On Memorial Day, Americans will visit war memorials in cities and towns across the country. This annual ritual helps us connect to the brave members of the military who defended our freedom in past conflicts. There is one memorial, however, that is quite unique, because the fallen veterans it honors had four legs. This is the U.S. War Dog Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey.
When you learn about the countless acts of selfless courage and total loyalty that “dogs of war” have displayed in battles around the world, it seems very fitting that there is at least one official memorial.
A very brief history of war dogs
We may never know when the first dog accompanied a human soldier into battle, but historical records indicate that the Romans used armored dogs. Fighting canines were also put to use against the Romans: Mastiffs were called into service by the British to fight Caesar’s invading forces circa 55 B.C. Going further back, there is evidence that the ancient armies of Persia and Babylon “enlisted” dogs into service in their empire-building military campaigns.
Closer to home—and our own time—dogs were known to accompany their owners into battle during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, where they were used as messengers and guards—and for comfort. One of the first Americans to understand the potential importance of military dogs was Benjamin Franklin, who suggested a canine corps for the young American army.
It took a few decades before Franklin’s idea became a reality: A canine corps was officially called into service during the Seminole War of 1835.
The German military is credited with founding the first training program for military dogs in 1884. The Germans made extensive use of war dogs during both World Wars as messengers and for infantry patrols. The Brits, realizing the value of Military Working Dogs (MWD), created their first Army Dog School in the early days of World War I.
World War II: The rise of the American MWD
The roots of America’s official war-dog training program go back to the early 1940s. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, professional breeders and the AKC helped create the Dogs for Defense campaign. As the name implies, this program was aimed at training dogs for use in defensive situations, using their skills in civilian plants and for sentry duty.
American MWDs first saw battlefield action in 1942, when four-legged “soldiers” joined the Quartermaster Corps in North Africa.
Eventually, a large number of breeds were pressed into military service as scouts, sentries, attackers, messengers, sledge pullers, and pack carriers. Those included predictable breeds—like German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers—and some surprising breeds, such as Poodles, Schnauzers, and Airedale Terriers.
As World War II progressed, American MWDs proved their value time and again. And once officials were convinced of their importance, war dogs became a standard part of American warfare in future conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is now difficult to imagine a fully equipped military without the invaluable assistance of MWDs.
Some notable canine American war heroes
Civil War: Sallie—This spirited Terrier, adopted by a captain in the Union Army, was raised in a military environment. During bloody Civil War battles, Sallie fearlessly stood at the frontline and barked at the enemy. She was so determined to remain with her fellow fighters, she stood vigil on the battlefield for several days over her wounded soldier friends, doing her best to comfort them.
World War I: Stubby—This famous Bull Terrier made his way from New Haven, Connecticut to the Western Front, thanks to Corporal Robert Conroy, who hid Stubby on the ship that was taking his regiment to the war in Europe. Once there, Stubby courageously stood alongside the troops, comforting the wounded and alerting his comrades when a mustard gas attack was imminent.
World War II: Chips—A highly decorated MWD (Silver Star and Purple Heart), this canine hero saw action in North Africa, Sicily, France, and Germany. Among his famous exploits: Attacking an enemy machine gun nest and forcing the crew to surrender! Chips also stood sentry when President Roosevelt met with Prime Minister Churchill in Casablanca in 1943. A made-for-TV movie about this brave dog, Chips, the Dog of War, aired in 1993.
World War II: Smoky—What was a tiny Yorkie doing on the front lines in the Pacific theater? Acting like a true hero! In addition to keeping her fellow troops entertained and comforted, Smoky was the perfect size to pull vital communications cables through a small culvert as Japanese bullets flew by. Thanks to this heroic act, the unit was able to reestablish contact with other American forces, which helped save many lives. Small in size, big in courage!
Vietnam: Nemo—A courageous hero with energy and determination, Nemo fought on despite being shot in the head. Though wounded, Nemo continued toward his Viet Cong attackers. And once he found them, he unleashed his full anger! This gave the American troops enough time to call for reinforcements. Nemo was blinded in one eye during this mission, but thanks to the help of a diligent veterinarian back at the army base in Vietnam, he survived. In fact, Nemo continued to work as a sentry at the base. After retiring, Nemo made personal appearances at recruitment drives for MWD programs.
Iraq: Benny—The list of heroic MWDs in our nation’s most recent conflicts has grown very long. Benny is just one of many canines who have aided American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Benny was trained as an explosive detector, and served in Iraq for two grueling years. In addition to detecting explosive devices, Benny was a therapy dog who brought comfort to grieving American troops. This hardworking war dog also met President Bush in Europe.
As Memorial Day approaches, be sure to remember these—and all—the canine war heroes who gallantly served our country throughout the decades, around the world. To learn more about these amazing and valiant four-legged soldiers, visit the U.S. War Dogs Association website