The Dogs of War

In 1943, U.S. forces attacked the South Pacific island of Bougainville. Outnumbered and outgunned, their best hope lay with specially trained soldiers named Jack, Andy and Caesar. Two problems: The trio had never seen combat, and they were canines

By Jason Daley Updated: May 17, 2023 14:06:11 IST
The Dogs of War Caesar and his handler, Rufus Mayo, far right, pause with other handlers and dogs during the fighting; Photo: ©Bettmann/Getty Images

The soldiers 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 named Andy who 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 New York City with the three boys who owned him.

As they moved up the trail, they heard gunfire and artillery in the distance as the rest of the U.S. Second Marine Raider Battalion fought to secure the shoreline. It was 1943; the assault on Bougainville, a speck of land among the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, had just begun. Allied forces needed to capture a safe zone large enough to build an airfield for an eventual attack on the nearby island of New Britain, the final Japanese stronghold in the region. From there, the Allies would hop from island to island until they were within bombing range of Japan itself.

The campaign in the Pacific depended on 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.

A Different Kind of Soldier

Alene Erlanger was a 46-year-old New Jersey socialite with a love for show poodles when Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941. Days after the attack, she invited her friend Roland Kilbon, a journalist who covered the dog world, to lunch. “Other countries have used dogs in their armies for years and ours have not,” she told him. “Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munitions plants and such.” Erlanger envisioned dog owners around the country grooming a new kind of warrior for a new war. Kilbon agreed, and the two created Dogs for Defense, an organization that would train dogs for the military.

They were promptly stonewalled. At the outset of World War II, the United States Army had just a handful of sled dogs in Alaska. Otherwise, the Army wanted nothing to do with dogs or animals of any sort. Over the years, jeeps had replaced horses, trucks had taken the place of pack mules, and radios had made carrier pigeons obsolete. Even casualty dogs, which during World War I brought medical supplies to men wounded in the field and stayed by their side until a medic arrived, were considered quaint.

But that wasn’t a sentiment shared by everyone. At the outbreak of World War II, the Germans had an estimated 2,00,000 highly trained dogs trotting at the heels of their armies. They even sent 25,000 trained sentries to the Japanese military. The British and French established their own war dog programs in the early 1940s. The United States was the holdout.

Then, in June 1942, in the dead of night, four German saboteurs laden with high explosives, detonators and timers landed on Long Island, New York. 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, but the incidents showed how vulnerable munitions factories and other high-value operations were. Facing a shortage of men due to the war, the government reluctantly realized the country needed dogs to patrol 5,954 km of unguarded coastline. Erlanger went to work.

She had a talent for attracting the interest of well-heeled and quirky personalities. Hollywood actress Greer Garson gave Dogs for Defense her prized poodle, Clicquot. Popular singer Rudy Vallee enlisted his Doberman pinscher, King. Ezio Pinza, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, donated his two Dalmatians along with an album of his singing, instructing the handlers to play the record for them if they got lonely.

Motivated by a desire to help, Americans sent dogs from all corners of the country. Brothers Max, Morris and Irving Glazer of the Bronx in New York City owned Caesar, a purebred German shepherd. Caesar was big, with a black-and-grey coat and a graceful stride. And he was smart.

image-105_051723020330.jpgScout and messenger dogs patrolling a captured trail on Bougainville with Marines; photo: ©Interim Archives/Getty Images

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 and tell Caesar to “take it to Mom.” The dog would carry the package through the city blocks to the door of the Glazers’ fourth-floor apartment without trying to eat the contents—even steak.

When the war broke out, the Glazer brothers headed into the military, leaving Caesar in their mother’s care. With the boys away, the dog grew morose. He needed purpose. So, after consulting with her sons, Mrs Glazer signed the shepherd up for the war effort. He soon shipped out to an Army camp for training.

On Long Island, New York, Joseph Verhaeghe was making his own painful decision. As a teenager during World War I, he had watched his infant sister be killed when the Germans invaded Belgium. As a grown man, he moved to the United States, married, and had a son named Bobby. Then war broke out again. Verhaeghe was determined to join up to fight for his family, but he was rejected because of his perforated eardrum.

When he learned of Dogs for Defense, desperate for some way to contribute, Verhaeghe decided to enlist Jack, the family’s Belgian sheepdog, a slinky relative of the German shepherd. Jack was a good boy with a mischievous streak who gulped down the ice cream of neighbourhood children when they weren’t looking.

Verhaeghe hesitated to send the dog off until 11-year-old Bobby tearfully announced, “Pop, if Jack can save lives, I want him to go in.” And so Jack went off to war.

Meanwhile, a prim Doberman named Andreas von Wiede-Hurst—known as Andy to most—was about to join the war effort as well. Andy had impeccable bone structure, but his penchant for scrapping with other dogs led to a mangled ear, which kept him off the show-dog circuit. It was a blessing in disguise. With his good looks and even temperament around humans, Andy enjoyed a robust career propagating his genes within the elite Doberman community.

When the Marines began looking for dog recruits, Andy’s owners knew he was exactly what they were seeking—a strong, athletic, levelheaded animal with an eight-foot leap.

Training for War

All dogs went through two weeks of basic training, where they learned commonplace commands like sit, stay and come, as well as how to ride in the back of trucks on bumpy roads. They were also exposed to the sound of gunfire until they didn’t flinch. The majority became sentry dogs and were taught to growl or alert at the approach of strangers.

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 had a reception range of just a quarter of a mile and experienced interference in the dense jungle.

The animals with the keenest noses and most stable temperaments became scout dogs. They were trained not to bark when they sensed danger but rather to raise their hackles, lift their tails, 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 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.

Into the Pacific Front

In June 1943, a transport ship left San Diego, California, 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, the Verhaeghes’ sheepdog. “I think that the officers here have too big ideas for Jack and me to carry out,” Wortman wrote to his parents. “We’ll surely do our best, though.”

Rufus Mayo, an Alabama native who had raised hunting dogs, and Johnny Kleeman, a 17-year-old from Philadelphia, handled Caesar, the Glazer boys’ shepherd. And Andy, the strapping Doberman, found a brave handler in Robert Lansley, a redhead nicknamed “daredevil” for his eagerness to participate in combat. He nurtured real pride for Andy. “He is a perfect gentleman in every respect, and he’s also rated among us fellows as the best dog in the field,” Lansley wrote to his wife.

For the three-week journey, 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 Marines. “Everyone looked on us as a curiosity and wondered what we were supposed to do,” said Clyde Henderson, a chemistry teacher from Ohio and a Doberman breeder who was in charge of the platoon. “We weren’t too sure ourselves.”

image-106_051723020412.jpgDogs participated in World War I, as this poster shows, but by World War II they had been phased out of the U.S. military. poster: David Pollack/Getty Images

As the Marines approached Bougainville, the dog handlers began to worry. Would the animals panic and forget their training under heavy fire? Would they be so shell-shocked they couldn’t work? The American forces would confront members of the notorious 6th Division of Imperial Japanese Army infantrymen. 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. Adrenaline coursed as they steeled themselves for war.

On the morning of 1 November 1943, around 14,000 Allied troops landed on Empress Augusta Bay in Bougainville, which was defended by 45,000 Japanese troops. Dogs and men huddled aboard three Higgins landing craft. 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.

Hours after landing, Andy the scout dog and Caesar the messenger dog were called up for their first assignments. The Marines needed to control the area surrounding the two main trails running through Bougainville: the Piva and Numa-Numa. They were no more than footpaths, 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—faces painted green, bodies camouflaged with leaves and branches, 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 would be their eyes and ears.

If the island could not be secured, 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 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity about 90 per cent. Light rain came and went. Robert Lansley, the redhead “daredevil,” felt his heart beating in his chest. He clutched an M1 rifle and carried 80 rounds of ammunition hanging from his belt. He even had grenades in his pocket.

Lansley grabbed Andy’s leash and volunteered to lead a patrol of 250 Marines of M Company into the steamy jungle. The company commander agreed. As he jogged ahead with Andy, Lansley turned and looked at the men behind him. Really, they were kids, most about 20 years old. Some sported mustaches to hide their youth, but the bewilderment in their eyes gave it away. The faint tick-tick-tick of the Japanese machine guns continued somewhere in the distance.

The men watched closely as the dog, now off-leash, paced down the path, leading them deeper into the green wilderness. When eager Andy got too far ahead, Lansley made a low cluck sound and the Doberman pattered back to his side.

About 365 metres up the trail, Andy halted. He turned his head slowly to the left, then to the right, signalling some disturbance. Lansley made a gesture for M Company to halt. 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.

Another 137 metres along the trail, Andy stopped again. He 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.

“Well, this is it,” Lansley told his fellow Marines. “There’s a sniper back there, about 68 metres.”

The patrol leader sent Lansley and another soldier forward. In the distance, they saw what Andy had sensed: 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 tick-tick-tick. When he lost what little visibility he had, Lansley tossed two grenades towards the Japanese. Their explosions rocked the earth. 

Silence fell. Dazed, the Marines continued forward, past the machine gun nests, which were completely wiped out. The Americans had all survived. They found eight dead Japanese soldiers. Suddenly, the Marines were very glad they had the dogs.

image-109_051723020449.jpgJack, shown here with a handler, was commended for “outstanding performance against the enemy.” photo: ©Bettmann/Getty Images

A Life-Saving Dash

While Andy scouted out snipers, Caesar 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.

Rufus Mayo, Caesar’s handler, would attach messages about the company’s progress to the dog’s collar and send him back to Kleeman. Despite Mayo’s advancing, Caesar always found him again. When the Marines recovered 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.

When night fell, the Marines hunkered down in place. 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. Ambush seemed imminent.

At dawn, Mayo was bolted awake by Caesar’s growling. The private peeked out of his foxhole. Japanese soldiers had infiltrated the camp—and two of them were now heading toward Mayo. Caesar leaped out of the foxhole to intercept them. Mayo called for his companion and then watched the dog falter, skitter sideways and fall.

In the confusion, with Japanese soldiers overrunning the camp and Americans fighting them off, Mayo lost track of Caesar. After the gunfire ceased, he found a trail of blood leading into the jungle. Where the red line ended, he found Caesar bleeding and barely conscious. Mayo dropped to the ground and hugged the dog gently, just like the Glazer boys must have when he was a pup.

Three Marines jury-rigged a stretcher from two lengths of bamboo and a blanket. A dozen Marines volunteered to carry Caesar to the regimental first aid station. Mayo and Kleeman waited anxiously outside the tent while the surgeon operated. After 20 minutes, he appeared. The surgeon had removed a slug from Caesar’s hip, but the other bullet, in his shoulder, was too close to his heart to risk taking out. The lead would stay, but the doctor believed the gutsy dog would pull through. Caesar remained in sick bay recovering, with once skeptical soldiers sneaking him food while the nurses weren’t looking.

Jack, the Belgian sheepdog, replaced Caesar. A few days later, Jack and his handler Gordon Wortman were working a roadblock with E Company, which had relieved M Company, when the Japanese cut the phone line. A savage attack soon followed. Wortman took a round to the leg, and a bullet cut through the loose skin on Jack’s back. The Marine lay there in agony. Jack, gushing blood, leaned against his handler, whimpering in pain.

As the Japanese tightened the noose, with no phone line and no radio to request reinforcements or medical aid, the commanding officer said to Wortman, “Your dog is the only one we can send for help. Can he make it?”

Wortman looked at his wounded dog, pain clouding Jack’s normally intelligent eyes. “I think so, sir,” he said. “He’s got lots of guts.” Wortman tucked a request for aid into Jack’s collar pouch. He stroked the dog and whispered, “We’re depending on you. Report to Paul!” Jack warily rose to his feet and looked at Wortman. Then he turned his head toward the path and bolted out of camp. Automatic fire kicked up the dirt at Jack’s heels as the dog zagged into the underbrush.

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

image-110_051723020521.jpgWith the war now ended, this lucky dog would be going home. photo: ©Bettmann/Getty Images

Soon, reinforcements fought their way up the trail and stopped the Japanese assault. Wortman and other casualties were carried out on stretchers. 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 War Dog Platoon 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.

In all, 423 Marines died capturing Bougainville, yet no patrol with a dog on point had lost a man. The survivors of Bougainville, including Caesar and Jack, continued island-hopping, serving in Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

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 and 25 of them were killed. (In all, 29 Marine dogs were killed in action during the war.) A National War Dog Cemetery on the U.S. Naval Base Guam honours them today. 

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. The war dogs were going home.


From Truly*Adventurous (March 9, 2019), Copyright © 2019 by Truly Adventurous, LLC.

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