. But still they struggle for full recognition.

"War dogs have provided a tremendous service to our country, but not many people know what they’ve done," says Randy Kimler, former combat dog handler and president of the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association (VDHA).


Dogs have been assisting human military efforts at least since the ancient Assyrians used them 1,000 years ago. During the Middle Ages, war dogs—like knights—even wore coats of mail. More recently, Benjamin Franklin suggested that dogs become a part of the colonial militia. But America’s military did not get serious about canine soldiers until World War II.

(The Allies used 30,000 dogs in World War I—7,000 were killed.)

In 1942, the "K-9 Corps" began training dogs for military service. Before World War II ended, more than 12,000 four-footed enlistees (or, more likely, draftees) were giving new meaning to the terms "dogface" and "dog tags." Most of these animals served as stateside sentries or with Coast Guard beach patrols, but many were sent overseas.

The canine soldiers of World War II began as privates and received promotions based on time in service. Those that hung around for five years might achieve the grade of master gunnery sergeant. Some dogs eventually outranked their handlers. When the war ended, military authorities shipped canine veterans home from overseas, gave them honorable discharges, and returned many to their civilian owners. Some of these dogs even received medals.

Later, another 1,500 dogs served in Korea, and 4,000 more in Vietnam. A few canine soldiers also went to the Persian Gulf where one spent so much time in the desert sun that her normally dark coat turned blond. American dogs also went into Kosovo with NATO troops last spring. In all, an estimated 30,000 dogs have served in America’s armed forces over the years.

"Dogs can be a huge military asset," says Michael Lemish, former dog handler in Vietnam and author of the book War Dogs: A History of Heroism and Loyalty (1999). "We haven’t begun to tap their full potential."


Decades ago, the military accepted a host of breeds—everything from sheep dogs to schnauzers—but gradually the field narrowed mainly to German shepherds (for their intelligence and train-ability) and Labrador retrievers (for their superior noses).

During World War II, civilians volunteered their dogs for military service. But since 1946, the military has purchased its canine soldiers. Today, a canine fit for service costs about $4,000 to buy and $30,000 to train.

Some four-footed inductees may simply be asked to guard a military installation the way they would a home. Others are trained (basic lasts 12 weeks) as scouts, trackers, messengers or detectors of mines, booby traps, explosives and enemy soldiers.

In most cases, it is the superior canine sense of smell and hearing that make these dogs so valuable. Properly trained, military dogs can detect hidden enemy soldiers at 1,000 yards, hear the whine of a gentle breeze blowing over a tripwire, and smell the breath of underwater saboteurs coming through a reed.

Dog handlers quickly learn to pay close attention to such subtle canine signals as a cocked ear, stiffened tail, or raised hairs on the animal’s back.


Every campaign has its own—sometimes well publicized—canine heroes. Chips, a combination shepherd-collie-husky, achieved fame in World War II by supposedly capturing "single-pawedly" the six occupants of an enemy machine gun nest in Sicily—after being hit with a rifle bullet.

Other acclaimed canine combatants of that war were the Dobermans that served on Guam in 1944. One of these, Kurt, saved the lives of 250 U.S. Marines when he warned them of Japanese troops ahead. Kurt died in the ensuing action.

During the Korean War, the German shepherd, York, reportedly led 152 patrols without losing a single man. York belonged to the highly decorated 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon.

And in 1966, Nemo—another German shepherd—returned with much fanfare from Vietnam, where he was wounded after discovering Vietcong infiltrators at Tan Son Nhut AB Air Base. The discovery reportedly prevented much loss of life and equipment.

But plenty of canine heroism—especially in Vietnam—never got much press. Like the day the German shepherd, Bruiser, dragged his wounded handler, John Flannelly, to safety—taking two bullets in the process (both Bruiser and Flannelly survived).

Or Duke, taking shrapnel that would have killed handler William Latham if it had not hit the German shepherd first. Or Buck, alerting handler Dennis Jefcoat to the tripwire just in front of them. "From that moment on my life was completely dependent on him," Jefcoat says.

Indeed, it was in Vietnam that canine soldiers truly showed their mettle, moving far beyond their previously common roles as sentries and guards. In Vietnam, each dog was assigned a single handler, and the pair often became each other’s best friend—sharing rations, sleeping together and depending on one another’s skills to stay alive.

Off-duty, the two might wile away the time by playing Frisbee or throwing (and fetching) sticks. But when the dog’s body harness went on, both dog and handler were all business—with the dog, in many ways, in charge. "My dog told me where and when to go," former handler Dick Desmarias says.

Today, decades later, handlers who served in Vietnam still break down and cry as they tell of their dogs’ heroics or how their canine comrades died. "I think of him most every day and have his picture hanging in my office," former handler Bill Peeler says of his dog Rex. "He saved my life many times." Many other handlers also credit their survival to the dogs’ skills.

In Vietnam’s thick jungle and brush, the dogs were invaluable for locating snipers, checking out tunnels and huts, and finding booby traps. Working point with handler in tow, a dog was often the first to encounter—or, more importantly, detect—the enemy. "I wouldn’t have lasted three months without Torro," former handler Carl Dobbins says.

In many instances, the dogs prevented patrols—with growling force, if necessary—from triggering a booby trap or stepping on a land mine. Former handler Charlie Cargo tells of the day on patrol when his dog Wolf refused to let him go any further up the trail: "I looked straight ahead and not more than 2 feet away was a tripwire. I would have died right there if he hadn’t found that wire." The canines were so effective that the Vietcong offered a bounty for dead dogs or their handlers.

American war dogs logged tens of thousands of missions in Vietnam. Some 325 died in the line of duty. According to the VDHA, canines prevented an estimated 10,000 American casualties in Vietnam. "There would be a lot more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Wall without these dogs," says John Kubisz, a veterinarian who treated many of the dogs in Vietnam.

As it is, 261 dog handlers were killed in action during the war. Another three handlers died in the May 1975 Mayaguez incident on Koh Tang Island.


Like their human counterparts, canine veterans of Vietnam received a different kind of homecoming than did their predecessors. In fact, fewer than 200 of the 4,000 American dogs that served in Vietnam ever came home at all.

To GIs, the dogs were friends and fighting comrades—like brothers, even. But to the Pentagon, they were equipment, and used equipment often got left behind. If returned stateside, officials said, the dogs might bring along diseases, attack civilians, or become uncontrollable at the sound of a firecracker or auto backfire.

Many veteran handlers believe, however, that cost was the major motivation. "The consensus is that it was cheaper to leave them there," Lemish says. Though handlers often tried to get their canine buddies shipped home, most of the dogs were either euthanized or given an uncertain future with the South Vietnamese military.

Another thing that gnaws on many veterans is the lack of recognition given to war dogs. Here and there, a hometown or pet cemetery or university may honor a few of these animals. But the soldiers who owe their lives to the dogs believe America should do more. Twice, veterans have petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative war dog postage stamp. The request was denied both times (a third push is now on).

And then there’s the memorial. In February 1999, Nature’s Recipe Pet Foods produced a startling documentary video (shown several times on the Discovery channel) about the dogs and handlers who served in Vietnam.

In conjunction with that project, a non-profit War Dog Memorial Fund has been created to establish a permanent, significant monument to all canine veterans and their handlers. "We don’t want people to forget what these dogs have done, and a memorial will help commemorate their sacrifices," says Kimler.

The bronze and granite monument (16 feet tall and 10 feet wide) will depict a combat-attired GI—representing handlers from all wars—with a dog at his side. The inscription will read: "They protected us on the field of battle. They watch over our eternal rest. We are grateful."

This month, on Feb. 21, the national memorial will be dedicated at March Field Air Museum in Riverside, Calif. It is a joint effort of the museum, the Fund and Riverside County. "It will be placed in an ideal location, " says Laura Benge of the War Dog Memorial Fund. "Lots of visitors will have an opportunity to see it."

Another identical memorial will be dedicated at the National Infantry Museum at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga., on Veterans Day 2000, if things go according to plan, Benge says.

War dogs’ service has finally become a permanent part of America’s veteran heritage.

Information about the war dog memorial is available from: Laura Benge, War Dog Memorial Fund, 341 Bonnie Circle, Corona, CA 91720 or call toll free 877-927-3647. For details about a postage stamp honoring America’s war dogs, visit the following Internet site:




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