“Unleash” the Dogs of War
I know that you may be thinking that the thread title refers to Shakespeare’s quote from Julius Caesar, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”. Or, you may think that it conveys a rather hawkish attitude or that in some way reflects agreement with our policies in the Middle East. Without going into my feelings about any of the above, it has nothing to do with any of them. It is rather, a statement on a subject that I am passionate about, namely the past and present treatment of some of the most courageous, loyal and least recognized members of our armed services; Dog Soldiers, the war dogs of our military K9 units. This passion is easy to understand as I was a handler in Vietnam, serving four combat tours from 1966 until 1970. It was there that I learned the craft that would ultimately shape the remainder of my working life, and my relationship with these special creatures.
These dogs have barreled into the fiercest battles of history. They have risked their lives for fallen comrades. They have remained loyal until death – guarding, encouraging, fighting, until all but their spirit was lost. Dogs have certainly proven effective in battles throughout history. As weapons of wars they have been ferocious, courageous and intelligent. But it is their spirit, that undying and ever-faithful spirit that has inspired men in arms and rallied them during history’s bloodiest battles. When their effectiveness as weapons of war was past, they continued to contribute to the fight – guarding the men, inspiring them, helping them to communicate. Perhaps it is their pack nature or willingness to please their human counterparts that have made them so essential in battle, but since the dawn of warfare they have plunged headfirst into the fight.
The Romans were not the first, but until modern times, may very well have used war dogs the most effectively. The Roman Army had whole companies composed entirely of dogs. They wore spiked collars around their neck and ankles, made more dangerous by the large curved knives protruding from its ring. Sometimes they were starved before battle, then unleashed on an unsuspecting enemy. Their dog of choice was the great Molossar dogs of Epirus, specifically trained for battle. These dogs, half starved and ferocious, helped spread the Roman Empire across the ancient world. They dominated battles until they met their match in Britain, where powerful Mastiffs called Pugnaces Britanniae had been born and bred. Seeing first hand their effectiveness in battle, the Romans quickly began employing these dogs in the Empire’s service. They were set loose across the ancient world - trained, ravenous, and fiercely loyal. After the fall of Rome, armies across the globe continued using war dogs, but no longer limited their service to fighting. They were trained as guard dogs, sentries, messengers and draught dogs.
In the modern era, essentially every nation used dogs in wartime. Like the ancient Romans, the Soviets starved dogs then unleashed them onto the battlefield. They trained the dogs to search for food beneath tanks. During battle they were strapped with anti-tank bombs and, after being unleashed, they sprinted beneath enemy tanks, with both tragic and heroic results. During World War I, the Germans used possibly 30,000 dogs, the French used 20,000, and the Italians 3,000. The other Allied forces used thousands more. The U.S. did not use war dogs but sort of borrowed some from their Allies. By World War II however they had become convinced of a dog’s effectiveness in war. Dogs for Defense was created in January 1942 and used as a sort of clearinghouse for military dogs. Dogs that volunteered for service would be sent to Dogs for Defense where they would be trained and prepared for battle. Thousands of dogs were eventually used by the U.S. Military in their efforts to defeat the Axis powers.
One of the most famous of these dogs was Chips. This German Shepherd-Collie-Husky mix was the most decorated dog during World War II. Trained in Front Royal, Virginia, Chips served the 3d Infantry Division in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany as a sentry dog. In 1943, he attacked a small fort and, in spite of receiving wounds to the head, forced 4 Italian crew members to surrender. Later on the same day, he helped capture 10 prisoners. For his actions he was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
While WWII and later Korea showed the abilities and usefulness for canine units, it was not until Vietnam that their full potential was realized. Many specialized units were formed, each with a different mission and purpose. Mine and Tunnel, Sentry, Scout, explosives interdiction, Water dogs and more, with the pinnacle being the Combat Tracking teams (CTT, or Canine Tactical Tracking). The Combat Tracker Teams were small, highly-trained units usually consisting of five men and a Labrador Retriever. Some were redundant teams using two of each (10 members), and some like mine, were smaller 2 man teams, (a radio operator and visual tracker) and very specialized. We also used German Shepherds instead of Labs. They were a composite group and cross-trained, enabling all members to complete the mission. The purpose of CTT was to re-establish contact with the enemy after a firefight or engagement, reconnaissance of an area for possible enemy activities and locate lost or missing friendly personnel. The methods used in completing the missions were Visual and Canine Tactical Tracking. The unit was usually supported by a platoon or larger force and worked well ahead of them to maintain noise discipline and the element of surprise. Specialized teams like mine did the same mission but .were also trained in sentry removal, night stalking and silent penetration.
After finishing the training at the BJWS (British Jungle Warfare School) in Malaysia I was paired with my first permanent canine partner. Ironically, considering my lifelong association with wolfdogs, Diablo was a ¼ wolf/GSD mix and it was he that showed me the extraordinary bond that forms between two members of different species when they rely on each other for survival. For over two years, we operated as a hunter-killer team along the Cambodian border, spending sometimes several weeks in the bush with no contact with our base other than radio. Diablo could hear the wind on a mine’s trip wire at 50 yards, sense human presence at a click or more away and we saved each other’s lives many, many times.
On June 12, 1969, in the valley going up from Quin Nhon to Ahn Khe, we were hit by a mortar round while in a firefight with NVA troops. Badly wounded, Diablo still managed to crawl to me and cover me with his body until medics arrived. I made it, he didn’t.
After I recovered I was paired with my next and final partner. Duke was a black phase GSD and was as loyal and capable in every way as his predecessor. Wounded again in 1970, I went back to my family but had to leave Duke behind. It was very hard to say good bye and his fate and the fate of the rest of the four legged heroes of that time is what has sparked a life-long passion.
While Vietnam saw the beginning of a new age in K9 training and capabilities, it also saw a major change in the way that these heroes were treated and viewed by the Armed Services. In all previous wars, after their service, these four-legged soldiers were treated as such, released from service and sent home, some with medals and commendations. Not so in Vietnam or since. Canines were re-classified as “equipment” and as such had no “rotation out”. They were in for life. War dogs were not allowed to return to civilian life, no retirement, and when they were deemed unfit for any reason, they were put down. During the war over 4,000 dogs and 10,000 handlers served in the various services. When the final US troops withdrew in 1975 there were 3,896 canines still in country. Of these, 195 were flown to Lackland AFB, another 180 went to Okinawa. The rest were abandoned and left to starve in their kennels. ARVN troops released less than 40, and took another 200 back to their bases where they promptly ate them. To me this was every bit as shameful as the debacle at the US Embassy in Saigon. Just as the pictures of those helos lifting off will haunt me always, so does the way we abandoned our dogs.
I am a proud member of the VDHA, (Vietnam Dog Handlers Association), a group dedicated to re-unite veteran war dog handlers and honor the memory of their canine partners. We have established memorials around the country to honor those who gave their lives in service, and have a main goal of adding a tribute to “The Wall” in Washington. You can visit their site at http://vdha.us/, if you would like to know more about these efforts or the unsung heroes of our K9 units.