War Dogs in the Marine Corps in World War II
In the late summer of 1942, the Marine Corps decided to experiment with the use of dogs in war, which may have been a new departure for the Corps but not a new idea in warfare. Since ancient times dogs have served man in various ways: the Romans used the heavy Mastiffs with armored collars to attack their enemies in the legs, thus forcing them to lower their shields; first aid dogs were used in World War I; and, of course, all kinds and breeds of dogs have been used for centuries for pulling small carriages and sleds or as pack animals to transport light loads over difficult trails.
In the 1920’s, a Marine serving as an officer in the Garde d’Haiti trained a dog to work in the point of his patrols for the purpose of exposing bandit ambushes. It is probable that his experience was responsible for the suggested use of dogs in jungle warfare in Chapter 24 of the 1935 revision of Small Wars Operations, published by the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, which reads:
“Dogs on Reconnaissance, - - Dogs have been employed to indicate the presence of a hidden enemy, particularly ambushes.”
One of the authors of this book later stated that at the time the book was written it was the thought of the writers that dogs could play a part in jungle warfare and the above paragraph was inserted in the book to keep the idea alive.
The Marine Corps’ war dog training program was initiated by a letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps to the Commanding General, Training Center, Fleet Marine Force, Marine Barracks, New River, North Carolina (designated Camp Lejeune on 20 December 1942), dated 26 November 1942, directing the latter to “inaugurate a training program for dogs for military employment when personnel and material become available.” At that time 1 officer and 19 enlisted Marines were under training at the dog school at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and 4 enlisted Marines were on temporary duty at Fort Washington, Maryland, in connection with training with dogs.
In his letter the Commandant pointed out that the group of Marines at Fort Robinson was to return to New River upon completion of the course in late December 1942, and that each man was to bring back two dogs. The four Marines at Fort Washington were scheduled to return to New River about the middle of January 1943, bringing with them two messenger dogs. According to the Commandant’s letter, an additional 20 dogs would be procured by Miss Roslyn Terhune, given obedience training at Baltimore, Maryland, and shipped to New River about the end of January 1943.
After this initial procurement of 62 dogs (42 of them from the Army), the Marine Corps received its dogs from various sources, including Dogs for Defense, Inc., the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, and from many individuals who wrote directly to the Marine Corps to offer their animals on a voluntary donation basis. These were the sources of procurement for dogs for the Marine Corps until 1 March 1945, when Dogs for Defense, Inc., ceased procurement for the Armed Forces, except upon request, and commenced to dispose of surplus dogs. After that date the Marine Corps and Coast Guard established and operated a joint organization, designated “The Marine Corps and Coast Guard War Dog Procurement Agency,” which continued the work of procuring dogs for those two services. On 16 March 1945 at a meeting of representatives from the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Army, “it was agreed that, during this period when all services need only relatively few dogs, the Quartermaster Corps would procure dogs by donation only in the states west of the Mississippi River and the Coast Guard and Marine Corps would confine their procurement to states east of the Mississippi River.”
The Marine Corps continued to accept dogs by donation until about 11 August 1945. Six days later, Marine Corps Headquarters commenced sending out letters in answer to offers of donations of dogs, saying that the “procurement of dogs by the Marine Corps has been discontinued” and that “indications are that additional dogs for the military service in the Marine Corps will not be required during the present emergency.”
The Marine Corps considered breed of secondary importance to the general excellence of the dogs. Those breeds found most suitable were: German Shepherds, Belgian Sheepdogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies (farm type, with medium length coat), Schnauzers (Giant), Airedale Terriers, Rottweilers, and positive crosses of these breeds. The Eskimos, Malamutes, and Siberian Huskies, were used for sledge or pack use only. Other breeds were considered acceptable, provided the individual dog met the required specifications in other respects.
Dogs accepted into the Corps had to be one to five years of age, of either sex, 25 inches high, and weighing a minimum of 50 pounds. Each dog was tested to make sure that he or she was not gun-shy or timid and was given a careful physical examination before acceptance by the Marine Corps.
In the early days of the Marine Corps war dog training program, the Doberman Pinscher was held in high regard by the Marines because:
1) it was generally believed that the shorthaired Doberman was more adaptable to the heat of the tropics than many of the long-haired breeds (dog experts and fanciers held divided opinions on this point)
2) dog handlers were almost unanimous in their praise of the Doberman Pinscher and the German Shepherd for scout and messenger work; and,
3) in the early days of the war dog training program, the Doberman Pinscher Club of America procured a large proportion of the dogs enrolled, which means that the emphasis was, of course, on Dobermans, hence an early preponderance of this breed over others. However, the Marine Corps made it clear that it had not established a policy favoring Doberman Pinschers over any other breed. In early 1945, the Marine Corps declined an invitation to have some of its Dobermans participate in a show, pointing out that “Participation by the Marine Corps in the Doberman Pinscher show might be interpreted by dog fanciers as an endorsement by the Marine Corps of that particular breed of dog."
The majority of the first dogs shipped overseas (the 1st War Dog Platoon) were Doberman Pinschers; the remainder were German Shepherds. This proportion continued throughout the remainder of the war, i.e., the majority were Doberman Pinschers, and the remainder nearly all German and Belgian Shepherds.
When the Marine Corps initiated its war dog program the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard had already instituted dog programs and established training centers with a view to training dogs for all types of use. The Marine Corps, being strictly a combat organization, determined soon after the organization of the War Dog Training Company at New River, North Carolina, that there was little point in using the manpower and effort necessary in this dog program unless the use of dogs contributed directly to the killing of the enemy and keeping down casualties in units for which the dogs were helping to supply security. As a consequence, while at the beginning of the program a certain number of guard or sentry dogs were trained, the Marine Corps dogs were confined to two types, namely, scout dogs and messenger dogs. At that time the 1st Marine Division was still fighting on Guadalcanal, and it was apparent that the South Pacific plans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a march up the Solomons chain meant that Marines would continue to operate in jungle terrain for a while at least, where concealment by the enemy was relatively easy and infiltration tactics was the order of the day.
At first it was somewhat difficult to find trainers with a thorough appreciation of this combat angle. Many of them were selected because they had practiced in civilian life the profession or hobby of training police dogs, or similar work; consequently, they visualized the program as one of the training dogs for the sake of training. This lack of appreciation of the problem at hand tended to make the combat type of personnel shy away from the program. It soon became apparent that if the dog was to be useful in combat, his trainer and handler would have to be a good combat Marine, capable of scouting and patrolling on his own, the dog being merely the means of increasing his radius of perception.
At the same time, it was appreciated that tactical situations might arise in which an auxiliary means of communication might be most valuable; consequently, together with the scout dog, messenger dogs were trained to carry messages from one point to another.
The types of dogs which proved most successful in these assignments were Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds as scout and messenger dogs, but this does not mean that the jobs were divided between these two breeds. There were many excellent messenger dogs made out of Doberman Pinschers and scout dogs made out of German Shepherds, and vice versa. Nor does it mean that individual dogs from many other breeds could not be trained to perform an excellent job as messengers and scouts, but it is fair to say that by type and instinct for combat work, a higher percentage of successful animals were in the two breeds mentioned.
The training period at the War Dog Training Company, Camp Lejeune, covered a period of approximately 14 weeks. During the first two weeks the dogs were accustomed to their new surroundings, selected as prospects for one of the two types of work (scout and messenger) and acquainted with the men who were to handle them through their careers in the service. Two Marines, selected for their experience in handling dogs, were assigned to each dog as trainer and attendant, a relationship which was carried into combat, two Marines and the dog forming a “dog unit.” The next six weeks were devoted to training the dogs to interpret and obey the various commands and to getting the men thoroughly familiar with the mental workings and reactions of their dogs. Successful training was accomplished only through intelligent, patient, and sympathetic handling and treatment, and the chief reliance, was made solely on praise and scolding. The final six weeks of the course was given over to more advanced work, including combat work, which meant attacking on command any person or place to which the dog had become alert.
The initial advanced training for scout dogs started with the dog being fastened to a chain fixed to a post or wall with his handler beside him. A stranger then approached in a threatening manner, the handler commanding the dog to “watch.” When the dog showed aggressiveness towards the stranger, the latter ran away and the handler praised the dog. As the training progressed from day to day, the dog was shifted from the chain to the leash in the hands of the handler and the work was continued until the dog attacked persons, first on the training field and later in the woods, or jungle. In the end, the dog was always alert to discover the enemy when put on “watch” by his handler. The manner of his alerting could take various forms, one might strain at the leash, another show general excitement, another by crouching. Whatever the method, the handler, during the training, learned to “read” his dog’s reactions and act accordingly.
Messenger dogs were trained by first having one of the handlers move away a few yards. The other handler then put the messenger collar on the dog and ordered him to “report.” The first handler then called the dog, and, when the dog reported, praised him. By slow degrees the distance between the distant handler and the dog was increased until the former was out of sight and sound. Finally, the messenger dog would travel several miles from one handler to the other. In this way communication could be established between patrols and outposts and the command post.
Throughout their training the dogs, both Scout and Messenger, and their handlers were subjected regularly to both small arms and high explosive gunfire.
The handlers were selected for their intelligence, character, and physical ability as well as previous training as scout-snipers without dogs. When such men were not available, they had to be trained as scout-snipers concurrently with the dog handling. Since dogs, from the point of view of training, can only respond successfully over limited periods, it was possible to spend half the time of the men training dogs, and half the time training the men as scout-snipers. Paradoxically enough, the dog on duty could out-class a man in alertness, lack of sleep, and in general condition, but in actually learning his lessons it was found necessary to give frequent breaks and not spend too many hours a day on the lessons. Previous experience as a dog handler was not a prerequisite, but men who had associated with animals and had that indefinable ability to read their minds and understand them, were the most successful.
A high percentage of the best handlers came from farms where they had handled hunting dogs and farm stock. There was no known means of compelling a man to be an expert dog handler. Some men soon learned that they were not war dog men and were immediately transferred to other duty. In the same way, the dogs who demonstrated that they did not have the qualities to be a war dog in the Marine Corps were returned to their former owners.
Before leaving the War Dog Training Company at Camp Lejeune, the men and dogs were formed into platoons consisting of 1 officer, 65 men, and 36 dogs (18 scout and 18 messenger). One man was assigned to each of the 18 scout dogs as handler and two men to each of the 18 messenger dogs as handlers. The unit was further divided into three squads composed of 6 scout dogs and 6 handlers, 6 messenger dogs and their 12 handlers and a noncommissioned officer in charge. In addition, there were six supernumeraries, two for each squad, who provided a relief for the regular handler in case of illness or casualty, and a platoon sergeant.
A war dog platoon was assigned to a Marine infantry regiment, the officer serving on the regimental staff as advisor in the use of dogs, as well as commanding the platoon. The tactical use of the dog platoon depended upon the mission of the regiment and its subordinate units, and could be used as a unit or be subdivided to any degree down through the lower echelons.
The first Marine Corps dog unit sent to the Pacific, the 1st Marine War Dog Platoon, sailed from San Diego, California, 23 June 1943, and arrived in the South Pacific on 11 July 1943. This unit went into combat during the Bougainville operation, November 1943, attached to the 2d Marine Raider Regiment (Provisional). These Marine Raiders were enthusiastic over the performance of the war dogs in the Bougainville operation, as indicated by the official report of the Commanding Officer, 2d Marine Raider Regiment (Provisional). The report states that:
“The War Dog Platoon had proven itself to be an unqualified
success and the use of dogs in combat was on trial. This first Marine War
Dog Platoon was admittedly an experimental unit and minor defects were
found that need to be remedied. But the latent possibilities of combat dog
units proved itself beyond any doubt. To prove this only a few of the feats
of the dogs need to be cited.
“(1) On ‘D’ day Andy (a Doberman Pinscher) led ‘M’ Co.
all the way to the road block. He alerted scattered sniper
opposition and undoubtedly was the means of preventing
loss of life.
“(2) On ‘D’ day Caesar (a German Shepherd) was the only
means of communication between ‘M’ Co. and Second
Battalion CP, carrying messages, overlays and captured
Jap papers. One’s’Plus 1, ‘M’ Co. ‘s telephone lines were
out and Caesar was again the only means of communication.
Caesar was wounded on the morning of ‘D’ plus 2 and had
to be carried back to Regimental CP on a stretcher, but he
had already established himself as a hero. While with ‘M’
Co. he made official runs between company and Battalion
CP, and on at least two of these runs he was under fire.
“(3) Otto (a Doberman Pinscher) on ‘D’ plus 1 while
working ahead of the point of a reconnaissance patrol,
alerted the position of a machine gun nest and the patrol
had time to take cover with no casualties when the machine
gun began firing. Otto alerted the position at least one
hundred yards away.
“(4) On ‘D’ plus 6 Jack (a German Shepherd) was shot in the
back but even though wounded carried the message back
from the company on the road block that the Japs had
struck and sent stretcher bearers immediately. This was
a vital message because the telephone lines had been cut.
One of Jack’s handlers, Wortman, was wounded at the same
time and thus Jack was the means of bringing help to
“(5) On the night of ‘D’ plus 7 Rex (a Doberman Pinscher)
alerted the presence of Japs in the vicinity. At daybreak
of ‘D’ plus 8 the Japs attacked. This was not a surprise,
however, because the dog had already warned of their
“(6) During the night of ‘D’ plus 7 Jack (a Doberman
Pinscher) frequently alerted a tree near ‘M’ Company
CP. When it became light enough in the morning Jack’s
handler pointed out the tree to a B.A.R. man near him.
A Jap sniper was shot down out of the tree. This sniper
was in a position to do real damage in the company C.P.,
but due to Jack, the sniper was eliminated.
“(7) Night security is an intangible. Dogs on night security
have less chance to show spectacularly how they may
be the means of saving life. One fact stands out, and
that is that the troops have confidence in the dogs.
“(8) From ‘D’ day until the Second and Third Battalions
were relieved from front line duty on ‘D’ plus 8, there
were dog squads with every company on the front line.
“More instances could be cited but this should suffice to
show that the dogs have proven themselves as message carriers,
scouts, and vital night security; and were constantly employed
during the operation of securing and extending the beachhead…”
The above report recommended that 50% of the dogs be trained as messenger dogs and 50% as scout dogs, as the “Red Cross dogs and so called watch dogs have not been of value in this operation.” The report also recommended that the dog handlers be given a thorough course in scouting and sniping and that only the messenger dogs have two handlers.
In addition to the Bougainville operation (1 November to 15 December 1943), the
Marine Corps used war dogs in the Guam (21 July to 15 August 1944), Peleliu (15 September to 14 October 1944), Iwo Jima (19 February to 16 March 1945), and Okinawa (1 April to 30 June 1945) campaigns, in the mopping up operations on Saipan, and in the occupation of Japan. A number of dogs were cited for outstanding performance during the various operations in alerting enemy ambushes and positions, thereby saving the lives of many Marines.
USMC History Division