U.S. War Dogs in the Pacific Theater

Devil Dogs
National Archives

Devil Dogs was a term first used by the Germans to describe the U.S. Marines in World War I. They were such fierce fighters at the Battle of Belleau Woods that German officers were rumored to refer to them as “Teufel Hunden” (German for “Devil Dogs”).

The name stuck as a nickname for the men, and it proved useful in mid-1942. About 6 months after the United States entered World War II, the commander of the Marines decided to bring in war dogs to help the men fight in the Pacific. They, too, are referred to as Devil Dogs.

Backstory of War Dogs

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan the next day (December 8, 1941). Days later, Germany declared war on America, and on December 11, 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Germany as well. Americans faced war on two fronts.

At that time, the United States had no war dog unit. During World War I, the European Allies made excellent use of trained dogs for guarding installations, for scouting new areas, and even for carrying messages between units. The United States intended to build a canine corps but by 1940, nothing had happened.

Volunteers quickly came up with a plan. Poodle breeder Alene Erlanger and her friend Arthur Kilbon, a dog columnist for The New York Sun newspaper, stepped forward. Eralnger’s trainer Henry Stoeker, who previously worked with military dogs and police dogs, worked with Erlanger and Kilbon to develop a program. They would create a canine unit for the military.

Calling the group Dogs for Defense, Erlanger received government approval to procure and train dogs.

Asking for Dogs

Americans were horrified by the war they faced, and people wanted to do their part. Men enlisted, and women accepted war-related jobs or worked in the private sector in employment left vacant by men going to war. Even children did their part to help out. As Americans recognized the importance of bringing down Japan and Germany, it became a time of maximum sacrifice.

When Dogs for Defense asked for people to donate their pets for the war cause, it was a huge “ask.” Many families did so with heavy hearts. Husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles were going…it was painful to send the family dog, too.

Despite this, 10,000 pets were donated for the war effort.

Families were told that if their dog didn’t qualify, the pet would be sent home right away. The dogs were also to be returned if they lived through the war. (Read about Chips and about Lucky.)

Dog Qualifications

Guam with trainer Bob Forsyth

As Dogs for Defense outlined their requirements, they specified medium-sized dogs of either gender. The dogs should weigh about 50 pounds and be between 1-5 years of age. German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, Staffordshire terriers and other mid-sized dogs were popular. Hair dogs (like poodles) were not good all-weather dogs, and any high-strung dog was not suitable.

Dogs could not be timid, gun shy, or overly aggressive. If the temperament testing went poorly, they were sent home right away. Otherwise they were on their way to training.

At first there were no plans to send dogs to the Pacific. The trainers and military felt that the jungle growth would make it too difficult to work with dogs.

Sentry Training For U.S.

As Erlanger put together her resources, she saw that guard dogs would be the most useful. If dogs could work sentry duty with just one soldier, then other men could be sent off for other assignments.

Because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, American ports and factories that made war supplies might be targets, so the first placements of dogs would be in the U.S.

Sentry dogs would also be relatively easy to train since dogs are protective of their own environment anyway.

Called to the Pacific

As the Commandant of the Marines worked to assemble his best fighting men for the Pacific, he read more about the use of dogs, including reports that dogs could sense enemy soldiers from as far away as a mile and a half.

The commander thought these reconnaissance dogs might actually be very helpful to soldiers in the Pacific. He put out a request for dogs.

Initially, the Marines were sent 62 dogs. Forty dogs came from the Army. Another 22 dogs were provided by Miss Roslyn Terhune of Baltimore.  Terhune was active with the Doberman Pincschers Club of America. The dogs she provided—and volunteered to train—were Dobermans. The athletic build, high level of loyalty, and short-haired coats made the Doberman seem ideal.

The heavy presence of the Dobermans in the Pacific led some to believe that the Doberman was the official dog of the Pacific. However, no K-9 unit settled on an official breed. The use of the of the Dobermans in the Pacific simply had to do with availability.

Setting Up Training for the Pacific

When it was decided that dogs would indeed be sent to the Pacific, new training camps were needed. In November 1942, Dogs for Defense took over Camp Knox, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was part of Camp LeJeune in Virginia.

One aspect of training Marine dogs that differed from some other branches of the service was that Marines are a combat unit. All of them needed to be combat ready at all times, and this would apply to any dogs assigned to be Devil dogs.

Training Plan

Devil Dog

Training would be for 14 weeks. The first two weeks were for basic training and assessment.  Among the rudimentary skills the dogs needed to learn were heel, down, and stay. (All training used positive reinforcement.)

In addition, the dogs needed to learn “crawl” so that handler and dog could move forward even when down. Those who were slated for scout work were taught to alert without barking. Stopping stock still, ears cocked forward and fully alert was a signal to all handlers that something was wrong.

The dogs that made it through the first weeks were then assigned to two Marines. This meant that if one soldier were sent on another detail or was injured, the dog still had a master.

The last 6 weeks were for advanced work for whatever assignment each dog was likely to be given. Throughout it all, the dogs were subject to small arms and explosive gunfire to be certain that they would remain calm under fire.

Specialty Training for Reconnaissance or Scout Dogs

Further plans were made to train dogs for scouting ahead of a military unit. If dogs could move forward and seek out what was to come, that would make them very useful.

Training for scout dogs was a little different from training sentry dogs. While sentry dogs were on short leads, scout dogs often needed to roam free, exploring ahead of his unit.

Scout dogs also required a different way to alert the troops. Barking would reveal the dog’s and the regiment’s whereabouts. For that reason, scout dogs were trained in the way that hunting dogs are. The dog needed to stand  totally still, looking in the direction of trouble.

Once his handler got the warning, he could warn the men behind him to pull up and hold still. That gave time for the U.S. snipers and lookouts to assess the situation before the men moved on.

Messenger Dogs

Messenger dogs were outfitted with special collars that could hold coded messages. The training for the dogs was quite complex. The dog needed equal bonds with both soldiers to whom he was assigned. That way he or she would get through anything—or over any obstacle to reach the other person.

The training involved one of the men traveling farther and farther away—eventually putting at least two miles between them. The dog would be expected to leave one master and “report” to the other one. (To read about a messenger dog in action during World War I, read A Remarkable Messenger Dog.)

As electronic communication devices improved, the need for messenger dogs decreased. However, in the Pacific Islands with the jungle growth and the high humidity, it was often difficult for communication signals to get through. At those times the messenger dogs more than earned their keep.

Promotion System

Before leaving the United States, the men and their dogs were put into platoons. One war dog platoon consisted of 1 officer, 65 men, and 36 dogs (18 scouts and 18 messenger dogs).

The Marines established a very specific promotion system for their dogs based on length of service.  All dogs began as privates, but after 3 months they became private first class.

A year later, they made corporal. At 2 years, they were sergeants; three years was platoon sergeants; 4 years Gunner Sergeants, and at 5 years they were a master gunner sergeant.

Dogs could quickly outrank their handlers!

Crossing the Country

The first Marine Dog Platoon was to sail from San Diego on June 23, 1943, but first, the dogs had to travel cross country by train. The trip was intended to be secret, but word must have spread.

At some stops where the dogs were permitted off for brief exercise, they were met by local people bringing food for the dogs and for the men. At one stop a group of Navajo women were there to wish them well.

Solomon Islands

At Bougainville

The First Marine Dog Platoon arrived in the South Pacific on July 11, 1943. They joined the Second Marine Raider Regiment to attempt to push back on the Japanese who were well-entrenched at Bougainville, the largest island of the Solomon Islands. The Japanese needed to be pushed back away from the coastline so that reinforcement regiments could not make their way in.

Three Devil Dogs: Andy

As the Marines landed at Bougainville, they faced heavy gunfire from the Japanese. Andy, a Doberman trained as a scout dog, was accompanied by two handlers and was to lead the 250-man M Company inland.

Andy worked off lead, ranging ahead of his men by about 25 feet. Numerous times, he froze, letting handlers Private First Class Robert Lansley and PFC John Mahoney, know that there were snipers nearby. The handlers and the men behind them then dropped back until it was safe to move forward.

M Company successfully cut off the Japanese so that they could not be reinforced. Over time, they were able to whittle back on the number of Japanese on that island. It became an island-by-island fight.

Continued Bravery

On the 14th day in Bougainville, Andy again earned his keep. The Marines were under fire, but they couldn’t determine where the firing was coming from. Handlers Lansley and Mahoney took Andy out, and soon he located the gunners. The machine gun nests were set up on both sides of the trail to create cross-fire and confusion. With that information, the Marines were able to strike back and clear the area. They were saved.

Officers had no obligation to get in touch with previous owners, but the officer for that first war dog platoon went above and beyond. Andy so surpassed what anyone expected, that the commander sat down to write to Andy’s previous owner Theodore Widermann of Norristown, Pennsylvania: “Andy gave warning of scattered Japanese sniper oppositions on many occasions and was undoubtedly the means for preventing the loss of life of Marines.”

A Messenger That Didn’t Stop for a Bullet

Jack was a German shepherd trained for messenger work. He and his handler encountered a roadblock where they were both hit. But Jack had already been given a command to return to headquarters with a message about the attack.

Though his handler was down, and Jack’s wounded back stung, he headed off anyway. He reached the headquarters and back-up help was on its way.

Sentry Dogs–Rex on Night Alert

Initially the military thought that all the dog would be a help in guarding the camps at night. They soon saw that the dogs who worked during the day were just as exhausted as the men. For them to be prepared for work the next day, they needed a night off to sleep.

For that reason, certain dogs were assigned to night guard duty. Rex, a Doberman, was one of them. One evening he heard noises and signaled to his unit.

No one could do anything until daylight, but as dawn broke all the Marines were on alert. The Japanese attacked, but because of the warning, the men were ready to fight back.

Success in Pacific

Ultimately, the experiment with having war dogs in the Pacific was very successful. Because of the dense undergrowth, the heat, and the difficult fighting conditions, the fighting for men was terribly difficult. The Devil Dogs in the Pacific helped the Marines overcome some of those challenges.

While it was harder for snipers to bring down dogs, they could and did kill some of them. Dogs also died from heatstroke, and a jungle-related form of hookworm that had no cure. But many made it through.

There were approximately one thousand dogs trained as Devil Dogs for the Pacific Theater. Twenty-nine were killed in action, most of them during the fighting in Guam.

Initially these dogs were buried at a cemetery in Guam. But over time, their medical supervisor, veterinarian Dr. Bill Putney, moved the gravesites to the United States for burial at home.

There is still a war memorial in Guam.

To read another story about animal heroism, read about Reckless, the Horse That Was a Marine. Reckless fought as part of a unit in the Korean War and his efforts made all the difference to his men.

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8 thoughts on “U.S. War Dogs in the Pacific Theater”

  1. Another fascinating story. Thanks and congratulations.
    I don’t expect to get to Guam but it would be interesting to know where the monument can be seen.

  2. Hi,
    Very impressive article. I have to admit I am a fan of the doberman. Silent. Clever. Powerful. It has all the good qualities of a rottweiler and is far healthier. Its perfect for jungle scout and attack missions. I wonder if they were used in Vietnam or Korea?
    Oliver Mills.

  3. Thank you…I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Your question points to a subject for another article as I am not confident in my answer, but I’ll tell you what I’ve found in a quick search. On Pinterest, there is a Doberman with a U.S. soldier in Korea so there were at least a few. And from a quick search, it seems that in Vietnam, they had mostly switched over to German shepherds. As you point out, it’s too bad as the Doberman was well-suited to the jungle.
    If you have not read about Reckless, the horse that served in the Marines in Korea, you’ll enjoy it: https://americacomesalive.com/reckless-the-horse-that-was-a-marine/

  4. My father couldn’t serve due to polio; he sent his German Shepard who served in Japan and was safely returned to California [not sure of his rank]

  5. Thank you for posting…it must have been so hard to make decisions like that, but I’m sure the military were glad to gain a German shepherd.

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