"Act One, Semper Fido. So our show today is about animal sacrifice. And of course, there are times when we ask animals to make the ultimate sacrifice. And in this act, I am not talking about the cows and chickens who die for burgers and fast food. I am talking about pets— dogs, specifically. Susan Orlean tells the story.
Tommy wasn’t a bad dog. He wasn’t a mean dog, but he kept getting into trouble. Tommy was a German shepherd who belonged to the Snyder family in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Tommy’s trouble was impulse control. He refused to stay in the yard. He chased ducks in the city park. And on at least one occasion, the authorities had to round him up. Gina Snyder was in high school at the time.
The problem with Tommy was that I thought he woke up, and he said, oh, for the open road. He was ready to take off. Run anywhere, that was his nature. Even though he was fastened to the doghouse, if he wanted to go, he would go. He would take the doghouse with him and run out the front yard and down the street—
Dragging the house.
Dragging the house behind him.
This was in the early 1940s, before there were dog whisperers and dog therapists and beef-flavored Prozac. The Snyders really liked Tommy, but they just didn’t know what to do with him. But then World War II started and provided a solution.
New recruits, a small detachment of the 125,000 dogs ordered by the quartermaster general for rigorous training in connection with MP sentry work the world over. They’re using purebred Dobermans, shepherds, Dalmatians, setters, collies, Airedales, even poodles and Great Danes. And each dog is carefully selected by experienced trainers for boldness and aggressiveness as watch dogs, fierce enough and tough enough to hold a man at bay until human help arrives.
There are lots of dogs in the US military these days. That hasn’t always been the case. The US didn’t have a canine corps in World War I, even though every other country in the war did. And at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the only American military dogs were a few dozen huskies in Alaska.
There were, though, a lot of people who believed we were missing out on an opportunity. After all, dogs could do certain things, like sniffing for land mines, that human soldiers couldn’t. And they could handle jobs like guard duty on their own and free up troops for more demanding roles.
The biggest advocate of dogs in the military was a very determined New York socialite named Alene Erlanger. Between lunches with her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, caring for her aviary of 500 rare songbirds, and operating the preeminent poodle kennel in the country, Erlanger helped found an organization called Dogs for Defense to promote the cause.
She managed, finally, to persuade Quartermaster Edmund Gregory to try out a few hundred dogs to guard ammunition plants and depots. It was a success— in fact, such a success that Gregory wanted 125,000 more dogs as soon as possible to serve beside American troops.
Each sentry dog must immediately learn not to get excited by the presence of another dog. The untrained [INAUDIBLE] dog’s greatest failing, and so they’re trained to walk through a group of dogs, paying attention only to the soldier trainer.
The problem was finding 125,000 dogs on short notice. The solution was something never done before or since in this country. The Army asked Americans to loan their pets to the war effort, to sign them up as soldiers. Using Rin Tin Tin, the movie-star dog, as its mascot, Dogs for Defense began running ads and news features recruiting dogs for the Army. And amazingly enough, tens of thousands of people from all over the country responded.
Of course, this was a time when people did just about anything they could to support the war effort, collecting scrap metal, rolling bandages, growing victory gardens. And now the War Department received thousands of letters from eager volunteers— that is, people eagerly volunteering their dogs to volunteer, like this one. “We want to kill all of the Japs we can. We are glad to give Laddie away if he will help.”
Or this one, from Bogalusa, Louisiana. “I went to the picture show last night, and on a newsreel reel or something, I saw where they are training dogs to help our soldiers on guard duty. Now, I have a pretty dog. He is a very smart dog. He was my brother’s dog, but when he joined the Navy, he gave him to me. Now, if you all can use him and promise to feed him well, you can have him, for I know if he could talk, he would say that he wants to help our country. Yours truly, Earl Buck Boyd.”
Here’s one last one, from a woman in Towson, Maryland, offering her nine-month-old pup. “I love him because I know he will make a fine dog. But I also love my son, and I gave him up for war work. And I will give my dog also if he can help in this war. It is not much I can do, but if you can use him, send for him any time you want him. But when the war is over and he is still alive, return him back to me.”
As for Gina and her German shepherd, Tommy, Gina’s father liked what he had heard about Dogs for Defense.
At any rate, someone came out to look at Tommy. And they said, yes, they would take him. And as I think back on it, it’s sort of like if you have a teenager who’s just difficult, having a lot of trouble, you can’t really get him to be going the right way, and you think, oh, let’s send him to military school. That’ll probably straighten him out, get education and organization and so on. And this is sort of a little bit the way I think that Tommy went to the K-9 Corps, that they would train him—
Shape him up.
Shape him up.
The training’s all important, and stress is laid on perfect and immediate obedience, learning to sense and discover the presence of suspicious persons out of sight or earshot of their MP master, to attack when ordered, to grab a trigger arm if there’s a gun. Go get him, King. Get that trigger arm. Hold tight.
At first, the Army and Marine Corps accepted just about any healthy dog that was at least 18 inches high at the shoulder. Over time, though, it became clear that not every dog was Army-ready. Great Danes were too big for combat. Hunting breeds were too easily distracted. And Dalmatians were too easy for the enemy to spot, even after the Army dyed them brown, since the dye came off in the rain. So the Army politely refused any dogs other than German shepherds, Belgian sheepdogs, Dobermans, collies, huskies, malamutes, and mutts that were mostly one of those breeds.
There were an estimated 13 million dogs in the US at that time. America was undergoing the great migration off of farms and into cities. And people had less space than ever. And yet the number of dogs was exploding.
The thing is, we were keeping dogs for different reasons than in the past. Instead of being workers on farms and ranches, now dogs were just kept to be our companions. They were emotional allies.
Now dogs lived among us, inside our houses rather than out in the yard, and treated as family members rather than livestock. Sending them off to war wasn’t exactly the same as sending off a son or brother, but it was a lot more intimate than donating scrap metal or buying a war bond.
Each enlisted dog was issued a record book in which trainers detailed the animal’s progress with comments like “Rollo is a high-spirited dog. He was very successful and did his job excellent.” And “War Dog Mitzi has been on 25 combat patrols.” Or “Dog caught cold while at sea, feverish.” Or “Dog found to be out of her head. Trainers were unable to work with her.”
Just as people wanted to know how their family and friends in the Army were getting along, they wanted to know how their dogs were doing. They sent them Christmas cards and birthday cards, and wrote to the Army asking after Butch and Chips and Peppy and Smokey. At first, the Army tried to respond to all these inquiries. But as the mail piled up, they resorted to sending out a form letter, saying that in the interest of military secrecy, no further information about the dogs could be provided.
Not everyone was satisfied with that answer. One couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Powell, complained to their congressman when they didn’t get any news about their dog Lucky. The congressman contacted the quartermaster, who wrote back saying, “The desire for such information is but a natural one and well understood by this office. However, due to the large number of dogs constantly being received for training, it is physically impossible to furnish the desired information to each individual donor without incurring the expense of employing a large clerical force. It is the desire of this office to assure Mr. and Mrs. Powell that their dog is receiving the best of care and attention and has been given a position in the War Dog program where he will do the most good.”
All that most people knew was that their pets were helping win the war. In the National Archives, there’s footage of canine training that the military didn’t make public until after the war. It shows dogs crawling through tunnels, running telephone wires across mock battlefields, and delivering ammunition and carrier pigeons to soldiers in trenches. In another scene, the dogs practice attacking enemy soldiers played by Japanese-American volunteers.
There was one job in the K-9 Corps that I didn’t know about until recently, something the Army called Bunker Dogs. In the National Archives, I found pictures of three of them, a German shepherd, a Doberman, and a collie, each wearing an elaborate canvas saddlebag. The next photograph showed the contents of the saddlebag— 40 pounds of explosives, a time-delay fuse, and a detonator— with the caption “Bunker dog loaded for operation with equipment shown.” These dogs were training to be suicide bombers. In the pictures, they look eager and happy, their ears and tails at alert, the way dogs so often do.
Did you ever try to picture where he was or think about his circumstances once he had enlisted?
Well, I think maybe only in the sense that I might have thought about my high-school friends who had gone into the Army.
Again, Gina Snyder.
I’m probably brainwashed by some kind of movies or something, because I could see him walking with a soldier and scouting patrol, or looking for Germans, probably very unrealistic, kind of daydreamed— but bravely doing a service out on the battlefield.
When you donated your pet to the military, you had to sign a form saying you understood that the training and experience of combat might change your dog’s personality permanently and that the government wasn’t liable if your dog came home a killer. This could have had a chilling effect, so the Army publicized the fact that every dog would be deprogrammed before it was discharged, with lots of petting and cuddling. Newspapers ran encouraging stories about demobilized dogs and their successful return to their families, along with photos of the dogs at home, with captions like “Here’s Spike in civilian life” and “Goofy the Warrior Dog comes home,” and letters from families describing happy reunions.
Even Lassie got in on the effort. In 1946, the collie starred along with Elizabeth Taylor in The Courage of Lassie, a film about a gentle collie named Bill with PTSD.
A sudden cruel twist of fate took Bill away from Kathie, and he found himself in a different world among strange people who fought and killed. Mutely and heroically, he struggled against this man-made inferno. Wounded and spirit shattered, Bill broke away and returned to the land he once knew. But he came back a killer. He heard the call of the wild and answered.
Of course, this was war, and some of the dogs never came home. Here’s Marine Private First Class Mason [? Wachtsletter ?] writing to the owners of a dog named Tubby. “Tubby was in the front lines 23 days and had been on about 15 patrols. The second night in, he ran four Japs into a cave. And when they thought he was coming after them, they blew their heads off with hand grenades.
Now I have to tell you the worst. Tubby was shot and killed the night of August 31. He behaved like a true Marine at all times and didn’t even whimper when he died. We’ve buried him in the Marine Cemetery along with the other real heroes of this campaign. And if it is at all possible, I’ll send you a picture of his grave. He has a cross with his name and rank. He’s a corporal.”
The first news the Snyders got about Tommy came some months after he had joined the Army.
It didn’t say killed in action. I think that would have impressed itself on my mind. It said, killed something, and I don’t know what— “killed in service,” or what it was. I don’t know what he did, [? whether he ?] was a scout dog, a patrol dog. I have no idea. But all I remember is standing by the window crying, of course.
But as I look back on it— and I think even at that time— I thought, I hope he was brave. It was somebody in your family who had served and had died in the service. And that was it.
Oh, that’s so sad, terrible.
Well, Susan, I have to tell you, it is sad. It was sad then. It’s sad now. But I have to be honest and tell you that underneath it all, I’m still very proud of him. It’s silly, but I take pride in the fact that he performed a service.
And I don’t know how useful. Maybe he saved somebody. I just don’t know. I don’t know what.
Or maybe he was totally irresponsible and got killed that way. I don’t know. But I am proud of him, just as I would have been if it had been a member of my family. His life was worth something.
Dogs for Defense disbanded in 1945, but that wasn’t the end of dogs in the military. It’s just that borrowing people’s pets was much more complicated than anyone had imagined. All those letters from anxious owners, all that petting and cuddling required to get the dogs reprogrammed as civilians. The Army decided it would be easier to buy dogs outright or accept donated dogs only if the owners agreed to give them away for good.
From that point forward, the dogs in the Army became property of the Army. And they were then treated like property, just like a gun or a hand grenade that had been purchased from a military supplier. There were thousands of dogs used in Korea and Vietnam. And almost none of them came back.
It wasn’t till the year 2000, when Congress passed a law making it possible, that the dogs’ handlers, or police departments, or just dog lovers were allowed to adopt them after the war. Before that, when the war ended, the dogs were left behind. Or in many cases, over the protests of their handlers, they were euthanized.”
Without knowing what the war was for, the dogs had done what they’d been asked to do. Because that’s the nature of the bond we have with dogs. We take care of them and ask them to trust us, and they do.