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Faithful Service: A Salute to the Dogs of War

There are many great stories of dogs in war. Here’s one of them.

The patch of jungle patrolled by Spec. Jose Palacios and his platoon had been designated a “secured” area. But as any Vietnam veteran knows, the words “secured” and “Vietnam” were mutually exclusive terms.

His platoon, a unit of the 101st Airborne Division, was led by a scout dog and his handler, about 15 feet ahead. A battalion of Viet Cong waited silently in the jungle, spread out in a semicircle – a classic horseshoe ambush. The platoon was walking within the horseshoe’s mouth.

The dog stopped and became agitated. He picked up a scent. His handler froze, then gave a hand-down signal, which told the platoon to drop to the ground. The jungle came alive with gunfire, from the left, the center and the right. The scout dog and handler were killed almost immediately, but the warning saved Palacios’ platoon from destruction. Without the heroism of the scout dog and his handler, Palacios doesn’t believe he would have made it out of there.

“We’d been in-country for just 15 or 20 days,” the Chicago resident said. “And they saved our lives.”

Palacios’ experience with dogs in war is not unique. During the 10,000 days of the Vietnam War, more than 4,000 dogs served in all branches of the armed services. Records show that 263 handlers and about 500 dogs were killed in action, but their efforts saved an estimated 10,000 American lives.

Popular recognition of the sacrifice of dogs in war has been slow, but progress is being made. Around the nation, memorials, such as one in Riverside, Calif., are going up to commemorate the sacrifice of scout dogs in the nation’s military history.

On May 27, 2001, the day before Memorial Day, a bronze sculpture designed by Anthony Quickle was unveiled in Streamwood, Illinois. The unveiling coincided with the arrival of the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, scale version of the memorial in Washington, DC. In this latest memorial, Quickle emphasizes the teamwork and the genuine affection between the handler and the scout dog. The soldier, alerted by the dog, is pointing to some action in the distance, with his other hand on the dog. The dog is in an alert posture, ready to jump. The soldier is kneeling, with his head almost on an even plane with the dog’s.

“They willingly, without thought to themselves, laid down their lives for us,” said Quickle. “I wanted to do a life-sized sculpture that kids can touch, and that older people can feel is an intimate portrayal of their experience.”

History of Dogs in War

Quickle, who served in the Air Force in the seventies, didn’t have to look far to find that affection. Stories of heroism are common, as are websites dedicated to the history and memories of combat dogs and their handlers.

Dogs have been used in the world’s armies for thousands of years as sentries and attack dogs, but the U.S. Army had been comparatively slow in forming official dog units. The nation’s first recognized military dog hero was a bull terrier named Stubby. He served during World War I in the 102nd Infantry, which smuggled him overseas.

Stubby’s performance in World War I was the stuff of legends. He warned of pending gas attacks, stopped a German infiltrator, found wounded soldiers on the battlefield and was wounded in action. He became the most decorated dog in war, winning a gold medal and honorary rank of sergeant from General Pershing. That was just from the American side. The French awarded him a Victory medal, and French women knitted him a blanket, upon which more medals would be pinned. After the war, presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge all had audiences with Stubby.

Before the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, dog enthusiasts had tried to interest the military in the usefulness of dogs in war, citing their loyalty, stamina, intelligence and natural abilities. But except for a few sled dogs used in places too harsh for mules or horses, interest was minimal.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that: the United States faced a two-front war, and had thousands of miles of coastline to protect from infiltration by saboteurs and spies. A month after the Pearl Harbor attack shattered the Pacific Fleet, a call went out to American citizens, asking them to donate their pets for sentry duty.

For the first time in American history, canine units were formed. Many helped to patrol beaches and guard military and industrial centers, but about 800 were sent overseas to participate more directly in the war effort. They were employed as scouts, messengers and sentries in both the European and Pacific theaters of war.

Besides scouting and delivering messages under fire, dogs have saved the lives of soldiers by fearlessly attacking the enemy. One such celebrated dog, Chips, was even briefly awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. The Army later revoked both after a minor controversy erupted over whether it was appropriate to award dogs such high honors. But there was no denying Chips’ heroism.

Chips, one of the first to go overseas from the United States, single-handedly attacked an Italian pillbox containing four soldiers. He tackled one enemy soldier and, as American troops arrived, the rest surrendered. Though his official medals were revoked, his unit (of the 3rd Division) unofficially awarded him the Theater Ribbon and a battle star for each of the eight campaigns in which he took part.

But it was in the jungles of the Pacific where dogs made their greatest contributions to the war effort. Time and again, they foiled night infiltration attacks and discovered enemy patrols and troop movements. In one campaign, dogs were credited with helping to inflict 180 casualties and capture 20 prisoners.

The Japanese army was a master of night infiltration. According to the history of dogs in World War II, compiled by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, “The ability of the dog to pick up enemy bivouacs, positions, patrols … long before our patrol reached them frequently enabled our troops to achieve surprise and inflict heavy casualties.”

After the war, the dogs went through a “debriefing” program, to re-socialize them with civilian life and their original owners, and each returned with Honorable Discharge papers.

Tragically, the dogs in war would soon be treated not as comrades-in-arms, but as excess military equipment. The military decided that acquiring dogs from patriotic citizens was impractical and uneconomical, and began purchasing its own dogs.

Until the Vietnam War began in earnest, only small numbers of dogs were used for military purposes. (In the Korean War, a single scout dog platoon, the 26th, served with great distinction.) But the jungle nature of the war, and the need to protect against infiltrations forced the Pentagon to reverse itself. Their success was soon obvious: the Viet Cong began placing bounties on killing the dogs and their handlers.

But when American troops began pulling out of Vietnam, these dogs were labeled as surplus equipment, and were euthanized or left behind to fend for themselves. The disclosure of what had been a tragic footnote of a tragic war has given momentum to the drive to recognize the service of these “war dogs.”

In 1999, the guidelines regarding service dogs finally changed to allow their handlers to take them home after their tour of duty. Until then, military dogs routinely faced euthanasia as a reward for their faithful service.

Today, organizations such as the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association are striving to commemorate the service provided by these dogs.