The Vietnam War is often regarded as the most divisive conflict in US history. It pitted the United States against North Vietnam and its communist allies, while South Vietnam fought for independence from both countries.

The the dogs of the vietnam war is a book that tells the story of the military working dogs in Vietnam. It was written by Michael Stern and Rick Atkinson, who researched and wrote about all aspects of this subject.

On Dec. 4, 1966, Airman 2nd Class Bob Thorneburg and his German shepherd, Nemo, were on patrol at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, approximately a quarter mile from the runway. When Nemo went on alert, they had only barely begun. Fire from the enemy erupted. Thorneburg let go of Nemo, and the two of them rushed the attackers. Nemo was shot in the head, with the bullet passing through his lips and beneath his right eye. Thorneburg was shot after killing one of the Viet Cong.

The Plight of the Military Working Dogs in Vietnam

After recovering from his wounds after fighting the Viet Cong with his sentry dog Nemo, Airman Bob Thorneburg reunites with his friend for the first time since the assault.

Despite his critical head injuries, Nemo fought on, hurling himself at the assailants and allowing Thorneburg enough time to signal for assistance. To protect Thorneburg, Nemo crept to where he was laying and covered him with his body. Both the guy and the dog survived, although they required immediate medical care. Thorneburg was flown to Japan before being transferred to the United States. Nemo was transported to the United States as a “war hero” and retired at the Defense Department Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas after undergoing extensive surgery to heal his head wounds.

The majority of military canines in Vietnam did not have such luck. The phrase “no man left behind” was not changed to include the dogs who fought with the soldiers.

“There was one set of US soldiers who, although serving valiantly and saving many lives, were either executed or abandoned by the military they served,” according to a story on, which featured an interview with former Army dog handler Rick Claggett. Those veterans were working dogs from the military.

During the Vietnam War, the US military sent an estimated 4,000 dogs to Vietnam and Thailand. Because the military didn’t start maintaining records on canines serving in Vietnam until 1968, the actual number is unclear. A “brand number” tattooed in the dog’s left ear (akin to a GI’s serial number) confirms around 3,700.

According to the US War Dog Association, just 204 of the dogs deployed to Vietnam returned to the United States or were transferred to calm parts of the Pacific throughout the war years of 1964-75. According to Richard Cunningham, a sentry dog trainer during the war, about 350 people were murdered. Hundreds more perished from illnesses, heat stroke, accidents, and other reasons unrelated to warfare.

However, this does not account for the fate of thousands of other canines. Why haven’t they been found? Simply stated, the military and Congress saw the dogs as “equipment” that could be replaced. As a result, little effort was expended in bringing them home, where they could resume their “civilian lives.”

Since World War I, the United States has used military working dogs. Many lives were saved by the dogs sent in both world wars and Korea, but many were killed in the process, just as they were in Vietnam. Cunningham said, “They liked to work only for the approval and appreciation of their handler and companion.”

Because of their capacity to detect dangers even in the dense forest, dogs were useful in Vietnam. In their nostrils, dogs have 225 million smell receptors compared to 5 million in humans. They sense movement four times faster than humans and have four times greater hearing. Scout dogs, tracker dogs, sentry dogs, and dogs trained to detect mines, booby traps, and enemy tunnels were all employed on operations in Vietnam.

A German dog and handler “walking point” in advance of a patrol to identify enemy soldiers preparing to spring an ambush, snipers, trip wires, and booby traps. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong placed bounties on the heads of the handlers and their dogs because they were so effective. 

A Labrador dog, the handler, a cover man, a visual tracker, and a team commander made up the tracker teams. Following blood trails and body stench, they would track out enemy soldiers after a fight. Trackers also aided in the hunt for missing troops and downed pilots.

Sentry teams, consisting of one dog and a handler, “walked the wire,” or the barbed wire that surrounded facilities, to provide protection for bases, ammunition dumps, and supply areas. Their goal was to “detect, hold, and destroy” enemy attackers before they got within the line, which they did mostly at night.

Mines, booby traps, and other devices that might cause US fatalities were detected by other teams comprising one dog and a human. Those dogs also found tunnels and were sometimes sent to flush out the enemy.

The Air Force had begun a study effort in Saigon to investigate the employment of dogs in the tropics even before combat soldiers arrived in 1965. The Air Force deployed two instructors and ten dogs to help with base security in 1961. The South Vietnamese, on the other hand, were uninterested, thus the American handlers returned home and the dogs were turned over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

In July 1962, the US Army deployed another 300 dogs to South Vietnam, which were handed over to the ARVN. However, issues developed soon. There were no veterinarians in the country, and ARVN soldiers couldn’t afford to feed the dogs properly. According to the website K-9 History, “nearly 90% of ARVN dog fatalities may be linked to malnutrition.” The Army sent a six-man team to create veterinary assistance for the dogs in order to enhance their living circumstances.

President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the deployment of US military working dogs in Vietnam in March 1965. The Air Force sent 40 handlers and dogs in July. The Army sent its first dogs to South Vietnam in September. Two Marine dog platoons were sent to Vietnam in February 1966. By April 1966, the Navy had also sent dogs.

In 1970, when American soldiers were being brought home as part of a multiyear retreat, the US administration started to give over many of its military dogs to the ARVN, despite the fact that the South Vietnamese military did not want or be able to manage them.

There are no records of what happened to the dogs that were left in the custody of the ARVN throughout the conflict. Dogs, on the other hand, are considered a food item in Vietnam, and it’s possible that some were slaughtered and eaten.

The majority of the surviving canines in Vietnam during the last years of the war were killed or abandoned by the US troops.

Many handlers had a different perspective on their dogs than the authorities. Claggett said, “They weren’t a piece of machinery to us.” “I had a thing for that dog. It was a live, breathing creature with feelings and the ability to play and do all sorts of canine things.” Some handlers attempted, even at their own cost, to get permission to bring the dogs home. The government’s response was a categorical “no.”

The handlers made a public and media appeal in the United States. Claggett stated, “We made several phone calls attempting to persuade others to help us get our pets back home.” In 1970, in response to public outcry, the Defense Department quarantined 200 dogs at the Long Binh base north of Saigon in preparation for a return home. U.S. Rep. John E. Moss, a California Democrat, proposed legislation in September 1970 to establish retraining or retirement facilities for canine veterans. His debt was never paid. The military soon altered its mind about the dogs. The vast majority would not be allowed to return home.

Only 120 of the canines in quarantine at Long Binh were still alive in May 1971, but they were among the lucky 204 who survived. They were stationed at Okinawa, Japan, Fort Benning, Georgia, and Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. In June 1972, the ARVN received the 130 dogs that were still under US military custody in South Vietnam.

Turning the dogs over to the ARVN or, in some instances, euthanizing them was a “cost efficient” method to deal with something that was seen as simply another piece of military equipment that had been abandoned. Bringing the dogs back from Vietnam would have been a tremendous logistical challenge, but when the canines were sent there, no one was concerned about cost or logistics.

Some estimate that America’s canine “soldiers” saved 10,000 lives, yet they were abandoned by the humans they served, a breach of the “leave no one behind” credo and a disgrace on our nation. Although there are no official records, it is assumed that all of the “American” canines handed over to the ARVN died when the North Vietnamese overran South Vietnam. One would want to believe that the dogs were taught to fight and that all American troops are trained to fight.

Dana Benner is a university professor of history, political science, and sociology. He spent more than ten years in the United States Army.

Do you have any thoughts about the conflict you’d like to share? Send your idea or piece to [email protected] with the subject line “Reflections” in the subject line.

The vietnam war dog training is a blog post that discusses the plight of military working dogs in Vietnam. The post includes statistics and facts about how many dogs were killed in Vietnam.

Frequently Asked Questions

How were dogs used in Vietnam War?

Dogs were used in Vietnam War to sniff out landmines. They can detect the scent of explosives from far away, so they are often used as a sentry animal.

Were dogs used in war?

Dogs were used in war as a source of food, transportation, and for hunting.

What was the worst year of Vietnam War?

The worst year of Vietnam War was 1975.

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