In the early morning dark of June 6, 1944, an echelon of C-47 transport planes carrying paratroopers of the British 6th Airborne Division – the famous “Red Berets” – began disgorging their cargo of weapons-laden English soldiers over the canal area behind enemy lines and inland from the Invasion beaches of Normandy. Although well trained for the jump, Brian welcomed a friendly push from a trooper’s boot to encourage his leap into the unfriendly French skies, no doubt hoping that the bulky pack strapped to his back would open in the usual manner. Brian differed from the proud Division’s other highly-trained soldiers in that he carried neither weapon nor trenching tools in his compact pack. Known fondly to the companions he loved as “Bing”, Brian was in fact a two-year old Alsatian sentry dog. But he was no less a fighting soldier than the others, and because of his ability to sniff out an enemy long before an ambush could take place, he made it possible for his tired troopers, surrounded by the enemy, to travel safely and rest easy at night in the days and weeks to come. He would in fact fight his way across the Rhine and into Germany with the Battalion he served, returning home to the civilian family who had offered him up for military service. He would receive his country’s highest award for an animal warrior.
Throughout World War II, canine “soldiers” served beside their human counterparts, many of them losing their own lives in the process; leading the way through hedgerows, minefields, forests and jungles, entering enemy-occupied buildings and placing themselves in harm’s way in their daily duty. They continued to serve in Korea, where I myself had the privilege of supervising a Security unit in which the Air Force first experimented with assigning a sentry dog to patrol the perimeter of a sensitive radar site.
In Viet Nam it is believed that canine war dogs saved lives and prevented at least 10,000 American casualties, in an environment where their keen sense of smell helped to level the playing field for our fighting men, and where their bark alone engendered fear among a usually-fearless foe.
In the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, 34 War Dogs have lost their lives in the line of duty, including 20 Labrador Retrievers serving as U.S. Marine bomb-detecting dogs, bringing the total death count to more than 400 since the end of WWII. Today, 2,700 such dogs are serving in our military, and at any given time, at least 350 to 400 are in training at Lackland AFB, Texas where the 341st Training Squadron has the mission of breeding, recruiting, training and rehabilitating dogs for all the military services, plus law enforcement agencies across the country. Their unit occupies 3350 acres at Lackland where a cadre of several hundred dedicated trainers and veterinary staff also act as “home trainers” in teaching social skills to dogs who nowadays are expected to fill a large range of duties.
Whether in the hands of a military handler or a law enforcement companion, a trained German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois or Labrador possesses a sense of smell ten thousand times greater than that of a human, with one eighth of its brain capacity devoted to that one effort, and with a scent memory that is “forever”. Put in forensic terms if one drop of an individual’s urine is diluted in a swimming pool of water, a dog can identify it. And once trained to “alert” to the unique smell of explosives, drugs or other specific compounds or combinations, they outclass the best scientific device yet invented.
In the courage department, a trained war dog is just as apt to shield his/her handler with its own body as a brother soldier, and it is not unusual on a field of battle to find a wounded warrior with his attending K-9 buddy sprawled on top of him in a final act of protective devotion.
For a beautifully-told story filled with the pathos of such canine devotion, I highly recommend a recent work of “detective” fiction by Robert Crais, one of my favorite authors, whose award-winning books in the mystery genre are noted for careful character development. SUSPECT brings together a wounded veteran war dog, and an equally-damaged police officer suffering from his own case of PTSD. In the process of telling a riveting story, Crais manages to reveal things about the inner workings of canine dynamics seldom visited by the casual reader.
A 1946 photo shows “Bing” (Brian) the WWII “Airborne” hero dog, back in civilian life, receiving Britain’s highest animal service award for “conspicuous gallantry” the “Dicken” medal, (awarded only 54 times in history).
At his outpost in 1953 Korea, Al Cooper meets the 6X6 truck delivering his unit’s new sentry dog for front line service.