This story, with its human and animal participants and combat events, happened.
48 years ago in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. All that is left–after many of the enlisted men and officer/aviators have passed on to their eternal rewards–are reoccurring thoughts of those remaining who remember our unique combat comradeship and the close companionship we experienced with a menagerie of dogs and one Vietnamese pig in our unit.
The 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) was located at Red Beach on the picturesque shore of Da Nang Harbor in Da Nang, South Vietnam. This account occurred in 1969-1970. Our 50-man unit was authorized six UH-1H (Huey) helicopters. They were used to evacuate wounded and dead soldiers and civilians, from both sides of the action to battalion aid stations located at Landing Zones Baldy and Hawk Hill and to a variety of hospitals in Da Nang.
I soon learned that war was emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually disturbing. It was a world of creative cruelty…like being invited to a suicide you didn’t want to commit. Intense combat action reminded me that war wasn’t supposed to make sense. Life in this realm is contradictory. It was bloody. It was messy. It could also be silly, stupid and scary.
In my own case as a U.S. Army captain, assigned as detachment operations officer and later commander, I was involved in flying 987 medical evacuation (“Dust Off”) missions where seven of my aircraft were shot up by enemy fire and I was twice shot down in one year. During those missions and emergency moments, I quickly realized that things in combat I thought I could control were like attempting to put an octopus in bed.
When I first arrived at Red Beach, there were only two dogs in our detachment: Big Dusty and Jackie. Big Dusty was a large Alpha male and Jackie, his sister, was a smaller white female whose hindquarters had been partially run over by a wheel of the unit’s 1/4-ton Jeep. A driver hadn’t noticed her lying under the vehicle in an attempt to escape the blistering Asian sun. A flight crew evacuated her to the only military veterinarian in Da Nang who was located near Marble Mountain Airfield next to the South China Sea on the east edge of Da Nang. She recovered but was forever saddled with a distinctive limp once her wounds healed.
It wasn’t long after this accident when a variety of other dogs began to mysteriously appear in enlisted and officer hootches. It was obvious clandestine contacts had been forged in the local community, when individuals weren’t on flight duty, and word had gotten around despite the frustrating language barrier. Money talked and allowed these animals to transfer into the community of Americans.
This was something that has occurred with American soldiers in every war our country ever fought. It wasn’t long before most of us realized that these four-legged fur balls were having a positive effect on unit personnel. And rumors abounded that some Vietnamese civilians had a yen for roasted dog. So that had been used by many American soldiers as an excuse to rescue these cuddly canine creatures from what they believed was an unsavory and unacceptable fate.
Another reason was that these young soldiers, whose average age during this war was nineteen, were often apprehensive and afraid a long way from home. These dogs filled a void reminiscent of other pets they’d been surrounded by while growing up. When they took responsibility for an animal’s needs it helped take their minds off what they were forced to experience and witness nearly every day. It was apparent that they relished the unconditional love these animals brought to their combat world. This was a win-win proposition all the way around.
A dog’s innate nature to please and its constant presence reminded us that we weren’t alone. We interacted with them as if we were still 12-year-olds. In a traumatic world that seemed remote and unreal most of the time, they helped to quiet the confusing voices and persistent noise in our heads. Even grown boys without an animal companion can seem like a body without a soul. Nothing can be as beneficial for soldier morale as adequate sleep, good food, letters from home and being surrounded by playful dogs.
Most of the time flight crews returned from long and haunting missions looking and smelling like refugees from The Grapes of Wrath. Yet we could always count on this canine contingent being there to greet us, their tails wagging like windshield wipers, when our 3/4-ton truck ferried pilots, medics and crew chiefs back to operations from our flight line next to the harbor’s beach. When we dismounted, they’d vie with each other for position and surround us as though we were rock stars or gods of the universe. They always managed to wring smiles from even the weariest and most frazzled of crew members. And they weren’t impressed by anyone’s rank when they nuzzled a hand or exposed arm with a wet nose or tongue to welcome us back.
I’m not sure which aircraft commander decided to take Jackie out to our field site at LZ Baldy, 25 miles south of Da Nang, where crews would spend 5-7 days on 24-hour standby duty at the battalion aid station. It wasn’t long before everyone knew she loved to fly as much as our flight crews. She’d stand on the radio console between the pilots in the cockpit as though she were an active member of the crew.
Sometimes this field site duty could be a boring exercise if our services weren’t required in our area of operation. Other than preflighting the aircraft and taking oil samples each morning, our major goal was attempting to stay out of the heat as much as possible. We’d write letters, read whatever was available and listen to Armed Forces Network radio in our hot and dusty hootch adjacent to the aid station and landing pad. Jackie helped us deal with this downtime and would make her rounds by walking into the aid station and making friends with the doctors and medics when there weren’t patients for them to tend to.
After a number of our helicopters were shot up near Baldy, the pilots decided not to take her on any more missions. It was too dangerous. They realized she hadn’t volunteered for this duty like we had.
Toward the end of 1969, one of our commissioned pilots was given a gray puppy as a gift from his girlfriend. She was a nurse at the 95th Evacuation Hospital on China Beach who later became his wife. He named this puppy Little Dusty. She was a teddy bear, a real sweetheart and the friendliest of all our dogs.
In an effort to bond with her, he took her everywhere…even out to our new field site at LZ Hawk Hill, 32 miles south of Da Nang along Highway 1. Like Jackie, she also loved to fly. A number of times when wounded Americans were being evacuated, she’d bound off the radio console into the cargo compartment and snuggle-up with these patients. It was as though she knew they needed encouragement and a bit of canine love. Our medics mentioned, numerous times, that the wounded reached out to pet her. Little Dusty’s presence appeared to quiet their anxieties, help them deal with their pain and was definitely a unique surprise for them in the middle of combat action.
This decision was also reversed when more of our birds were shot down. No one wanted to be responsible for any harm coming to her, so she was returned to Red Beach for her own safety, as happened with Jackie. Combat flying was our job, not hers.
The next puppy to show up belonged to a pilot whose alternate call sign was “The Mexican.” He named her Pachuca which had some Spanish connotation that has escaped my memory after all of these decades. She was a light-brown bundle of energy that loved to chase her tail and perform a crazy little dance whenever someone attempted to pet or pick her up. She was a squirmy bundle of continuous motion and as perpetually antsy as a kindergartner in line for the restroom.
She and Little Dusty were inseparable. They could often be found in one pilot’s air-conditioned hootch, asleep on their backs on the tile floor, with all eight paws pointed heavenward. It was as if they were unconsciously attempting to cool their bellies from the extreme heat outside. We pilots never seemed to tire of laughing at this comical scene.
Both Little Dusty and Pachuca were as perky as rats in liverwurst. And speaking of rats, this is where our pack of dog would unite in battling a common foe, much like their human handlers. Vietnamese rats that resided in hootch ceilings or under buildings in our compound were not of the Lilliputian variety. Many of them were as large as small cats and some were known to carry bubonic plague (which we’d all been inoculated against). Black Death killed millions in Europe during the Middle Ages. I’d already evacuated a number of Vietnamese civilians who had contracted this contagious disease from the bites of fleas that these rats carried.
Big Dusty was a rat’s worst nightmare…the local enforcer. For a rat to expose itself on the ground in our unit area, with him around, was about as smart as shaving your face with a lawnmower. When he’d corner one of these sneaky, annoying and potentially dangerous critters–that carried both plague and rabies–the other dogs would block all escape routes and begin barking and growling until he dispatched this intruder on his home turf. Some rats were so big they’d turn and attempt to fight him. But that was always an untimely decision. After he’d made the kill, he’d often carry the deceased around in his mouth until he’d chosen someone to present it to. He’d drop the still warm corpse at this person’s feet as though he were bestowing a gift. Maybe he was merely making a dog point by attempting to prove that he was actually earning his keep.
Another benefit of having dogs around was that they were our early warning system if any strangers approached the detachment area. A cacophony of barking would always note their arrival. But new unit members were immediately adopted by these dogs into their inner circle because they were probably viewed as additional possibilities for play, food and rooming accommodations.
After Pachuca arrived on the scene, one of our warrant officers came home with a pig he’d procured from another Vietnamese intermediary. He named it Arnold (Ziffel) after the famous pig on the popular “Green Acres” TV comedy program of that day, even though “he” was actually a she.
This pilot built a fenced area for Arnold behind the unit water tower and officer’s shower, where water could drain, making it a veritable five-star pig sty. During monsoon season, Arnold’s living room resembled a miniature lake of sand and sludge. Here she frolicked in her own little hog heaven with its out-of-this-world aroma.
Every day, this pilot and some enlisted cohorts would bring back mounds of food on paper plates that they snuck out of the unit mess hall. For as long as she was with us, the U.S. Army unknowingly kept Arnold as nutritiously fit and fed as it did its soldiers.
About once a month, Arnold would manage to dig out or escape from her lockup situation. A cry of “Arnold’s AWOL” would resound throughout the compound. This call would usually be accompanied by intense barking from our dog pack that loved to chase Arnold around the unit area until the officers or enlisted men could recapture her. It was one of the highlights for our dogs at Red Beach when there weren’t rats to ravage.
One night, someone erected a large sign above Arnold’s pen that said “Officer’s Swimming Pool.” I believe we officers laughed harder about this than the guilty enlisted culprits (to this day anonymous) who’d put it up.
That sign remained intact until Arnold received official orders to depart the unit, over a year later, in a porker swap with Vietnamese civilians. A unit hog roast became necessary due to Arnold’s increased girth, weight and voracious appetite. But unit members had become too attached to this escape artist to do her in themselves, so they traded for a pig without emotional bonds to serve as a sacrifice in her place. To this day, the subject of Arnold and that sign still find their way into letters written to each other by unit members.
Reflecting on this time in U.S. military history, I believe Little Dusty was the most loving and unique dog in that entire pack with her animal personality that demanded to be noticed. If she sidled up to you and was ignored, she’d give a sharp bark like “Hey, you’d better pay attention to me.” It was as though she were verbalizing the following statements: “Here I am. You dig me, of course. Isn’t it about time to feed me again?”
These canine companions circulated among unit members, both officer and enlisted personnel, to whoever needed an emotional lift at the moment. None of them slept outside. They were either formally invited to spend the night in a hootch or would use their own initiative to procure appropriate quarters. They were family and we all looked out for each other.
These funny, feisty and friendly animals helped all of us cope with combat burdens, boredom and often brevity. When we were afraid, doubt-ridden or anguished, while enduring war’s trauma that felt like jumper cables had been clamped to our brains, they helped us deal with these emotions. They were our personal cadre of psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists who didn’t seem to mind living with us on our compound in what most Americans would describe as a third-world ghetto existence.
As any accurate war movie will reveal, consistent exposure to danger, destruction and sudden death can draw men and women together. Being surrounded by animals, with their unconditional love, can lighten this human burden and draw soldiers closer. It’s still apparent to me that these creatures gave us the extraordinary gift of themselves during our tumultuous moments in ‘Nam. They were a part of our lives for at least a one-year tour of duty and still remain so to this day.
Memories of the companionship and happiness they provided remain vivid with the passing of years…even nearly five decades later. It’s possible that their hoof and paw prints will remain imprinted on a diminishing group of old combat soldiers’ hearts for as long as they continue to beat. Perhaps that is the way it was meant to be.
Pets’ Hoof and Paw Prints On Combat Soldiers’ Hearts was first published by Military magazine (Cover story with photo of Little Dusty and me—also attached. Photo by Bild am Sonntag, a West German newspaper that has given me permission to publish all photos taken on March 7, 1970) on pp. 6-8 & 10.