Today in 1942, the US Army started training dogs for its new “K-9 Corps” War Dog Program. It would be the first time the American military would officially employ dogs for its operations. The project was undertaken by the Quartermaster Corps (QMC) and would go on to become an integral part of the armed forces.
In 1942, using dogs in war was by no means a new idea. More than a million dogs participated in World War I, delivering messages in the trenches and comforting the soldiers, on both sides. Rin Tin Tin was the most famous war dog of the era. He was found abandoned in France in 1918 by American soldiers. He was taken to the United States and eventually starred in The Man from Hell’s River, a silent film. Rin Tin Tin was the first animal movie star, and popularized the previously unknown German shepherd breed popular in America.
After World War I, the military stopped training dogs for military functions proactively. But when the United States entered World War II, that changed. The American Kennel Association and the group Dogs for Defense appealed to American citizens to donate dogs to the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps. The QMC started training the dogs for military purposes in March of 1942. The dogs would then be sent to the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marines.
At first, the K-9 Corps attempted to train thirty different breeds of dog. But they reduced that number to seven primary breeds that they found were most useful: German shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, doberman pinschers, collies, Eskimo dogs, huskies and malemutes. The dogs received eight to twelve weeks of training. It began with obedience training and then became more specialized.
There were four main training programs, that would train the dogs to be sentry dogs, scout / patrol dogs, mine-detection dogs or messengers. The scout dogs would prove especially pivotal, as they helped warn human patrols about enemy encroachments and prevented surprise ambushes.
The most famous dog to emerge from combat duty during the War was a German shepherd named Chips. Chips was part of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, working as a sentry dog. During a maneuver in Italy, Chips went rogue and attacked an enemy machine gun nest. The attack was so vicious that the entire detail manning the nest surrendered. Chips was wounded during the attack and was awarded a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Service Cross. The awards were later revoked when the Army barred awarding commendations to animals.