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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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Clark County History: Dogs of war

By , Columbian freelance contributor
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Cpl. Tubby and his Marine handler, Guy Wachtsletter, conduct a combat training exercise during World War II. He was one of thousands of dogs enlisted into service through the Dogs for Defense program that began in 1942. Tubby was one of many canine casualties in the Pacific Theater. He died in action during the battle for Guam in 1944, and is listed on the Ridgefield Veterans Memorial. (U.S.
Cpl. Tubby and his Marine handler, Guy Wachtsletter, conduct a combat training exercise during World War II. He was one of thousands of dogs enlisted into service through the Dogs for Defense program that began in 1942. Tubby was one of many canine casualties in the Pacific Theater. He died in action during the battle for Guam in 1944, and is listed on the Ridgefield Veterans Memorial. (U.S. Marine Corps) Photo Gallery

Cpl. Tubby, a dog from Ridgefield, died protecting his handler in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Susan Orlean mentioned him in her book “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” which tells the story of the many dogs with that name, starting with the Rin Tin Tin fighting in the World War I and then the others bearing that name, some that gained popular fame as movie and television action heroes.

A year after the Pearl Harbor attack, the military began drafting dogs. It needed their tracking skills, offensive spirit and security alertness. Ads, articles, books and radio programs popped up for a little-known United States Armed Forces program, Dogs for Defense. The war propaganda aimed to obtain civilian owners’ pets for service while making owners proud of their war contribution. Dog food companies and other businesses joined in the recruitment. One Purina full-page ad proclaimed, “Today, they hunt more dangerous game.” Sparton, an electrical company, ran an ad showing a young boy and his collie with the headline, “Shep will show ’em.”

But the program sought funding. In Vancouver, the local kennel club held all-breed dog shows in which enlisted or honorably discharged dogs made special appearances in 1942, 1943 and 1944. The funds collected went to the defense dog program. The promotions never mentioned dogs not coming back or their suitability as pets if they returned.

To further raise funds for the program, dog lovers could pay to assign their pooches at home an honorary military rank. The cost ran from a dollar to rank a dog in the Marines or Army as a private, $3 for a sergeant, $10 for a lieutenant or, for the genuinely rank-conscious, $100 for a doggy general. For the same price, one could buy equivalent ranks in the Navy or the women’s divisions of the armed forces.

The military wanted 125,000 dogs between 1 and 5 years old and at least 18 inches tall. In the end, how many dogs served is unclear. Estimates of dogs conscripted range from a low of 18,000 to a high of 300,000. The accepted number is about 25,000. Their training took six to eight weeks and washed out about 8,000 dogs.

Enlisted dogs worked hard as sentries, scouts on recon patrols and couriers for critical messages. They transported emergency supplies, pulled communication lines between outposts and recovered men injured on the battlefield. Stateside, they guarded military bases and patrolled beaches for the Coast Guard. Thousands went to the Army and Marines. By the war’s end, 559 Marine combat dogs survived. Four were euthanized for aggression and 15 for health concerns. Handlers often kept their dogs, and the rest were adopted out.

Ridgefield erected a veterans memorial in 2012 at 117 N. Third Ave. to honor the town’s soldiers who died in combat. Among the names memorialized is Cpl. Tubby of the Dogs for Defense program, killed during heroic action on Guam combat during July and August 1944. The corporal was just one of the dogs who died in Marine battles across the Pacific Theater. Today, a National War Dog Cemetery on Guam celebrates those war dogs.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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Columbian freelance contributor