The following is a guest post by Matt McCrady, VHP Digital Conversion Specialist.
Of the thousands of veterans’ stories archived with the Veterans History Project, the story of a Marine PFC known simply as Lucky stands out as truly unique. Lucky didn’t tell his own story for the project. Lucky left no letters or diaries, and no photo exists of him. In fact, the only remaining physical reminder of his service is an Honorable Discharge certificate. Yet after hearing Lucky’s story, it’s difficult to forget this quiet soldier who did his duty and was rewarded with nothing more than three pounds of food a day.
The thing about Lucky was that he wasn’t even human. Lucky was one of the many dogs that have served in the military alongside human handlers. Lucky served during World War II, but recent interest in World War I, the 100th anniversary of which is ongoing throughout the next few years, has resulted in a number of features and exhibits about war dogs generally. One such exhibit is at the Bishops Gate Institute in London, from which photographs were featured in the Washington Post. The Veterans History Project and the Library of Congress have a number of items relating to the history of dogs at war—including Lucky’s story.
Lucky was a German Shepherd; other dogs, in other wars, were Dobermans, Bull Terriers, Airedales and sometimes even mutts. They were known as “war dogs,” “devil dogs,” “scout dogs,” and “Red Cross dogs,” but in every war, they have always been known as a soldier’s most trusted companion. Corporal Richard Wolfe, a Vietnam veteran who served with a Military Police Scout and Sentry Dog company, expressed the special relationship between soldier and dog in this way: “It was a friend, it was actually your eyes and ears.” By warning of imminent attacks and alerting to hidden enemies, scout dogs like Lucky saved lives and improved morale.
Like many other civilians who wished to contribute their family pets to the war effort, Lucky’s owner, Donald Walton, loaned him to the Marine Corps for the duration of the war. Many years later Walton gave an interview to the Veterans History Project in which he related stories he had heard from Lucky’s unnamed handler about the dog’s exploits in the Pacific Theater. Walton remarked that Lucky and his handler never had to dig a foxhole: “The other Marines dug two extra holes. They wanted Lucky right with them.”
While Lucky and other scout dogs like him were trained for more aggressive missions, the Red Cross dog of World War One was primarily what we would call a search and rescue dog. After a battle ended, the dog would be deployed to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, as described in Theodore F. Jager’s 1917 training guide, Scout, Red Cross and Army Dogs:
The dogs are trained not to bark when they find a disabled soldier. They are taught to disregard dead soldiers. Each dog has a box containing first aid remedies and appliances tied to its neck. Upon locating a helpless soldier the dog goes up close to him so that the box may be opened [Jager 38].
Then the dog would return to camp and direct medical personnel where to find the wounded man.
Some thirty-five years later, not barking was a significant part of Lucky’s training as a scout, as well. Walton relates that Lucky’s handler would sleep with his hand resting under the dog’s neck so that an inaudible vibration, instead of a bark, would warn him of an impending enemy sneak attack.
However similar the outcomes, the methods used to train Lucky were more humane than those used on his World War One counterpart. A 1943 memo to the men who would be training Lucky and other dogs at Camp Lejeune states emphatically that “Under no circumstances will physical punishment or abuse be tolerated” [Putney 7]. By way of comparison, in 1917, Jager’s training manual recommended using a dog whip and a spiked “gag” collar to train the animal. Another helpful suggestion was to step on the dog’s paw. “This will not injure him,” the author writes, “if you wear soft-soled shoes…” [Jager 63].
Whether trained by punishment or by reward for good behavior, the goal of the dog’s education was to instill absolute willingness to follow orders and to protect their human companions–the same qualities that the military also tried to instill in its bipedal recruits. Captain William Putney, who was responsible for training and, later, detraining the dogs used in World War II, describes a system whereby handler and dog trained as one. Beginning on the day they were assigned their dog, handlers worked so closely with their animal that they were effectively one entity. Every grueling physical test the handler went through, including live fire exercises, the dog went through right beside him. Because a dog handler often cannot speak while in the field, the dog had to become familiar with hand signals and low, almost inaudible whistles, as commands. The handlers also had the responsibility for feeding and caring for their dog and, in short, bonding with it. A playful photo in the Garth Redmond collection of Redmond reading a book to a scout dog named Duke also attests to the close relationship these men formed with their animals. If for some reason their animal did not suit them, a handler might break the rules and trade dogs with someone else, but once man and dog had settled on working together, they formed an unbreakable team for the duration of their enlistment, or until one or both of them was killed in action [Putney 21-22].
Animal behaviorists balk at using the word “love” to describe what a dog feels for its master, but from the human perspective, there is no doubt that what some dog handlers felt for their dog was love. The unnamed soldier who worked with Lucky during the war wrote the Waltons often, and when the war came to a close, he wrote to them several times begging them to let him keep the dog. Tough as it was to tell him no, Donald Walton responded to the young man’s request by saying that just as this soldier was going home to his family after discharge, Lucky needed to come home to his family.
Corporal Richard Wolfe also spoke at length about the bond between the handler and his dog, and the pain of that final separation. When asked whether he kept his dog after his tour was over, he says,
I only wish that we could have. That was … probably one of the saddest things I ever had to do was leave my dog. Because he had saved my life, and a lot of other people’s lives. To have to leave him there was a sad, sad thing to do.
When Wolfe speaks of leaving his dog behind, he doesn’t mean that his dog continued working in Vietnam after Wolfe went home. Despite the fact that after World War II Captain Putney had demonstrated that dogs like Lucky could be detrained and returned to civilian life, the military disregarded that lesson in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Richard Wolfe’s dog was euthanized and the body summarily disposed of. “It was animal abuse at its worst,” Putney writes, “Made more infuriating by the ludicrous claims of specialists that the dogs could not be safely detrained” [Putney 224]. Putney states that of the 549 dogs he and his men trained during World War II, just four could not be rehabilitated and had to be euthanized [Putney, Prologue, xi]. In the late 1990s, Putney himself successfully lobbied Congress and the President for an end to the practice of euthanizing dogs, regardless of the state of their health, after their service was over. Thus in our 21st century wars, soldiers who work with dogs do have the opportunity to detrain and adopt their animal.
Thankfully, Lucky’s story has a happy ending. His reintroduction to civilian life was by all accounts successful, although Walton still had to be warned about the triggers that might prompt Lucky to attack. In his interview, Walton recounts many humorous and poignant stories of Lucky’s adventures after he returned home, such as the fact that Lucky always had to greet and inspect a soldier in uniform, as if searching for his handler. Lucky lived a long life for a German Shepherd. He was 14 when he died at home circa 1953, far away from the dangerous Pacific islands where he had risked his life years before.
Title quote: Senator George Vest.
Jager, Theo. F. Scouts, Red Cross and Army Dogs; ; a historical sketch of dogs in the great war and a training guide for the rank and file of the United States army. Arrow, NY, 1917. //lccn.loc.gov/17022332.
Putney, William W. Always Faithful: A Memoir of the Marine Dogs of WWII. Brassey’s, Inc.,
Washington, D.C., 2001.
Interesting post. It certain sheds (no pun!) light on a facet of the war that I have never paid attention to. The great irony of course is that the Germans took eugenics to its excessive end–the great horror of that war. While here we have a story of the US doing the same. . . though the program was not directed toward humans.
Thank you for remembering and honoring our service dogs.
I have owned (partnered) with several dogs, and my experience is that they are always happiest when they have a job to do. I hate to think that dogs or humans have to go to war, but if they do, I think the human/dog pairs were the best off. The bond between a working dog and its human partner can be very deep.