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War dogs at Fort Robinson

Monday, August 17, 2009

War dog training at Fort Robinson.
The use of dogs in war goes a long way back in time, probably to the moment that man domesticated the dog. Dogs were recognized early on for their acute senses, their intense loyalty, their speed and stamina. In Ancient Greek and Roman times dogs were trained to attack enemies. In later wars, dogs wore armor and defended caravans. They have been used to carry messages and ammunition, and were used for sentry duty. In World War I the German Army used more than 30,000 dogs in a wide variety of military programs.

The United States Army was a late-comer in the use of Army dogs. It was not until just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941 that the American Kennel Club pointed out that large numbers of registered German dogs had been transferred from German registry to Japanese registry, and that these dogs were being used by the Japanese in their war with China. This got the attention of the U.S. Army, which immediately began a program for war dogs, which became known as the K-9 Corps.

Civilian members of the Long Island Kennel Club first instigated the K-9 Corps, in 1942, and they were the ones that first organized the recruitment of the dogs and established the training that these dogs would receive to make them "War Dogs." By 1943 over 18,000 dogs from all across the country (most breeds of large dogs were represented) had been loaned or given by their owners for Army training, under the jurisdiction of the Army Quartermasters.

The Army Remount Station at Fort Robinson, in Western Nebraska was chosen as one of the K-9 Corps principal training stations. With its large area, rugged forested land for training, its central location in the U.S., and its location near two major rail lines, Fort Rob was thought to be an ideal spot for training, and did indeed become the principal center for providing the Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard with trained War Dogs. Fully one half of all the dogs trained for the K-9 Corps were trained at Fort Robinson in Nebraska -- some 5,000 dogs, 1,700 at a time.

Fort Robinson had been established in 1874, as temporary quarters for Army Cavalry troops in their fight against marauding Indians. It seems that, though the Fort revolved around the use of horses and mules for the Army, poor sanitary conditions, caused by small animals was always a problem for the Post's Commanders. Most families stationed at the Fort had pets, and their owners let these animals run amok at the Fort. From a warning by Major Henry in the Fort Rob post paper in 1889: "Pet owners will properly train these animals into respective ways. All violators will be picked up and placed in the pound, from which they can be picked up by their owners on payment of $2 for a dog and $1 for a cat. The owner must be notified and if not claimed after 24 hours they will be shot (the stray animal, not the owner)." Ironically, 53 years later, horses and mules at Fort Robinson were only incidental to the Fort's mission. Small animals (dogs) occupied the top spot at Fort Rob during World War II.

In a very short time in 1942, a 40 acre section of the Fort was turned over to the K-9 Corps. A 20' X 250' canine hospital was constructed, with eight, 10-unit kennels and outside runs. The building had operating rooms, offices, laboratories, grooming and supply rooms. Just east of the hospital were conditioning facilities and kennels for 96 more dogs. Most of the veterinarians for the K-9 Corps came from the staff that had handled horses at Fort Rob when it was a Cavalry Remount facility.

Eventually kennels for more than 1,800 dogs were built at the fort. These kennels were built by local civilian contractors. Each kennel was a structure about 4' square, made of double layer fiberboard, with a hinged roof for cleaning. Since the dogs were large, and strong, and attached to the kennel with a 9-foot chain, each kennel was staked down to keep the animal from dragging it away.

Upon arriving at Fort Robinson the dogs were subjected to much the same procedures that the Army formerly had used for its horses and mules; the dogs were permanently tattooed with a serial number, measured and weighed, then given shots for rabies and distemper. The dogs were observed and those with obvious defects were rejected. The rest were placed in "boot camp," where they were vigorously exercised and observed for two weeks. Those deemed unfit, for a variety of reasons, including excitability when exposed to noise and gunfire, were rejected. Owners were notified that their dogs had failed. If those owners did not make arrangements within 10 days, to have their dog returned, the dog was destroyed.

Dogs for training at Fort Robinson, as well as their handlers, came from all parts of the United States, and the training was intense for both the dogs and their handlers. Dogs were trained to sniff out mines, pull sleds, carry messages, and do guard duty. Special teams were trained to retrieve air crews in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Toward the end of the war most emphasis was on the training of scout dogs, for use in the Pacific Theaters of War.

A War Dog worked hard, and received good treatment. A typical meal for a 60 pound dog consisted of:

pound cooked meat

pound raw meat

(Surplus horses and mules were readily available for slaughter at Fort Rob.)

pound commercial dog food

pound yellow corn meal

pound oatmeal (the corn meal and oatmeal were cooked for 2 hours in meat broth or diluted horse blood)

The animals were fed once a day. The din at feeding time must have been terrific. A friend of mine was an MP at Fort Rob in 1943. He says that a conversation in Crawford would be drowned out by the dogs at feeding time -- some 3 miles away.

Most of the accepted dogs came to like the training. But there were exceptions. At times a dog would go AWOL, by jumping the fence. Then an expert roper from the remount detachment was called and "a wild chase would take place, cowboy style, across parade ground, officer quarter lawns and gardens," followed by dog handlers in jeeps. When the dog was roped, the mounted wrangler would keep him on tight line until handlers with protective gear could control him and "take him home."

Most handlers came to love their dogs, and the relative isolation and the western lifestyle at Fort Robinson. But the nature of a soldier is to grumble. One anonymous soldier left a bit of poetry tacked to his barracks wall, to wit:

A shame it is that a man of my knowledge, Should ever end up in a dog training college

I think of our furloughs and rejected pleas, As I pull out the ticks and stomp on the fleas

There are thousands of ways of fighting a war, But don't let them talk you into the K-9 Corps

The end of the war, in 1945, ended the need for American War Dogs, and the K-9 Corps officially left Fort Robinson in 1946. It was a short, but important program for the U.S. Army -- and one more successful mission for Fort Robinson, Nebraska.

Source: Fort Robinson and the American Century, by Thomas Buecker.

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I wanted to write this years ago after taking a tour of Fort Rob. The thing that stuck in my mind was the numbers of dogs and that of the dogs they recruited, one of the requirements was that they had good teeth.

Thanks Walt for an interesting and enlightening read.

-- Posted by amystrauch on Mon, Aug 17, 2009, at 12:15 PM

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By