Book Review: Always Faithful: A Memoir of the Marine Dogs of WWII

"It was a story that needed to be told," said Dr. William W. Putney, author of the riveting Always Faithful: A Memoir of the Marine Dogs of WWII (The Free Press, $25), during a telephone interview. "If I did not write it, it was going to die."

Be thankful he did.

For almost half a century, the colorful Putney, a retired Marine Corps captain/veterinarian, has been attempting to get the work published. "I had agents who swore they'd get it into the right hands," he said. "But no one did."

In the '50s, Americans had tired of war stories, he said. Nevertheless, Putney, a small-animal veterinarian, was organizing and detailing his WWII exploits as the commanding officer of the 3rd War Dog Platoon, from training in the United States to grueling combat on Guam, then returning home to deprogram the same animals.

The detail in this deeply affecting volume is written like it happened yesterday. And keep in mind, Putney was not allowed to maintain a diary of any type during the war. All of the detail is from an assemblage of post-conflict notes, interviews with others in his unit and the 2nd War Dog Platoon.

"These dogs were the unsung heroes of the war," said Putney, describing the German shepherds, Doberman pinschers and single Labrador retriever. "There is no way of estimating how many lives they saved, but it was in the thousands." The canines were trained for scout, sentry, messenger and mine-detection duties.

Of 550 patrols with dogs on Guam, none was ambushed. Because of their worth, a war-dog platoon was assigned to every Marine division fighting in the island campaign.

Putney's vivid characterizations 50-plus years later are masterful. He places you right in the midst of a jungle battle on Guam with a four-legged partner or alongside an untrained dog at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the initial training was conducted.

Always Faithful details the incredible behavioral transformation of man and dog in the newly organized Marine platoons. Everyone was on a new turf here. The dogs were former house pets or farm animals donated by their owners; the young Marines, some of whom had never owned a dog, were assigned to the program only by a twist of fate; and the trainers were new to the regimen, too.

"There wasn't a precedent here," said Putney, an Auburn University veterinary school graduate who intended to become a large-animal practitioner. "I kinda got sidetracked by the dogs and the war," he laughed. "But it was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything."

Throughout this important documentary, Putney's naturalness remains a beguiling virtue. The first two-thirds of the crisp volume basically sets the table for the final third: the battles of Guam, postwar deprogramming of the animals and detailed statistics of the overall program, which was terminated following the war.

Always Faithful is accented with swirling emotions, personal tangles, plenty of heartbreak and incredible courage and guile. Dog doubters within the Marine Corps turned to big boosters as the incredible animals and their dedicated partners matured quickly, literally under the gun. "This was a program on fast-forward from the start," said Putney.

Any frilly hearts and flowers you bring to the easy chair when sitting down with Always Faithful had best be left at the door. This isn't a love story. Your emotional Geiger counter might be in for a good workout.

The book traverses challenging emotional terrain as well as the physical. Grown men cry and fall into deep despair when their "partner" is injured or killed. Conversely, dogs sulk and become almost unapproachable when their partner is fatally injured.

Always Faithful is seamless. It crystallizes the sober reality of war in an energetic, passionate and definitive fashion. "I told it exactly as it happened," said Putney, who says the final work represents about half of the manuscript he originally turned in. "The editors did a great job," he emphasized, "and didn't leave anything important out."

Not a day goes by when Putney doesn't think of the war dogs. "This book is really for them," he says. "It's their story." Here are a few sobering statistics:

Dogs on duty in Pacific: 327; dogs killed in action in Pacific: 29; dogs missing in action in Pacific: 5; dogs died at sea (transporting to or from the war zone) 5; dogs returned to former owners following war: 173; dogs returned to new owners or found a new home: 29. Of 1,047 dogs that served in the Marine Corps during WWII, 44 percent were in the Pacific. Of the 1,047 that underwent training, 295 were rejected (a result of improper recruiting).

While Always Faithful will stand as the signature to these brave animals' contributions to the U.S. war effort, Putney played a key role, too, in placing a War Dog Cemetery on the Orote Point U.S. Naval Base on Guam July 20, 1994, at the 50th anniversary celebration of Guam's liberation.

In 1989, he had revisited Guam to find the Marine War Dog Cemetery that had been established in 1944 in total disrepair. "It was moved to the jungle in central Guam," Putney said, "and totally overgrown. In other words, those four-legged heroes were all but forgotten. It broke my heart. I left there determined to move it to a site where our government would maintain it."

Former war-dog unit members have held annual reunions for years. "We're down to only about 12 to 15 guys now," said Putney, 81, during the phone interview. "It used to be quite an event, but now it's pretty quiet." But this year's gathering in Nashville promises to be particularly uplifting. "I'll sign everyone's book," he promised, "and we'll critique it, I'm sure."

Rest assured, Always Faithful puts a defining exclamation mark on their story.