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Remembering Our Four-Legged Friends Who Served
Exploring military history through the poignant history of dogs in the armed services since WWI.
Since World War I, countless American lives have been saved because of our military working dog teams. Their contribution to our armed services is invaluable – not only in their ability to detect explosives and assist our service members on the battlefield, but in the companionship that they provide to our troops. The national monument is a tribute to the loyalty, service and sacrifice of these dogs and their handlers.
These words were spoken by Congressman Walter B. Jones of North Carolina at the opening of the U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument at Lackland Air Base in Texas on October 28, 2013, according to Congressional Documents and Publications1. The memorial was a long time in the making. The bill to establish such a monument, championed by Jones, was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008; however, for decades, U.S. veterans of war sought to honor the four-legged friends who served with them in the armed forces.
Since this year’s release of an animated film about Stubby, the highly decorated canine hero of World War I, I’ve been thinking about the history of dogs in the military and the profound relationship between them and their human counterparts. As someone who doesn’t have much experience researching military history, but as a person who loves dogs, this has proven to be a poignant, insightful angle for exploration into an area that can be difficult and daunting, with numerous opportunities for further learning and investigation.
The canine hero of the American Expeditionary Forces
Corporal Robert Conroy couldn’t resist the stray brindle Boston bull terrier mix who started hanging around members of the 102nd Infantry who were training in New Haven, Connecticut. So, in 1917, when the outfit shipped out for France, the puppy was smuggled on board by Conroy. Little did anyone guess that “Stubby” would go on to participate in over a dozen battles on the Western Front, get promoted to sergeant and become the most decorated dog of World War I.
In 1925, near the end of his life, The Washington Post2 featured a heartfelt, in-depth retrospective of Stubby’s adventures and accomplishments.
As German submarines were threatening the lives of the soldiers heading for France, the nights “were made more cheerful and more livable by the presence of this dog that had become the pet and pal of the lonesome, seasick youngsters,” the Post reported. During those times under constant fire in trenches “howling his derision at the attacks of the Germans” and comforting injured soldiers – “he seemed to sense pain and sorrow in others and never shirked duty when it might mean the helping of others to forget the terrible strain of war” – Stubby clearly boost the morale of those in the 102nd.
But he did more than supply emotional support. “Stubby made a good soldier,” the article noted. With his keen sense of hearing, Stubby warned troops of incoming mustard gas attacks (attempts were made to fit him with a gas mask, but the dog often went into battle with little or no protection), would help locate injured troops, and he famously isolated one German spy, biting him in the leg and pinning him to the ground until U.S. soldiers arrived. Through these efforts, Stubby suffered several wounds from grenade fire and shrapnel.
“There are those who believe that the practice of decorating dogs for heroism is going a bit too far,” The Post acknowledged. “But dog owners and dog lovers will not agree that it is.”
Among his many, many awards, Stubby received a solid gold medal in 1921, a gift from the Humane Education Society, from General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces – a tremendous honor for anyone who served in the Great War.
Dogs take on increasingly critical roles in war
When the U.S. got involved in World War II, Uncle Sam didn’t just want “YOU,” he also wanted your dog. For that reason, Dogs for Defense, Inc. was established as a nonprofit to recruit and train domestic canines for military service.
The government sought 250,000 dogs for training, according to a 1943 article in The New York Herald Tribune3, and, based on their breed, size, demeanor and level of fitness, trainers found only about 100 of every 250 dogs suitable for the armed forces. It was estimated that 1600 dogs were delivered to the government every month and these animals took on various responsibilities, including delivering messages, carrying guns and munitions, sentry duty, scouting and guard work. There is no record of how many dogs actually served.
While throughout history, dogs have always been used in war (a column devoted to dogs in the Chicago Tribune4 gave an overview of this history, complete with photographs of reliefs from about 650 B.C. depicting the 200 pound mastiffs used in attack), but after World War II, they became an essential part of the U.S. armed forces.
The U.S. Army started keeping records on dogs during the Vietnam War, where 4000 canines saved an estimated 10,000 lives (or more) according to a New York Times5 piece by Richard Cunningham, who was a sentry dog handler from 1967 to 1968. At the end of the war, the military classified the dogs as “equipment,” and only about 200 of these animals made it home to the U.S., he noted.
A draft Associated Press article6 by imbedded journalist George Espor observed a detachment of about 80 scouting and tracker dogs and their handlers who had arrived in Vietnam during the mid-‘60s. “The handlers with 12 months duty here can return to the United States unless they volunteer to stay on,” he wrote. “For the dogs, its an involuntary re-enlistment.”
Dogs served in the Gulf War in the 1990s, and after Sept. 11, 2001, they’d participated in seven overseas missions by 2004, according to a Boston Globe7 report about the need for military working dogs to serve in the Middle East, where they continue to be sought after. With on-going attacks on tourist sites and public transportation around the world, the demand for bomb-sniffing dogs has only surged.
The significance of memorializing the dogs who served
Newspaper articles are an excellent source for understanding the profoundly meaningful relationships that developed between the troops and the dogs who served with them. Interviews with veterans remembering their canine companions underscore the how deeply the dogs were a part of their experiences – as Cunningham noted in his New York Times account, they were “soldiers every bit as integral as their human counterparts.”
Another Vietnam War vet, Larry Chilcoat, told the Los Angeles Times7 about Geisha, who was constantly at his side during the night patrol at the Cam Ranh Bay Air Base. “It was lonely, scary duty and Geisha, a German Shephard, was both protector and companion,” the Times noted. She kept Chilcoat motivated and she kept him alive. She could detect an approaching enemy by sound and smell long before any human could.
Before the dedication of a national monument honoring military working dogs, smaller memorials popped up at military bases and pet cemeteries throughout the country. It’s tempting to think of these efforts as a sweet way to pay respect these animals, but it goes much deeper than that – the memorials are also a tribute the humans who bonded with these canines as together they experienced hardships most of can hardly imagine.
One such monument is the West Coast War Dog Memorial, located at March Field Air Museum in Riverside, CA. At the base of this memorial, which was established in 2000, little notes reveal the enduring emotional connection between war vets and the dogs, according to The Spectator. “My friend, Bingo,” said one message, “leaving you was sad and wrong.” “If not for Dusty,” read another, “I wouldn’t be home.”
In 2004, at the site’s annual Memorial Day event, Congressman Walter B. Jones met a veteran war dog handler. The exchanges inspired him to sponsor the bill for the national monument in Lackland, which has been the headquarters for military working dogs since the 1950s.
“It’s a love that’s hard to define,” Jones said. “These comrades crawled in the jungle at nighttime to find where the enemy was and sniffed out enemies. They need to be recognized as an intricate part of our national security.”
Resources for further research on military and diplomatic history
Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War - Rare magazines published by service personnel of the First World War are now searchable online in Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War, providing scholars with a unique resource from which to research alternative perspectives on the conflict.
History Vault – related modules include:
- World War I: British Foreign Office Political Correspondence
- World War I: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, and Diplomacy in the World War I Era
- World War II: U.S. Documents on Planning, Operations, Intelligence, Axis War Crimes, and Refugees
- Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy, 1960-1975
ProQuest Military Database – Spanning over 700 publications, this database includes diverse content types including scholarly journals, trade and industry journals, magazines, government reports, conference papers and more, for coverage across all government and military branches.
American History in Video – Along with in-demand, award-winning documentaries, this comprehensive video collection also includes early newsreels, including the complete series of United and Universal Newsreel, available in their entirety. See history as it was made and reported to viewers of the time!
Ebook Central – The largest selection of 1M+ ebooks spanning subject areas, including Canine Commandos: The Heroism, Devotion, and Sacrifice of Dogs in War, with heartwarming and heroic stories of history’s most famous combat dogs from WWI to the war in Afghanistan.
Help students and researchers gain insight from first-hand accounts of military and diplomatic relations spanning time and borders with access to an array of resources from ProQuest.
- Jones Statement On Dedication Of U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument. (2013). Washington: Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc. Available from ProQuest Central.
- Kelly, Ralph J. (1925, Nov 15). Stubby, the Canine Hero of the A.E.F. The Washington Post (1923-1954). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Evans, Q. (1943, Jun 20). U.S. Expanding Posts to Train Dogs for War. New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Becker, B. (1942, Feb 08). MOSTLY ABOUT DOGS. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963.) Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Cunningham, Richard. (2017, Oct 03). "The Dogs of the Vietnam War.” The New York Times. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.
- From History Vault Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy, 1960-1975 module; Associated Press, Saigon Bureau Records: Series 1: News Reports, 1953, 1960-71. Folder: 105463-097-0708.
- Hall, C. (2004, Jun 01). Best Friends Even in Battle; A Riverside Memorial Honors Canine Soldiers. Veterans are Lobbying for a National Monument to the Dogs. Los Angeles Times. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.
- Abrams, J. (2007, Sep 08). Museum Honours Dogs of War; Handlers Believe Canine Heroes Saved 10,000 Soldiers in Vietnam. The Spectator. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.