The Government Asked For Pets for Defense in the 1940s
What if the U.S. government wanted your dog to enlist in the military?
That’s exactly the request that went out in 1942 shortly after Pearl Harbor. The direct attack on a United States naval base brought to light the reality of what the country faced. The military realized they had missed out by not establishing a canine unit to assist the armed forces, which were going to be stretched very thin.
The worth of dogs in the military had been proven in World War I when European forces used dogs for sentry, for message-carrying, and for clearing the foxholes of rats before the men took up residence in the trenches.
When help was needed, the country turned to its citizens and requested they donate their pets to help the cause. People responded by sending their dogs, some 40,000 of them over a two-year period. Ten thousand of these animals were selected for full training.
Private Citizens Form Dogs for Defense
The Dogs for Defense program was initiated by a private citizen, a well-respected breeder of poodles, Mrs. Alene Erlanger. She gained the support of the American Kennel Club, and her organization soon became the primary procurer of dogs for the military. (For more information about Erlanger, see “Poodles Against Hitler.”)
Among those whom Erlanger called early with her idea was Arthur Kilbon of the New York Sun. At her urging, he agreed to be publicity director for the organization. (Using the pseudonym, Arthur Roland, he also wrote features about war dogs for the New York Sun.)
With articles successfully placed in publications ranging from the Saturday Evening Post to Good Housekeeping, Dogs for Defense was very effective. They gained support from celebrities (helpful with publicizing the program) as well as regular people.
For the most part, reaction was good and people brought in their pets. While not all dogs qualified, a very few dogs were released by request of the owner. According to a government report on the war dog program, ten hours after one dog was dropped off, the owner phoned asking if he could pick up his pet. His wife, he explained, had collapsed on hearing the news that the dog had joined the military.
However, another woman wrote that her dog was simply not available: “The Army has my husband, two brothers-in-law, and my father-in law. The Navy has one of my brothers and the Government two more. I think that is enough.” (Quoted in Dogs for Defense: American Dogs in the Second World War by Fairfax Downey).
At first Dogs for Defense accepted about 30 different breeds. The initial preference was for dogs that were between one and five years old, weighing at least 50 pounds. The program administrators soon learned that the best age for training was dogs that were between 18 months and three years, and over time, the military found that the best breeds (or cross-breeds) were German shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, farm collies, Siberian huskies, Malamutes, and Doberman pinschers.
Doberman pinschers were a particular favorite of the Marine Corps. The dogs were believed to be more adaptable to tropical heat, and they were the number one dog that was sent overseas. The Doberman Pinscher Club of America fully supported the cause, and initially sent most of the dogs they obtained directly to the marines.
Training Took Adjustments
The program got off to a bumpy start as there were many issues to resolve, including exactly what the dogs were to be trained for and to whom the dogs would be assigned. The trainers also had to learn about acclimating the dogs to various conditions. Dogs trained in the quiet of the countryside were initially not prepared for all the noises they would experience on the battlefield. It took time to work out a system.
Alene Erlanger called on the best people she could find. The trainer for her kennel was a second-generation dog trainer who had trained police and war dogs in Germany before moving to the United States, so she relied on Henry Stoecker to work with her to develop the training program.
In Hawaii, where fear remained intense because of the direct assault on Pearl Harbor, Elliot Humphrey, the well-regarded trainer for the Seeing Eye organization, moved to Hawaii to help them get a sentry dog program up and running. (For more information on Seeing Eye, see “How a Dog Breeder, a Blind Man, and a German Shepherd Changed the World in 1929.”)
Eventually several training camps were established. The first camp was in Front Royal, Virginia, followed by other camps including Camp Rimini, just outside
Helena, Montana. Rimini had snow for enough of the year that the camp was able to train sledge and pack animals; Cat Island in Gulfport, Mississippi had a tropical climate so that was one of the locations where dogs were trained for battle in the Pacific. In addition, the dogs brought into Hawaii had to be quarantined so they were brought into a location where they could undergo training while still remaining separate from other animals on the Islands.
To create a system and define the need for uniformity in training, Alene Erlanger authored first technical manual “TM 10-396-War Dogs;” she also supervised the making of training films that were sent to the various camps.
War Dog Fund
Money was needed to fund the program, and the War Dog Fund for Defense was created by patent broker James M. Austin who donated some $10,000 to war charities in the name of his fox terrier. Austin hoped to find a way to involve people with smaller or older dogs, so he created an honorary “K-9 Home Guard.” For $1, a contributor’s dog receives the rank of private or seaman, The rank of general could be purchased for $100, and there were a variety of ranks for prices ranging from $1-100.00
One letter from a nine-year-old boy expresses the patriotism that was pervasive: “My dad fought in World War I. He is too old to go to this war and I am too young. We are helping at home in every way we can. We get together all the scrap we can find and give it to Uncle Sam. We milk cows and raise chickens, too.
“We have a very good helper, Top, my dog. He helps us get the cows to their place. Daddy says that we could not do without him. Enclosed please find $1.00, one dollar, for which I wish to be used to register my dog as a Soldier War Dog. Thank you.”
President Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, was too small to be trained for battle but he was part of the war dog fund program.
Most Successful in the South Pacific
While men on both battlefronts slept better if they had the ears and nose of a sentry dog standing watch overnight, the war dogs in the South Pacific may have been slightly more successful than those who were in the European Theater. Challenges presented by the jungle terrain and the tropical climate were so hard for people to overcome.
Here are just two reports on the specific actions of dogs that were used in combat during the Bougainville operation (arriving July 11, 1943):
1. On the first day of the battle, “Andy (a Doberman pinscher) led M Company all the way to the road block. He alerted them to scattered sniper opposition and undoubtedly was the means of preventing loss of life.”
2. “Caesar (a German shepherd) was the only means of communication between M Company and Second Battalion CP, carrying messages, overlays, and captured Jap papers. On [the second day], M Co’s telephone lines were cut and Caesar was again the only means of communication. Caesar was wounded on the morning of D plus 2 and had to be carried back to the Regimental CP on a stretcher, but he had already established himself as a hero.”
Captain Jackson Boyd who commanded the dog training camp for the marines noted: “[Dogs] have not replaced anything. They have simply added to security by their keen perceptions.”
But perhaps the spirit of the K-9 unit is best exemplified by this marching song written during the war by Arthur Kilbon at the New York Sun:
“From the kennels of the country,
From the homes and firesides too,
We have joined the canine army,
Our nation’s work to do;
We serve with men in battle,
And scout thru jungles dense;
We are proud to be enlisted
In the cause of The Dogs for Defense.”