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Their individual stories may be blurred by time, but the dogs of World War II were indisputably the greatest generation — canine version. And like so many of the youthful soldiers and sailors they accompanied, those four-legged recruits were not career military. They came from the back yards of small towns and big cities, four-legged civilians of every size and shape, transformed through training from loving pets into working troops. The "Dogs for Defense" were sent to the front by owners who were glad to do their part for the war effort. But how did these dogs go from playing fetch to playing important roles in keeping "the land of the free" safe from harm?

Although dogs serving in the military are commonplace today — who can forget Cairo, the fearless canine that accompanied the Navy SEAL team that brought down Osama bin Laden? — before the 1940s, the only dogs tagging around with American soldiers were unofficial mascots. These were likely stray dogs, casually adopted by troops homesick for their own pets and happy for canine companionship.

During World War I, trained dogs were notably used by the Belgian, French and German military forces, but America’s first official war dog was a former stray. In 1918, the burly bull terrier mix named Stubby had been smuggled aboard a troop ship bound for France by a young private, Robert Conroy, who had become fond of the dog when it showed up at a soldiers’ training camp in Connecticut. Unfazed by artillery shells — Stubby detected the whine long before human ears could, and the troops learned to duck when the dog signaled them to — Stubby soon proved his worth. He chased and took down a German spy, establishing himself as a legitimate war hero that was present for 17 battles and four offensives.

Stubby was the first dog to have received a rank for his exemplary service; his promotion from mascot to sergeant makes Stubby the highest-ranking dog ever to serve in the U.S. Army. After the war, Sgt. Stubby offered a paw to President Woodrow Wilson, received honors from the American Red Cross, the Humane Society, the American Legion and the YMCA, and toured the U.S., often marching in parades. He was as popular as a movie star.

And yet, America had no combat-ready dogs in place when World War II loomed. At that time, the only dogs working for the military were sled dogs in Alaska, far from the front lines. But after December 7, 1941, the "day of infamy," when a Japanese air strike on the U.S. Naval base at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor killed more than 2,300 Americans and ushered the U.S. into war, dog-savvy civilians were determined to persuade the military to consider canine help.

In January 1942, "Dogs for Defense" was established, just a month after Pearl Harbor. A group of dog-minded individuals were inspired to organize the effort: Harry L. Caesar, director of the American Kennel Club; Leonard Brumby, President of the Professional Dog Handlers’ Association; Dorothy Long, who was an authority on canine obedience training; Arthur Kilbon, a dog fancier and writer; and poodle breeder and dog show exhibitor Arlene Erlanger, who later wrote the official war dog training manual for the army, met to discuss the project. Their immediate focus was the use of dogs on sentry duty to guard against attacks in the U.S. and its harbors. Obedience clubs and local dog trainers were poised to become involved, and radio announcements and newspaper articles urged owners to donate Fido to help win the war.

By March 1942, “Dogs for Defense” was recognized as the official agency for choosing and training sentry dogs. The group hoped to deliver dogs for the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. Training was then taken up by the Quartermaster Corps of the Army, which originally planned the war dog experiment for just 200 dogs, a number that quickly ballooned. The Marines handled the selection and training of their own dogs, focusing mainly on Doberman pinschers and German Shepherds.

Originally, the call for war dogs included any physically sound purebred of either gender, age five or under, at least 20 inches at the shoulder, and "the characteristics of a watchdog," according to the Quartermaster General. But with purebreds being scarce, the requirements were relaxed to include crossbreds. Eventually, some breeds emerged as more suitable than others, based on temperament, skill, and even coat color (pale or parti-color coats would be too easy for an enemy to spot). The Army’s 1942 list of 32 breeds classified as war dogs was later trimmed to 18, and to just five breeds by 1944. Those who love French poodles may be surprised to learn that the standard poodle was on the early lists; cited by the Army for its "unusual ability to learn and retain, and its keen senses." While poodles did not serve overseas or make the army’s final list, they did work as sentries and guard dogs stateside.

More than 10,400 dogs were ultimately trained, many donated by families that trustingly shipped their pets into service. At a training center — at Front Royal, Va., or one of four other centers later established — the dogs learned to be sentries, scouts, messengers, or mine detectives. They learned to cope with the sounds of gunfire and the routine of a soldier’s life — a jolting change from chasing a ball or begging for treats. A charming children’s book called Private Pepper of Dogs for Defense, by Frances Cavanah and Ruth Cromer Weir, chronicled the fictional tale of a typical recruit, a collie donated by his young owner, Keith. Pepper’s journey included the discipline of a soundless growl to warn his handler of danger.

At war’s end, after a retraining period that helped them readjust to civilian life, most of the pets that had served as "dogs for defense" returned to their families, or retired to live with their military partners. Recognizing the value of dogs in the service of America, the military replaced the volunteered pets with professionals. All military dogs since World War II have been canines belonging solely to the military, trained for a variety of jobs, both in and out of combat.

But the special canine veterans that served "over there" have not been forgotten by history. A Disney movie, Chips the War Dog, dramatized the story of the best-known canine hero of World War II. Chips was a mixed breed that attacked an enemy machine gun crew in Sicily and was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his efforts (both later revoked due to the species of the recipient). The film gave Chips a Hollywood makeover, portraying him as a robust, purebred German shepherd.

The fictional "Private Pepper" story had a sequel. Private Pepper Comes Home illustrated the collie’s recovery from a war injury and his glad return home to retirement, even as his recalled training comes in handy when an intruder threatened those he loves. And the "Always Faithful" memorial in Guam, with its sculpture of a Doberman pinscher on guard atop a roll call of beloved names, stands in honor of World War II’s brave canines. Max, Prince, Cappy, Skipper, and so many more, are immortalized by this memorial to their endurance and loyalty. At the University of Tennessee’s veterinary school, an exact replica of the memorial is a quiet reminder of those furry war veterans, all gone now, but still saluted for their chapter in America’s war story. 

Image: The U.S. Army / via Flickr

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