2009-05-20 / Columnists
Documenting the work of the Man's Best Friends during World War II
Pets, Pets, Pets
Pearl Harbor ushered in an unfamiliar battleground. U.S. Pacific commanders were not prepared for jungle warfare. On Guam, alone, 20,000 "invisible" Japanese were waiting to ambush our soldiers. American casualties were high. The Marine Corps tried an initially ridiculed experiment, employing new weapons- dog platoons, borrowed from patriotic citizens and superbly trained by novice Marines.
Memorial Day honors all who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Oral histories are crucial—lest we forget. Each day, about 1,000 veterans of America's "greatest generation" die. Marking a date on the calendar is not enough; we need eloquent reminders.
A moving documentary-"War Dogs of the Pacific" by Harris Done - captures the courage and devotion shared by these US Marines and their canine cohorts, dogs truly deserving the title-"man's best friend."
"They saved hundreds of lives- including mine," said Captain William W. Putney, DVM, commanding officer of the US Marine Corps 3rd War Dog Platoon. The late Capt. Putney, author of the book Always Faithful, was also responsible for bringing the surviving dogs home and creating a monument on Guam for those who perished. Done was so touched when he heard Dr. Putney recall his experiences as a young lieutenant with the dog platoons that he knew he had to make this film.
In "Wa r Dog s" Done's interviews with the dog handlers (many who have since passed away) combined masterfully with rare historical footage and photos preserve these incredible canine combat stories for all time.
I met Harris Done in February at the AKC Open House. He was in New York City because "War Dogs" won an award from the Alliance of Purebred Dog Writers. Harris, cinematographer of "Trekkies", "Running the Sahara," and the '99 Oscar winning documentary "The Last Days," made his directing debut with "War Dogs." After I told him about my husband's time with the USMC tunnel dogs in Viet Nam, I offered to review his DVD. I hadn't seen it yet. To be honest, the review has taken so long because nothing I write can do justice to his magnificent work. You must see "War Dogs" for yourself. Then you need to pass it on to every dog lover, history buff, and student you know. To order DVDs or for more information, visit: www. wardogsmovie.com.
In typical style, the Marines rose to the challenge. No one was a K-9 expert. Recruits were assigned because of a remote connection- they owned a Cocker Spaniel or lived on a farm. "Devil Dog" school, set up at Camp Lejeune in N. Carolina had donated dog trainees. The Doberman Club of America helped provide about 75 percent of the dogs. Most others were Shepherd types. Some were rejected by the Army as incorrigible, which proved to be so untrue. Marine and dog became an inseparable team. Bonds were cemented. Besides basic obedience and hand signals the dogs learned to suppress barks so they'd be undetected in combat.
Dogs would later master specialized skills as scouts, messengers, and explosive detectors. They'd do sentry duty, explore caves, and capture prisoners. A Marine's life depended on knowing how to read his dog. The dog duos were expected to go on the most dangerous "point" missions. In 1944, the War Dogs first fought alongside their Marines in Guam, often guarding the foxhole so their exhausted partner could sleep. Thedogs became the confidantsof these young men, so far from home in such a brutal land. As the late handler Richard Reinauer stated, "My Shepherd was my psychiatrist." (Reinauer became a spokesperson for Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" after the war.)
One night "Skipper" a black Lab alerted the company to approaching enemy and was shot in the crossfire. "How do you tell a 13-year-old girl that her dog was killed in battle?" lamented Pfc. Dale Fetzer who had corresponded with Skipper's owner in Montana. Skipper was one of 25 Marine dogs to die liberating Guam. In all, 29 dogs died in action during the USMC Pacific campaign.
"Tippy" a Malamute cross was one of the "unruly" Army rejects. He became Pfc. Al Tesch's guardian angel, actually a guardian to the whole company. When Tesch was wounded, Tippy wouldn't let the Corpsman near him. Later when reunited stateside, Tippy and Tesch visited prisons and church youth rallies.
Marines are always expected to do more with less. Scenes in "War Dogs" show servicemen using their helmets as dog dishes as they give most of their C-rations to their dogs. TheAmericans captured a Japanese war dog. In merely two weeks, they taught the dog English and the Shepherd was working for our side. Guam established the Devil Dogs' reputation. Success was repeated in Saipan, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
After the Japanese surrender, unlike the Army, the Marines brought their dogs home. Dr. Putney made sure the promise was kept. Of the 549 dogs de-programmed for civilian life, most were returned to owners, some went to live with handlers, and only 4 were put down for aggression.
In 2008, at their centennial, the Doberman Club of America hosted a screening of "War Dogs." The club flew ten former handlers to Topeka to present them with medals. Last month, Harris Done's film was warmly received by the Marines at Camp Lejeune. Now many dog handlers trained for Iraq and Afghanistan are women with dog/human teams interchangeable because of rotating tours of duty. Belgian Malinois have replaced Dobies as the preferred breed. Two weeks ago at the Newport Film Festival, handlers from Camp Pendleton were supposed to meet two WWII veterans, but it wasn't to be.
Glance at the quote on top. One of the best messenger dogs, "Prince" a Shepherd mix, was like a brother to Pfc. Bruce Wellington who turned down Corporal stripes when it meant giving up his dog. He adopted "Prince" after the war. He didn't need any retraining. The dog fit right in with his wife and children. Wellington recently passed away at age 84 in California. Harris Done did his eulogy on Saturday. Semper Fi, Pfc. Wellington; may Prince be waiting for you at the Rainbow Bridge.
For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270): "Princess Isabella" a 1 yr. Terrier mix in Cage 40 and "Doubles" a sweet 2 yr. cat in the lobby are waiting for the right someone to come along at 51 Lamar St. W. Babylon.
•Males: Chihuahua; Beagle Cage 13.
•Females: "Katie" the lobby calico; "Hallie"- friendly Pit- Cage 38- longest shelter resident.
•Pet Events: *Last Hope Dog Walk & Microchip Clinic- Sat. May 30-Wantagh Park- 1 to 5 - (631) 946-9528
•Suffolk Co. Bar Animal Law Pet Fair- Sun. May 31- Doggie "U"-Saxon Ave. Bay Shore-10 to 4- (631)265-0155.