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Dogs of War

At the outbreak of WWII, a private poodle breeder and her dog show pals launch an outlandish scheme to recruit and train thousands of pets for war duty. In the face of military skepticism and confronting the carnage of war a new kind of hero emerges.


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images of women and soldiers with dogs

The line of 250 men filed off the beach and into the twilight world of the jungle. The enemy lay concealed ahead, they could be sure. They followed an unlikely leader: A black and tan Doberman that betrayed no sense of the danger of the situation.

Some of the men bristled at the arrangement.

This was to save them all from enemy fire? The canine was a ruined show dog. To make matters worse, the platoon’s backup was a German shepherd who months before had been roaming the streets of the Bronx with the three boys who owned him. The company commander didn’t like the setup one bit. They had to make it to the junction of the Piva and Numa-Numa Trails as fast as possible, all while chaperoning a cadre of untested dogs into combat.

But the commander had his orders. He motioned for the quiet, red-headed private in charge of the canine scout, PFC Robert E. Lansley from the 1st Marine War Dog Platoon, to take his position on point with the Doberman, named Andy, in the lead. At the rear, PFC Rufus Mayo, an Alabama boy who raised hunting dogs before the war, took the shepherd, named Caesar, on a leash. Since walkie talkies weren’t working well in the dense vegetation and phone lines couldn’t be strung until the area was secure, Caesar would, theoretically, serve as their lifeline, running messages hidden in a little metal pipe secured around his neck to regimental headquarters. That is, if he could find his way back, avoid sniper fire, and keep himself from chasing a wild pig off into the bush.

As they moved up the trail following the Piva River, they heard gunfire and artillery in the distance as the rest of the Second Marine Raider Battalion fought to secure the shores of Empress Augusta Bay. It was the beginning of the assault on Bougainville, a speck of land among the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Allied forces needed to capture a safe zone large enough to build an airfield that could handle fighter escorts and light bombers for an eventual attack on the nearby island of New Britain, the final Japanese stronghold in the region. From there, the effort to subdue Rabaul, Japan’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor, would begin in earnest, allowing Allied forces to hop from island to island and get within bombing range of Japan itself.

The campaign in the Pacific depended on the Allies in Bougainville. For the Marines marching blindly into the dense, enemy-occupied jungle, the future depended on dogs who were never supposed to have been part of the war in the first place.

Alene Erlanger could not tolerate a moment of boredom. She filled up most of her anxious moments in the company of animals. The 46-year-old socialite owned Woodside Stud, one of the best thoroughbred racehorse stables in the country, near her estate in Elberon, New Jersey. She kept a custom-built aviary stocked with squawking tropical birds — one of the most extensive private collections around. But her true passion was poodles. As owner of Pillicoc Kennels, she was one of the first people in the United States to breed the then-exotic poodle. In 1937, her black standard poodle, Rumpelstiltskin, won the American Kennel Club’s Best in Show award and took the Sporting Breed title at the Westminster Dog show.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor gripped the country. As the hulks of American battleships still smoldered in waters off Oahu, Erlanger dialed up her friend Roland Kilbon, a journalist who covered the dog world, and invited the veteran news reporter to lunch. “Other countries have used dogs in their armies for years and ours have not,” she told Kilbon over a lavish spread. “They’ve got to do it. Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munitions plants, and such.”

Kilbon agreed, and the two hatched a plan to approach the Professional Handler’s Association, a well-respected organization in the dog world. They had in mind a new organization: Dogs for Defense.

A who’s who of the dog world immediately joined its ranks. Harry I. Caesar, a banker and head of the American Kennel Club, volunteered to serve as president. Artist Felicien Philippe, former head of the Italian State Game Preserve who fled Mussolini’s fascist regime, came on board and provided insight into how Axis war dogs were trained. Henry Stoecker, Erlanger’s talented trainer at Pillicoc, joined the team and later the military as a dog trainer. Other prominent women in the dog world volunteered for the cause as well, including Charlotte Hayes Blake Hoyt, Erlanger’s poodle-breeding socialite rival, and Dorothy Long, a student who rebelled against Vassar College’s no-dogs-on-campus rule by bringing her border collie, Puck, to classes with her daily. Their goal was to show the chops of the average American dog by training them up en masse to serve the war effort.

They were promptly stonewalled. At the outset of World War II, the United States Army had just a handful of sled dogs used to patrol remote stretches of Alaska. Otherwise, the Army wanted nothing to do with dogs or animals of any sort. The Quartermaster’s office was only too happy to put the menagerie of war animals it once cared for behind it. Jeeps replaced horses, trucks took the place of pack mules, and radios made carrier pigeons obsolete. Even the beloved casualty dogs, which brought medical supplies to men wounded in the field and stayed by their side until a medic arrived during World War I, were considered quaint in the era of Sherman tanks.

But that wasn’t a sentiment shared by everyone. At the outbreak of World War II, the Germans had an estimated 200,000 highly trained dogs trotting at the heels of their armies. They even sent 25,000 trained sentries to the Japanese military. The usefulness of the German K-9 units had quickly convinced the British and French to establish their own war dog programs in the early 1940s. Uncle Sam was the holdout.

The position of the nation’s military commanders was at odds with a growing national pastime: the U.S. was in the midst of a dog-obedience craze. Before the 1930s, show dogs were judged purely on physical traits like bone structure and coat sheen. But by the outbreak of World War II, 402 obedience training clubs, one in any city of respectable size, had popped up around the country, with thousands of pet owners drilling their dogs in sitting and staying, jumping, retrieving, leaping through hoops, running across balance beams, and performing all sorts of choreographed routines. In a sense, the dogs were being put through boot camp.

In modern obedience, dogs were often commanded using silent hand signals. They could be directed to retrieve specific items, and they could discriminate between the scent of their handler and strangers. With a little imagination, dog fanciers around the country could be seen as drill sergeants grooming a new kind of warrior for a new war.

Erlanger was passionate, but opportunities came slowly at first. Then, in June 1942, in misty fog along the coast of Long Island, four German saboteurs beached their rubber raft and came ashore carrying high explosives, detonators, and timers, along with wallets full of U.S. dollars. Around the same time, a German U-boat surfaced off the coast of Florida and four more would-be saboteurs rowed ashore.

The FBI tracked down all eight invaders and ultimately executed six as spies, but the incidents spooked the popular imagination and raised awareness of how vulnerable munitions factories and other high value operations were. Facing a shortage of men due to the war, the government needed some expedient way to patrol 3,700 miles of unguarded coastline.

Reluctantly, Uncle Sam realized it needed dogs — and it needed them fast.

Caesar, a purebred German Shepherd, was beloved by his owners. A couple years before the war, three young adult brothers, sons of a junk dealer from Poland who emigrated to the Bronx — Max, Morris, and Irving Glazer — decided to pool sixty dollars — $950 in today’s moneyto buy a dog like the German shepherd they’d had as kids. The brothers were picky. Every Sunday for three months they toured Long Island and Westchester County looking at puppies. None were ever good enough. Their ears were crooked, their coat had strange markings, they were scrawny.

When they found nine-week old Caesar von Steuben at a kennel on Long Island, though, none of the brothers could object. Irving told a reporter during the war, “He just stood out as the best in the litter.”

Caesar was big, even for a German shepherd, with a black-and-gray coat and a graceful stride. And Caesar was smart. The boys trained him to sit, fetch, shake hands, and stay, all the classic obedience skills. But his most impressive skill was delivering items to their intended recipient. The brothers could buy a parcel at the grocery store or butcher shop, give it to Caesar, and tell him to “take it to mom.” The dog would gingerly carry the package through the city blocks and take it to the door of the Glazers’ fourth-floor walkup without stopping and without trying to eat the contents — even steak.

When the war broke out, the Glazer sons headed into the military one by one, leaving the dog in their mother’s care. Caesar’s whole world had been his adoring human family, but now the boys were away from home. Mrs. Glazer, worried that taking care of the big dog would be too much for her and perhaps noticing Caesar’s morose demeanor, consulted with her sons and then signed the shepherd up for the war effort. He soon shipped out to the Army camp at Fort Robinson for training, where perhaps he would find some use with a new wartime family. No one could have anticipated just how great an impact he would have.

Across Long Island, not so far from where the Glazers had found Caesar, a man named Joseph Verhaeghe was making his own painful decision. He wondered if he should donate the dog his own son loved so much to Dog’s for Defense. Verhaeghe was a painter and decorator from Floral Park, Long Island. As a teenager during World War I, his family fled the German invasion of Belgium in a small boat, hoping to make it across the North Sea to England. German artillery opened fire on the craft and his infant sister was killed in his mother’s arms.

As a grown man, he moved to the United States, married, and had a son named Bobby. When war broke out again, Verhaeghe’s family members found themselves living once more under German terror. Verhaeghe was determined to join up to fight for his family, but his perforated eardrum got him nixed from the SeaBees, the Naval Construction Battalion. The Merchant Marine passed on him, too. Verhaeghe even took the desperate measure of traveling to Canada to join up, but he was ruled 4F there as well.

When he learned about Dogs for Defense, desperate for some way to contribute, he decided to enlist Jack, the family’s Belgian Shepherd, a slinky relative of the German Shepherd. Jack was a good boy with an ornery streak who gulped down the ice cream of neighborhood children when they weren’t looking. Verhaeghe hesitated to send the dog off until his 11-year-old son Bobby announced through tears, “Pop, if Jack can save lives, I want him to go in.” And so, like Caesar, Jack went off to war.

Meanwhile, a prim Doberman named Andreas von Wiede-Hurst — also known as Gentleman Jim to some, and just plain “Andy” to most — was about to join the war effort as well.

Andy was one of the most perfect male Dobermans seen in the United States, but his penchant for scrapping with other dogs led to a mangled ear, which kept him off the show dog circuit before his career even began. It was a blessing in disguise. With his impeccable bone structure and even temperament (at least around humans), Andy enjoyed a robust career propagating his genes within the elite Doberman community.

But when the Marines began looking for dog recruits, and especially Dobermans, Andy’s owners knew he was exactly what they were seeking — a strong, athletic, level-headed animal with an 8-foot leap. He would soon have to prove he was more than a pretty face.

Erlanger had a talent for attracting the interest of well-heeled and quirky personalities. Hollywood celebrity Greer Garson gave Dogs for Defense her prized poodle, Clicquot. Rudy Vallee, a popular singer and one of the first teen idols, enlisted his Doberman Pinscher, King. Ezio Pinza, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera, donated his two Dalmatians along with an album of his singing, instructing the handlers to play the record for them if they got lonely since they were used to him singing around the house. Motivated by a desire to help, dogs arrived from all corners of the country.

A publicity still of Rudy Vallee and his beloved Doberman

The harder part was assessing the dogs and getting them into the hands of the military. It took over 1,000 people, all unpaid volunteers, to make the war dog program work. At induction, each dog was given an identification tattoo in the ear and housed in an individual kennel. Rations were a half pound of cooked horsemeat, ¾ pound raw horse meat ground up with the bones, a half-pound of cornmeal gruel cooked in horsemeat broth, and a half pound of commercial dog food, supplemented with salt equivalent to 1 percent.

All dogs went through a two-week basic training, where they learned commonplace commands like sit, stay, and come, as well as skills specific to their new roles, like how to ride in the back of trucks on bumpy roads. They were also exposed to gunfire until they didn’t flinch. The vast majority became sentry dogs and were taught to growl or alert at the approach of strangers during an eight-week course. The dogs were taught to attack if need be, though the Army didn’t train pure attack dogs.

Two more select classes of dogs trained for combat duty. Over 13 weeks, messenger dogs were drilled until they would run between two handlers, dodging all obstacles in their path to get their communication from one trainer to the other. They would be especially important in fighting in the South Pacific as the best walkie talkies of the day — known then as the “handie-talkie” — had a reception range of just a quarter of a mile and experienced interference problems in the dense jungle.

The animals with the keenest noses and most stable temperaments became scout dogs. They, too, were drilled day and night, trained not to bark when they sensed a stranger nearby but to raise their hackles, lift their tail, or perform some other silent sign that danger was afoot.

As the Marines readied to head into deep jungles on steamy Pacific Islands where the enemy would be dug in and camouflaged in the dense vegetation, dogs began to seem like a viable and even necessary tool of war. But they remained untested and, to many of the men whose lives hung in the balance, untrusted.

In June 1943, a Liberty Ship left San Diego carrying thousands of Marines to the South Pacific — including the 24 dogs and 48 handlers of the 1st War Dog Platoon.

Gordon Wortman and Paul Castracane from Cohoes, New York, handled Jack. Castracane resembled Burt Lancaster and Wortman Frank Sinatra. As it turned out, Jack reminded them of a famous star as well. From the beginning Wortman was proud of the dog, whom he believed was one of the smartest in the platoon. “Jack is really a second Rin-Tin-Tin. Boy, is he coming swell!” he wrote to his parents before landing in Bougainville. “However I think that the officers here have too big ideas for Jack and me to carry out. We’ll surely do our best, though.”

Young Rufus Mayo, an Alabamian who had raised hunting dogs, and Johnny Kleeman, a seventeen-year-old from Philadelphia, handled Caesar. And Andy, the strapping Doberman, found a brave handler in Robert Lansley, a redhead who had already earned the nickname “Daredevil” for his eagerness to participate in combat.

For the three-week journey on the Liberty Ship, the handlers and canines lived in their own segregated village of dog huts and peeing posts placed on deck. Most days, they endured catcalls from veteran Marine Raiders. Despite the torment, Lansley nurtured real pride for Andy. He wrote to his wife, “He’s a Doberman of about two years. He’s black and brown and stands almost to my hips in height. His nature is really gentle, but when told to do so he’ll rip a man apart! The expression on his face is really human… He is a perfect gentleman in every respect, and he’s also rated among us fellows as the best dog in the field.” Andy’s second handler was Jack Mahoney, an eighteen-year-old who had given up a position at Colby College to do his part in the war.

Clyde Henderson, a chemistry teacher from Ohio and a Doberman breeder who was in charge of the platoon, also endured the dismissal and ire of many of the Marines on the ship. One officer looked at the dogs’ healthy, shiny coats and asked in all seriousness if the dogs were going to a show. Henderson had to explain that the animals were intended for combat. “Everyone looked on us as a curiosity and wondered what we were supposed to do,” he remembered. “We weren’t too sure ourselves.”

As the Marines approached Bougainville, the dog handlers began to worry. Would the animals go nuts and forget their training under heavy fire, as some critics thought? Would they all be so shell-shocked they couldn’t work? The American forces would confront members of the notorious 6th Division of Imperial Japanese Army infantrymen, led by lieutenant general Masatane Kanda. In the Second Sino-Japanese War, Kanda participated in the Rape of Nanking, where Japanese soldiers murdered up to 300,000 Chinese civilians. On top of this, jungle fighting was still a new proposition for the Marines. The only chance they had to get out of this alive was to keep morale high and stay disciplined. As waves crashed against the side of the ship and they stared into the expanse of the ocean, these seemed like meager protection. Adrenaline coursed as they steeled themselves to confront vicious opposition.

Dogs and men huddled aboard three Higgins landing craft on the morning of November 1, 1943. Mortar shells rained down on them, almost capsizing one of the boats. They rushed onto the beach, dodging enemy fire on the way to the tree line. Thousands of landing boats had ferried 14,000 Allied troops and 6,200 tons of equipment from U.S. Navy attack transports toward the Bay at sunrise that morning, surprising the 45,000 Japanese troops dug into the foothills of Bougainville. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the Japanese organized a counterattack.

Mere hours after landing, Andy the scout dog and Caesar the messenger dog were called up for their first major assignment. The men and animals of the 1st War Dog Platoon would be operating outside the normal Marine hierarchy, available to any company or platoon that wanted assistance heading into the dense jungle. They were the ultimate specialty players in the operation, and they resolved to go wherever they could to save American lives and secure the perimeter.

The Marines needed to control the area surrounding the two main trails running through Bougainville: the Piva and Numa-Numa Trails on the beachhead’s northern flank. These trails were no more than foot paths, but they represented the most developed roads on that part of the island. Japanese soldiers riddled the dense forest surrounding them. Pillboxes with crisscrossing machine guns dotted the trails and snipers, painted green and strapped high into trees, waited patiently for Marine patrols to make it into their gunsights. The Japanese soldiers often dug holes six or seven feet deep into the ground and fired on approaching soldiers from below. They were experts at camouflage, and the inexperienced Americans’ vision would be obscured by dense vegetation and smoke from artillery and guns.

The dogs needed to give the troops the heightened senses they lacked. They would also need to carry information back and forth from the command post to the field. But even their biggest advocates worried that the dog project might fail in real combat. If the island could not be secured and the mission failed, a revitalized Japan could take the offensive in the South Pacific and wreak havoc on the Allies. The war dogs had their work cut out for them.

The temperature hung around ninety degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity about ninety percent. Light rain came and went. Lansley, the redhead “daredevil,” felt his heart beating in his chest, and the tan canvas leggings beneath his green dungaree uniform stuck to his skin. He clutched an M1 rifle and felt the eighty rounds of ammunition for it hanging from his belt, where a Kabar sword also hung. He even had grenades in his pocket. And he would use it all.

Lansley conferred with his pal and fellow handler, Mahoney, and grabbed Andy’s leash. Around him, the men of M Company prepared to head into the jungle, rooting out enemy soldiers to advance the beachhead. Lansley volunteered to lead them. The company commander agreed, and Lansley and Mahoney jogged ahead with Andy.

The 250 Marines filed off the beach, following Andy into the jungle. As one of the few scout dogs who worked off-leash, the Doberman seemed happy to follow the thin dirt track into the unknown. Trailing the dog, the Marines hacked fronds and trees to widen the path. Already, sweat dripped down the bridge of Lansley’s nose. He looked at the men behind him. Really, they were all kids, most about twenty years old. Some sported mustaches in various degrees of success to hide their youth, but the bewilderment in their eyes gave it away. The faint tic-tic-tic-tic of the Japanese machine guns continued somewhere in the distance.

The men watched closely as the dog paced down the path, leading them deeper into the green wilderness. When eager Andy got too far ahead, Lansley made a low cluck and the Doberman pattered his way back to his side. About 400 yards up the trail, Andy halted. He turned his head slowly to the left, then to the right, signaling some disturbance. Lansley made a gesture for M Company to halt. For a breathless moment the Marines, many of whom were experiencing combat for the first time, squatted down, fingers on the triggers of their rifles, their hearts in their throats. They waited. Silence. Finally, Andy relaxed. The commander looked bewildered. Why was the dog alerting them for nothing? Lansley said it was probably just a wild boar nosing in the undergrowth. The commander’s confidence in the dog, already suspect, seemed shaken. M company pushed on, picking up the pace.

Another 150 yards up the trail, Andy stopped again. Lansley and Mahoney flanked him. The lines of men stood 25 yards back, wondering if they weren’t leaving themselves exposed as part of some doomed experiment. Andy perked up his good ear and let out a low growl, pointing his muzzle slightly to the right. Lansley squatted down and patted the dog. He could feel the tension in Andy’s muscles and held him close so he didn’t bolt into the brush to do the job himself.

“Well, this is it,” Lansley told his fellow Marines. “There’s a sniper back there, probably about 75 yards.”

The patrol leader reserved some doubt, but the dog didn’t relax this time. He sent Lansley and Mahoney forward with their guns. Then, in the distance they saw what Andy had: two camouflaged machine gun nests, manned by the enemy. They unleashed a spray of gunfire, which was returned. Andy, according to his training, hung back and crouched out of the way of the fire fight. M Company men hit the ground as shrapnel flew overhead. The air filled with smoke and dust and the rumble of machine guns — the Americans’ clack-clack-clack and the Japanese’s tic-tic-tic. Lansley held his gun with a death grip, every muscle in his body contracting until he shook. When he lost what little visibility he had, he tossed two grenades toward the Japanese. Their explosions rocked the earth. Silence fell.

Dazed, the men continued forward. The two machine gun nests were completely wiped out. The Americans had all survived. They found eight dead Japanese soldiers, including a sniper slumped where he was buckled to a tree trunk. As the inexperienced Marines soon learned, a Japanese sniper buckled himself to a tree so that if shot and killed his body might trick American soldiers to take shots at what appeared to be a living sniper, wasting valuable ammunition and potentially exposing their position. The men of M Company realized that the next few weeks would be the most perverse they had ever experienced — if they survived. Suddenly, they were very glad they had the dogs.

Progress through the island came in inches, not miles, but M Company advanced farther into the island than any other American patrol that day, and with no casualties, thanks to Andy. As darkness fell and the possibility of a Japanese attack began to feel real, the Marines of M Company offered to dig shelter for Andy, Lansley, and Mahoney in appreciation of their service, and to keep the dogs and their keen senses as close as possible. Andy slept beside Lansley in a foxhole covered with palm fronds. The men were forbidden to so much as strike a match, lest the light give them away. In the pitch-black jungle, Lansley could only look to the stars. He heard what sounded like the whine of an old washing machine above: a Japanese bomber trying to unload on the island. The American’s anti-aircraft artillery took shots at it, creating a fireworks display unlike any ever seen on the Fourth of July. Many of the sleepless men found it peaceful.

That night, elsewhere in the company, Rufus Mayo, the Alabama bird-dog trainer, heard Caesar, the German Shepherd messenger, spring up. In the dark, Mayo saw a black grenade laying at their feet. Adrenaline flooded his body.

On instinct, Mayo tossed it back outside and braced for the blow. After the explosion he lay still, heart beating. Should he lie still or prepare for ambush? Around him, the other men were quiet, though the chirping, croaking sounds of nocturnal creatures soon resumed. Better to stay put for now, it seemed. Mayo was afraid, but having Caesar’s wet nose pressed against his hand brought a touch of familiarity to this horrendous place. Caesar was Mayo’s only immediate reminder of the joy and comforts of life back home, and his only sense of safety, a literal lifeline. Mayo stroked the dog in thanks, and to calm his own nerves. He fell into fitful sleep until dawn, when he awoke dead tired.

In the morning light, the Marines found eight more dead Japanese soldiers where Mayo had tossed the grenade. The men got chocolate bars out of their packs, bayoneted pieces of it, put the pieces in canteens and heated the canteens over weak fires to make Marine hot chocolate. Today, M Company would build on the progress made breaching the jungle the day before. Leadership also believed it would be most efficient for the men to string a phone line from base up the Piva Trail, through the territory they had secured. The plan made good sense in an officer’s tent, but on the ground it proved impossible. As soon as the men strung the phone line, camouflaged Japanese soldiers crept along the jungle floor and slashed it with knives. The Marines had valued technology over canine prowess, but once again the dogs had a chance to show their value.

While Andy scouted out snipers, Caesar the German Shepherd became the fastest means of communication among the Marines. He quickly earned the distinction of carrying the first war dog message in actual combat. The men pressed forward, inch by painstaking inch in the jungle, while the dog zipped between the forward position and command post. Until then, the Japanese fired only upon the men, but when they realized canine messengers also conspired against them, they took shots at dogs. Though the hours seemed to crawl as slowly as the line of Marines advancing under pressure, Caesar raced through the day with the work the company gave him to do. Mayo would attach messages about the company’s progress to Caesar’s collar and send him back to Kleeman. Despite Mayo advancing, Caesar always found him again and seemed ready for the next task. When the Marines recovered some written plans from a dead Japanese officer, it was Caesar who raced with them to camp. He made nine runs the second day, with sniper fire trailing him each time.

Once again that night the Marines hunkered in and watched the light show in the sky. Far off in the jungle, they heard Japanese soldiers yelling, “Help! Help!” It was possible that they were truly wounded, but it was just as possible this was psychological warfare. Either way, the Japanese were very close. The grenade incident fresh in everyone’s minds, ambush seemed imminent.

Caesar growled with a new ferocity, scaring Mayo awake at dawn. No grenade this time. Mayo barely processed that Caesar was leaping out of the foxhole after something. The private peeked out. Japanese soldiers had infiltrated the camp. Caesar’s ancient instincts kicked in. Messenger dog no more, he went on the attack to protect Mayo. Two Japanese soldiers were emerging from a copse of trees toward the foxhole and Caesar had gone out to intercept them. Mayo called for his beloved companion and then watched the dog falter, skitter sideways, and fall.

In the confusion, with Japanese soldiers overrunning the camp and Americans leaping out of foxholes to fight them off, Mayo lost track of Caesar. After the gunfire ceased, he found a trail of blood leading into the jungle. Plenty of human blood had just been shed, but Mayo had a feeling. As he followed the blood drops, he could only hope against hope it wasn’t what he thought. Where the red line ended he found Caesar, still alive but bleeding out in the bushes just outside the battalion command post and barely conscious. Mayo dropped to the ground and hugged the dog gently, just liked the Glazer boys in the Bronx must have once they discovered him on Long Island. He had been just a pup in a crate when those three brothers pooled their whole life savings — sixty dollars — to bring him home and love him. And now eight thousand miles away, on some godforsaken island in the South Pacific, the silver-and-black shepherd offered his entire life to save the fourth boy he had come to love.

Three marines hacked down two lengths of bamboo and fastened a blanket between them to make a mobile hammock. A dozen Marines volunteered to carry Caesar’s stretcher: a procession took Caesar, flanked by Mayo and Kleeman to the regimental first-aid station. The two dog handlers waited anxiously outside the tent while the surgeon operated. After 20 minutes, he appeared. He had removed a slug from Caesar’s hip, but the other bullet in his shoulder was too close to his heart to chance it. The lead would remain, but he believed the gutsy dog would pull through. Caesar remained in sick bay recovering, with raiders sneaking him the best bits of their C-rations while the nurses weren’t looking.

In the meantime, Jack, a Belgium shepherd who had left a young boy on Long Island to help the war effort, took up the dangerous post of messenger dog at the Piva Forks in Caesar’s stead. His handlers, Castracane and Wortman, walked beside him into the gravest danger yet.

A few days later, Wortman and Jack were working the Piva roadblock with E Company, which had relieved M Company, when Japanese once again cut the phone line. A fast, savage attack soon followed. Wortman took a round to the leg, and a bullet also cut through the loose skin on Jack’s back. The Marine lay there in agony. Jack also gushed blood, leaning against his handler and whimpering in pain, something Wortman had never heard him do.

As the Japanese tightened the noose, with no phone line and no radio to request reinforcements or medical aid, the wounded dog was the Marines’ only hope. The commanding officer said to Wortman, “Your dog is the only one we can send. Do you think he can make it?”

The wounded Marine looked at his dog, pain clouding his normally intelligent eyes. “I think so, sir,” he said. “He’s got lots of guts.” Wortman tucked a handwritten request for aid in Jack’s collar pouch. He stroked the shepherd and whispered to him. “This is it, old boy. We’re depending on you. Report to Paul!” Jack warily rose to his feet, then turned to look at Wortman. He turned his head toward the path, then, gaining a burst of strength, bolted out of camp. Automatic fire kicked up the dirt at Jack’s heels as the dog zagged into the underbrush. Wortman and his commanding officer could only look on with amazement and hope.

It was a long dash through the jungle before the bedraggled dog, caked in blood and mud appeared at the feet of Castracane near headquarters. The Marine, aghast at the sight, urgently fished the message out of Jack’s collar pouch. He had barely read the first words of the message when he bolted up and ran it to battalion command. Then he returned to carry Jack to the first aid tent.

After receiving the message, reinforcements fought their way up the trail and succeeded in stopping the Japanese attack. Wortman and other casualties were carried out on stretchers. For his bravery, Jack was made sergeant and in his logbook it was noted that he was recommended for a medal equivalent to a Purple Heart. Castracane also recommended him for a Silver Star. The military ruled that dogs could only receive written commendations. But to every Marine who made it out of the jungle that day Jack was a war hero of the highest order.

Andy, Caesar, Jack, and other dogs in the 1st platoon were cited for outstanding performance in a communiqué to Washington, which Alene Erlanger trumpeted proudly in an article in the Quartermaster’s Journal, pointing out that no patrol with a dog on point had lost a man during the invasion. The dogs were all raised to the rank of Corporal, and letters of commendation were sent to their owners at home, most likely the first they’d heard of their dogs since they shipped out. The Glazer family got to beam with pride knowing that special pup their sons painstakingly raised turned into a hero, like the three boys themselves. Bobby Verhaeghe, then just about a teenager, could breathe a sigh and shed a few tears to celebrate that his boyhood dog, Jack, was alive and had indeed saved other lives, just as Bobby predicted. And the Doberman kennel in Pennsylvania read about the exploits of their former stud, Andreas von Wiede-Hurst — Gentleman Jim to some and just plain “Andy” to most, who had proved he was more than a pretty face after all.

Other Marine War Dog Platoons were instrumental in the Second Battle of Guam in July and August 1944. The animals worked over 450 missions on the island. The costs were heavy. Throughout the entire war, 29 Marine dogs were killed in action — a full 25 of them on that island. A National War Dog Cemetery on the U.S. Naval Base Guam honors them today.

The survivors of Bougainville, including Caesar and Jack, continued island hopping, scouting during missions in Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa along with newer platoons of Marine dogs. By that time, communications had improved enough that messenger dogs were phased out of service, and all dogs and their handlers worked as scouts ahead of their units.

The Marine dogs were eventually joined by eight platoons of Army War Dogs, which began deploying to the Pacific in late 1944. When the invasion of the Philippines began in earnest, the reputation of both Army and Marine war dogs in jungle fighting was so high there weren’t enough detachments to go around for all the infantry that requested them.

In March 1945, Dogs for Defense stopped recruiting dogs for the military, turning that responsibility over to the Defense Department. Never again would the government recruit dogs from the public; it would breed and buy its own dogs for future wars. But the operation begun over a single lunch years before had been a success, and the American public and their dogs had answered the call when they were needed most. Despite some of her gripes about military bureaucracy, Alene Erlanger was awarded the Exceptional Civilian Service Award by the War Department, its highest civilian honor, for her work in bringing dogs into the military.

When the war in the Pacific finally ended in September 1945, the Marine Corps had to decide what to do with the 559 dogs remaining in its service. An order went out to euthanize the animals. The men who fought alongside them wouldn’t hear of it. After being inundated with protests, the Marines agreed to de-train the dogs and return them to their owners.

After a long tour — during which they offered their lives, lost friends, and fought valiantly — the war dogs were going home.

JASON DALEY is a writer and editor specializing in the environment, science, and history. He is a columnist for Outside magazine and writes for Smithsonian.com, Sierra, Discover, and other national magazines. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and noted in The Best American Travel Writing. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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This post originally appeared on Truly*Adventurous and was published March 12, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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