CBIVA Sound-off
Winter 1991 Issue

By Richard J. Zika

Dog Days in the CBI

China-Burma-India of WW II had to be the least known and misun-derstoff Theater of Operations in the course of the war. And, of all the outfits that sweated, cursed, and fought in this area, I have no hesitation in nominating my own unit, War Dog Det-CBI, as the least known and misunderstood of the lot.

Our group was formed late October, 1943, at the War Dog Reception and Training Center, San Carlos, California. Consisting of 100 E.M. and dogs, plus two officers, we were at that time designated the Casual Dog Det. Made up of smaller units from all four major training camps across the country, San Carlos, Fort Robinson, Cat Island, and Front Royale, our training had been oriented to attack-sentry and scout and now, at San Carlos, intensified preliminary to being assigned overseas. It was also at San Carlos that a disastrous wind/brush fire ripped through the camp costing the lives of seven dogs and numerous burns and injuries to ourselves as well as camp cadre.

Dick Zika and "Jack." (Zika is the one wearing the cap!)

On 1-24-44, we boarded the Liberty ship, BENJAMIN IDE WHEELER at Wilmington, L.A. and discover "we were to share the trip with a casual company of Remount, also consisting of 100 men and two officers, plus four casual officers being shipped over. None of us knew our destination but we did know that 208 men, their sleeping quarters, their galley, and their dining area all crammed into the number three hold did not hold promise of a luxury cruise. Our dogs (108 of them including our "spares") were quartered in their crates in the protection of two large sleds on the port and starboard sides of the ship just aft of the 'midship house and, when it came to housing, had much the better part of the deal. But neither they, nor we, had the faintest idea of what our future held much less that this overloaded freighter would be our home for the next 72 long days and even longer nights.

Completely without escort of any kind we zig-zagged our way across the Pacific and South Pacific. The food, abominable to start, went downhill from there until finally we were subsisting on canned salmon that tasted spoiled, soda crackers, and black, unsweetened coffee. On the other hand our officers, dining with the ship's officers, ate very well indeed and the growing resentment led to a miniature mutiny food riot with "Swill o' the Day" being thrown every which way. It brought the desired attention but the only result was we were promised fresh provisions would be stocked at our first port of call (which turned out to be Fremantle, Australia). While it sounded good it's pretty hard to make a sandwich out of a promise between two imaginary slices of bread and feelings still ran high.

It was in the South Pacific that we had our first glimpse of the war. Sailing through debris that could only have come from a sunken ship we finally came to an overturned, bullet riddled, wooden life boat bearing the identity of the Dutch freighter that had left Wilmington just 24 hours prior to us. No survivors. It was a sobering experience that had many of us wondering what the odds were on seeing another sunrise.

But, it was the Tasman Sea that showed us the power of nature. There we ran into a typhoon that had us scared to death not only of our dogs sheds being swept overboard but of the ship breaking up as well. Three days of storm shoved us back (we were later told) five days worth of travel time and, remembering the size of those waves and the damage done the ship, there certainly were no disbelievers among those aboard. And, don't let anyone tell you dogs can't get sea-sick as well as humans. Whew! What a mess!

At 10:30 A.M. of March 4th we docked at shed B, Fremantle, for our two-day refueling and repro-visioning stopover and, most important for us, two days of gorging our long deprived bellies. The first few hours of our leave was spent in only that and only after the point of glut had been reached were we able to enjoy the hospitality and other delights of Fremantle, Perth, and those wonderful Australians. But, on returning to the ship on the evening of the second day almost all were carrying large bags of fruit or any other edibles that could be garnered. While we had been promised improved rations, Army promises do not always coincide with Army realities and a little commissary of one's own was just common prudence. But, surprisingly, our food larders had been restocked and while nothing to get excited about, anything was an improvement over the swill we had suffered on earlier. Now, we wondered what was in store for us as we headed north by west into the Indian Ocean.

This ocean, as it turned out, was a bit of a bitch for extreme heat and humidity combined, forced us to eat the fresh fruit we had brought aboard in a hurry or lose it to rot: no way of rationing it out. Worse, the decks became veritable frying pans, blistering the pads of our dogs' feet opening the way for infection. We tried fashioning canvas booties for them but this did not work out so the best we could do was keep the decks flushed with the fire hoses and the salt water used created problems of its own. The only thing left was to keep our charges under shelter as much as possible and check closely for oncoming problems but, even so, we lost two dogs to heat related causes. It was also in the Indian Ocean that the ship's Captain, D. J. Caughlin, informed us that this would be the most dangerous leg of the trip and doubled the lookouts. Eagerly aided and abetted by a couple hundred pairs of eyes searching for God knows what. But this prediction was true as we passed through wreckage of other ships including machine gunned life rafts and - again, no survivors. Our worst worries came when we had a power breakdown of about a half hour's duration just at sunset on a dead calm sea making us all feel we were sitting ducks.

In the morning of March 21st, we dropped anchor in the Bay of Columbo, Ceylon, and this time there was no shore leave. For four days we swung at anchor in the sweltering heat. We were concerned over the effects of this floating oven on our dogs, the gun crews constantly hosing down the ammuniton lockers in a vain effort to hold down the temperature. Each to our own worry.

It was a relief to leave Columbo on the 24th and this time in a convoy of 17 ships, with an escort of three corvettes and an occasional land based scout plane for the last leg of our journey, up the Bay of Bengal and the Hooghly River to Calcutta. An older, small, freighter had to drop out of the convoy with engine problems and try to limp to shore and we heard (but it was never confirmed) that it had been torpedoed by a sub trailing behind the convoy looking for just such stragglers. Actually, after having traveled all those miles and weeks completely alone, we felt foolishly secure at having so much company.

Our trip came to a close at King George Docks, Calcutta, on 4-4-44 and we were immediately trucked to Kanchrapara where we began several weeks of frustration. After two weeks of inactivity a dozen man/dog teams were flown to Myitkyina to join MerrilPs Marauders on a sort of experimental basis and on the first night one of our dogs there was killed by a leopard - an inauspicious start. Meanwhile, the rest of us were held at Kanchrapara giving demonstration after demonstration of both sentry and scout work to Calcutta Command Officers but - no assignment. It was little wonder that we began to think of ourselves as a U.S.O. show unit for the (expetive deleted) brass.

Next, several teams were assigned to the main Calcutta supply dump and were so successful at helping cut down the enormous theft problem that people began paying attention. At the same time, word began filtering back of the exploits of our teams in Burma.

One of the Jap sniper's favorite tricks was to tie themselves in a tall tree, allow a patrol to pass by, and then attempt to pick off the rear men in a column. They soon learned that when a dog, trained to sniff out hidden decoys, led a patrol this gambit was hazardous to their health. By the same token, no patrol led by a dog was allowed to walk blindly into an ambush.

But, it was also a time of learning for ourselves. Our dogs had been trained by two methods. One was the agitation method in which the dog was trained to find, alert, and then attack. The other road was the praise system whereby the dog alerted, found the decoy, and was rewarded with much praise and possibly a tidbit. In actual practice the praise trained dogs were the best for scouting for when they made a find they would merely alert and point out the direction to their handler. However, the attack dogs were inclined to charge and one of them made the cardinal error of barking thus giving position away and in the ensuing fire fight two people were wounded. While this resulted in some harsh criticism cooler heads pointed out that it was far better for just two men to be wounded than for the entire patrol to blunder into an ambush which would not be sprung until the enemy was ready for an attempt at a "wipeout." In the end, it was the praise trained dogs that were preferred for I & R and the attack trained that proved their value in the night infiltration menace.

Jim Harrison and "Tony"; Bob Fischer and "Butch."
Myitkyina, November 12,1944

Another problem was the country itself. No matter how well the dog had been trained in the states, there was nothing that could prepare it for the alient scent, say of a herd of wild elephants or a large cat nearby. This did result in false alerts early on until the handlers could sort it all out. Regardless of problems, the successes were enough so that the call went out for more dogs and we suddenly found ourselves a hot property. Forty-three of our number were sent to Ramgarh, detached to the 475th Infantry and 124th Cavalry in training for the next push into Burma. The rest were shipped to Assam for sentry and interior guard work at the many air strips, ammo dumps, and Signal Corps outposts in the province. It was at this time that the entire scattered unit was designated the War Dog Detachment-CBI.

Our people served with Merrill's Marauders, Mars Task Force, Air Force, Ammo Ordnance, Signal Corps, M.P., and OSS Det. 101 in both Burma and China. One of our number, Don Pascoe, was killed while serving with the 124th Cavalry (he was not using a dog at the time) and the rest had their fair share of wounds, malaria, typhus, dengue, and all the other fringe benefits of service in the CBI.

We were usually dispatched to new assignments in small units and the first question on our arrival (without fail) was, "Who the hell are you guys?" followed by, "Whatta y' do with the dogs?" Each time we had to explain who we were, what we were and what we were trained for. Not too much of this was needed before we began referring to ourselves as orphans and bastards and the phrase, "Nay Momma, nay Poppa," became our personal slogan. Nevertheless, if used for the purpose we and our dogs were trained for, we could turn in credible jobs and become accepted members of our temporary military family even if it was only on a step-child basis. If misused, and what in CBI wasn't many times misused, things could become, as our British friends might say, "A bit of a sticky wicket." Eleven months after our arrival, another six K-9 men arrived and with them twelve dogs as replacements for those who had succumbed to the ravages of disease and climate, bringing to 120 the total number of dogs used by our unit during our CBI service.

The end of the war found the detachment pretty well scattered over the theater resulting in our being sent home in dribbles and dabs rather than as a unit. Possibly this was the cause of the erroneous story that our dogs were destroyed rather than being returned stateside. A story completely false for two very good reasons. First of all, the Army procured its dogs through "Dogs for Defense," a civilian agency who in turn obtained them from patriotic citizens donating their pets for war work. The explicit agreement was that any surviving dogs would be returned to their original owners after the war if so desired. Secondly, our men had a deep commitment to their dogs and had a policy of euthanasia been proposed the hell that would have been raised could not have been hidden. While it is possible that this thought could have crossed the minds of some transportation people, to the best of my knowledge it never went further than a thought.

First place squad - obedience trial at San Carlos.
Bob Gross with white poodle donated by Greer Garson.

While actual figures are not available, the consensus of opinion among War Dog Det. survivors is that 85 of the 120 dogs survived and were returned stateside. Given the disease factor, the climate and combat conditions these dogs endured, it is a tribute of the highest order to the expertise and dedica-ton of Captain George Miller, our veterinarian officer and Captain Ryland Croshaw, the veterinarian officer who was the final CO of our unit and "turned off the lights" for us in CBI. These men were outstanding.

An interesting situation developed at the close of the war. The dogs had been promised back to their original owners, yet most handlers had such a deep attachment they wanted to keep the animals themselves. To resolve this dilemma, the Army supplied the name and address of the original owner and it was up to the handler to write these people requesting them to waive their rights. While there were, of course, some turndown many people saw the love and logic behind the request and resulted in many of our men returning to civilian life side by side with the four-footed buddy they had been through so much with.

In closing, it might be well to note that at gatherings of detachment survivors the dogs, long since gone, are remembered with every bit as much love and respect as others of our comrades who have fallen by the way. A true example of "till death do us part."

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