But the dog that has touched our heart most recently is Antis, featured in Damien Lewis’s book The Dog Who Could Fly; The Incredible True Story of a WWII Airman and the Four-Legged Hero Who Flew at His Side. Found as an unweaned puppy by downed Czech airman and gunner Robert Bozdech, Antis grew up to fly with him and saved the lives of Bozdech and his fellow airmen repeatedly.
Shot out of the sky on a reconnaissance mission over the Siegfried Line in World War II, Bozdech and the pilot, Pierre Duval, crash-landed into a snowy landscape. As flames licked their way toward the aircraft’s fuel tanks, Bozdech pulled the badly injured Duval from the shattered cockpit and toward a nearby farmhouse.
As he checked out the farmhouse, he heard a faint snuffling sound, almost as if someone were snoring. Pistol cocked, he yelled for the person to come forward. There was no response. Bozdech crept forward to see around a chair. “One moment there was a tiny ball of gray-brown fluff curled up beneath the chair, the next it had stumbled to its feet unsteadily and was peering up at him anxiously, growling out a throaty little challenge.” It was the start of an intense relationship that lasted until the German Shepherd’s death in 1953.
Antis began flying with Bozdech after Germans fired on the French airbase where they were they were stationed. It was the best way he could protect the dog when the enemy was so close on the ground. French irreverence for rules made it possible. At four months, Antis jumped into the gunner’s area, curled up tightly on the floor at Bozdech’s feet.
After the Germans occupied France, Bozdech, six fellow Czechs and Antis headed toward England. Forced to steal supplies and a cart along the way, the group relied on the dog to diffuse suspicion and create diversions. His loyal cohorts even managed to stow Antis away on a British military and disembark without the dog getting rounded up for quarantine.
Antis’ reputation grew as his keen hearing alerted the people around him to German bombers even before radar and air raid sirens did. Once when the humans around him failed to respond to his alert, Antis ended up buried in rubble for nearly three days before being found. He was also invaluable in finding victims after bombing raids.
Playful, goofy, loyal, smart and morale-building — Antis became the group’s mascot. Periodically running afoul of British bureaucracy, he eventually received permission to move freely around the base.
He was grounded during this time. He would follow Bozdech to the plane for pre-flight checks, watch the plane take off and then wait near the loading area — through the night and all types of weather, if need be — until the plane returned. Once when a bombing raid over Germany left Bozdech’s plan badly damaged and barely able to return to England, Antis went into deep grief, howling and refusing to eat until he was reunited with the injured Bozdech. When Bozdech next prepared to fly, the dog was nowhere to be seen, until Bozdech discovered him in his gunner’s turret waiting.
Bozdech decided to let him stay in place without telling anyone. The wing commander agreed to turn a blind eye. Antis was given a custom-made oxygen mask. On one flight when it appears the crew may have to bail out, they opt to make a risky emergency landing because the dog doesn’t have a parachute. But on a bombing raid to Mannheim, the group runs into heavy shelling and the plane is seriously damaged. Antis is seriously injured, and although he is treated at a military hospital he is grounded until Aug. 15, 1945, when Bozdech, with Antis at his feet, flies in a formation of Liberators back to his Czech homeland.
Although many of his Czech and RAF friends didn’t survive the war, Antis did. He also survived fleeing with Bozdech from Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia where anyone with links to the West — such as former RAF airmen — was being purged.
They returned to England, where Bozdech rejoined the RAF and was granted British citizenship. Antis died in August 1953 after being ill for several months. He was buried in the Animal Cemetery in Ilford, England.
The Dog Who Could Fly is an extraordinary story about an extraordinary dog and his extraordinary relationship with the man who rescued him as a puppy. With its affirmations of loyalty, courage, love and survival, it’s an ideal book to savor on this Veterans Day.
This is also a wonderful day to pay tribute to military war dogs at their cemetery at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.