Military Dogs: They Also Served in War

Military Dogs: They Also Served in War

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This Memorial Day weekend flags will flutter over the graves of veterans across the nation. But at a unique cemetery for military dogs at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro there will be little fanfare.

The shade of a eucalyptus tree will glide across the well-tended grass. Sparrows will hop and peck the central hard dirt path. The intermittent, flat grave stones will warm in the sun.

This is the K-9 Command Cemetery, the final resting place of members of one of the first American war dog platoons, developed in 1941.

An additional two dozen other military dogs lay beside them behind the former base chapel.

Military Dogs at War

Dog have served in battle since ancient times.The Romans used battle-trained Molossian dogs fitted with protective spike collars and armor. They had attack formations made up entirely of dogs. The Spanish conquistadors used armored dogs trained to kill and disembowel when they invaded South and Central America.

In the United States, the first military dogs were used in war during the Seminole Wars. During the Civl War, American Pit Bull Terriers were used as guard dogs and messengers. It was not uncommon for the young recruits to bring their own hunting dogs with them when they joined the army.

An estimated one million dogs died in action during World War I. They were used to deliver messages, as sentries, pullers of ambulance sleds, seekers and comforters of the wounded and tracking.

Dogs for Defense Leads to Military Dogs

Despite dogs’ proven usefulness in times of war, the U. S. Defense Department was reluctant to maintain  formally trained military dog units until World War II. To encourage the use of dogs to support soldiers, civilian dog trainers and lovers in the late 1930s initiated the “Dogs for Defense” program, which encouraged Americans to donate their pet dogs to the war effort.

Suitable dogs from that program were referred to the K-9 Command program. While most military working dogs were trained to do guard duty, bomb- and mine-sniffing, message-carrying and scouting, dogs in the K-9 Command were trained to attack and guard.  Their mission was large unpublicized and records are incomplete.  It is not know with certainty whether they served abroad.

When Sgt. Robert H. Pearce organized the war dog platoon at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, he sought aggressive, physically fit dogs up to three-years-old who were not gun-shy and could stand their ground without cowering.  According to the base newsletter, the goal of the dog platoon was to “conserve manpower and strengthen the guard by giving sentries an added weapon.”

For assistance in selecting and testing dogs for the program, he turned to Hollywood — dog trainer Carl Spitz, in particular who had trained Toto for “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and Buck from “The Call of the Wild” (1935).

In January 1942, weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a publicity campaign appealed to dog owners to volunteer their pets for war duty. Hundreds descended on Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles for assessment.

Six dogs were selected that day for the K-9 Command, including Bruno, a 65-pound chow mix; Rin, a German shepherd who was the grandson of Rin-Tin-Tin. The following year, the K-9 Command started breeding dogs for military service.

Commanding Canines

Gravesites of former soldier dogs at the K-9 Commando Cemetery, Ft. MacArthur, San Pedro, CA

The military dog training program at Ft. MacArthur continued into the mid-1970s. Many of the dogs were used to guard the 16 Nike missile sites in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

When those sites were abandoned, the dogs were retired.  Unfortunately, under a 1949 policy, military dogs were not allowed to return to civilian life because they were considered dangerous. When they retired, they were put to death.

Thanks to years of campaigning by Woodland Hills veterinarian William Putney,  this policy ended in 2000. (A retired Marine, Putney worked with war dogs during the invasion of Guam and was a former president of the California Veterinary Medical Association. He wrote Always Faithful; A Memoir of the Marine Dogs of WWII.)

Today, many retired military working dogs can be adopted and returned to life with civilian caretakers.

Tragically, canine veterans of the Vietnam era were left behind when the U.S. withdrew.

Today’s Military Dogs

Most of today’s military working dogs and their handlers are trained at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.  They play an inestimably valuable role in helping their handlers find improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and stockpiled armaments before they can be used against American troops and civilians.

Remembering Those Who Served

On this day of remembering those who have served our country so well, let us also remember the military working dogs who gave their lives to serve.