We recently did a podcast on the history of Military Dogs in Alaska and we referenced the dogs at Iwo Jima. You can listen to the podcast here.
This article is used with permission from the Dog Writers Association of America. In reading through thousands of pages of archival material on the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division at the Marine Corps Historical division, I was surprised to read how often the Marines deployed dogs in their combat operations on Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima.
According to some reports, between 60-100 dogs were deployed during the battle of Guam, with 25 of them dying while searching for the enemy and protecting their Marine masters. It was noted they used German Shepherds, Doberman Pinchers and mutts (several of these dogs were Police dogs in their earlier careers).
Some of the reports noted the mutts were the best combat dogs and could endure the hardships on the islands better than the “pure” breeds. While on Iwo Jima, I read different reports for the number of canines deployed, but at least 100 dogs of diverse breeds were deployed there to help the Marines hunt down Japanese in caves and tunnels. Often these dogs were trained to keep watch over sleeping Marines so they could get some rest without worrying about Japanese soldiers sneaking up on them, especially during the night, which the Japanese were very good at doing.
On Bougainville, it was noted in the reports that often the dogs would confuse enemy and friendly forces, and often the dogs frustrated operations, rather than enhanced them. However, by Iwo Jima it seems the Marine Corps dog handlers had refined their training methods and the dogs were noted as providing excellent intelligence and service most of the time to the Marines around them.
The dogs were probably better utilized on Iwo Jima than Bougainville, since we knew where the Japanese were basically located (i.e. underground and in tunnels), whereas on Bougainville, the Japanese and Marines were in the same general area and ALL above ground.
To describe some of the humor and problems deploying dogs could create, the following scene was laughable and frustrating at the same time when a fox terrier came up to a group of Marines in a trench on Iwo Jima; the dog was carrying a grenade, “rolling it around” and “flinging it into air.”
The dog’s playfulness sent the group of Marines in all directions. Undeterred, the terrier picked up the grenade and jumped in a foxhole with several Marines in it, forcing the Marines to spring out of the hole and find other cover. Thinking his masters were playing a game with him, the dog retrieved his grenade and “trotted after them, refusing orders to drop it.” After much yelling and pointing of fingers, the dog dropped the grenade. As a Marine reached for it to take it away from the dog, he would quickly and playfully snatch it away from his human caretaker and run away toward other Marines, scattering them.
The Leathernecks “tempted the dog with food but he would not abandon his new toy.” Eventually, the only technique was to ignore the dog and eventually he abandoned his “toy” grenade. Someone quickly then grabbed it and many had discussions with one another about future dog training. The men laughed but also shook their heads.
Dogs were part of the overall puzzle of the many tactical ways to engage the Japanese on Iwo Jima that brought the Leathernecks a victory there. According to some reports I have read (but I need to do more homework on this) it seems that after the war, the Marine Corps made sure many of the dogs found homes in the United States (often with their old handlers).
Unfortunately, the U.S. Army, instead of doing the same, chose to release them on some of the islands where they were or they outright euthanized them. If this is true, then I am proud of the Marine Corps for saving their dogs after the war.
The Corps also honored its war dog dead on Guam and built a cemetery there for them and have marked it with tombstones and a monument. It looks like the Corps took Semper Fi to another level in honoring those dogs who protected our brothers in combat during World War II.