A Dog of War

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2006

William Gwaltney

Jack was sick… violently sick. These were the roughest seas they had encountered since leaving Newport News, Virginia, twelve days before. In the hold of the ship, where it was dark and musty, and the smell of diesel fuel assaulted his sensitive nose, Jack and his crate slid this way and that. His thoughts, once again, turned to his family, left behind in Connecticut. Instead of violent seas and uncomfortable crates, he thought of sunny summer days spent running in green fields, and of napping in front of the fire on cool crisp autumn afternoons. Most of all, he thought of his boy, Peter, whom he had played with and protected, and whose bed he had slept in every night since he was a tiny puppy. These thoughts could do little to make him feel better though, when his stomach was pitching and rolling like the ship.

Jack was a handsome German shepherd that had lived with and loved his family for two years. Now World War II was raging and every patriotic American wanted to help support the war effort. His family had purchased war bonds, recycled aluminum, and planted a victory garden. Then they had done the best thing they could think of. They had given Jack to “Dogs for Defense,” an organization that acquired dogs from civilians and donated them to the armed forces. The dogs were paired with handlers, trained, then shipped overseas to work.

A Dog of War holding a dog

It was his chance to go up on deck for a while, and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine

Jack had spent six months at a training center in Front Royal, Virginia. He’d learned the commands he would need to be helpful to his handler. He had learned never to bark, which might give his position away to the enemy He’d learned to ignore the sound of gunfire and the presence of other dogs. His handler had been trained too. He had learned how to take care of Jack and how to read the signals the dog gave when he sensed enemy troops nearby.

Jack was so busy retching that he didn’t hear the footsteps approaching his crate. “What’s the matter, fella… having another bad day?” Jack looked up. There was his handler, Sergeant Mark Baker. Mark opened the crate. Jack emerged, wobbling slightly on shaky legs but happy to see his partner. This was Jack’s favorite time of day It was his chance to go up on deck for a while, and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

Jack rushed up the stairs to the deck, pulling Mark behind. Once on deck, he marched to the railing and put his feet up. Looking over the side, he sniffed the air and growled at the waves. As the pair circled the deck, they heard people calling out to each other or laughing at one another’s jokes. Toenails clicked on metal as dogs moved around the deck. A man polishing an anti-aircraft gun called out to them as they passed. Up here, the smell of diesel fuel was still present, though it was not as strong, and it was mixed with the clean fresh smell of the sea. The sound of engines throbbed from deep within the ship.

After an hour, Mark placed Jack back in his crate. “It’s OK, Jack,” he told him. “Another week or so and we’ll be in Morocco. That won’t be much fun either, I’m afraid, but you’ll get to be outside every day, and you won’t be seasick anymore.” He smiled and left, once again leaving Jack alone in the dim hold.

Ten days later, they arrived in Morocco. Far-off’ explosions could be heard before they even left the ship. Once on land, the explosions were louder and accompanied by the distant sound of gunfire. Jack was nervous at first, and he leaned against Mark for support. A jeep pulled up. “Get in!” yelled the corporal who was driving. Jack and Mark jumped into the jeep and it roared off. They reached the command post within an hour, a tent city placed close to the liberated town of Fedala.

Mark and Jack received their orders. The landscape of Morocco was well suited to ambushes. The desert made soldiers feel they could see for miles, giving them a false sense of security. Yet scattered scrub brush was perfect for hiding snipers. The Americans were suffering high casualties. Jack and Mark were to accompany troops going out into the field. Jack was to be “on point,” or out in front. He would be the first to enter unknown territory, and would alert Mark if enemy troops were nearby. It was a dangerous job, but Jack’s sharp eyes and keen sense of smell made him better prepared to do the job than any man.

A private showed Mark and Jack to their quarters. As Mark entered his tent, he saw a man sitting on a cot reading a letter. A smile crossed the man’s face. “Hi!” he said. “My name’s…” As he saw Jack, however, the man’s warm welcome turned to a frightened gasp. “What’s that dog doing in here?!” he shouted. “Get him outta here right now!”

“I can’t,” said Mark, “I’m his partner. He and I go everywhere together. We’re going to be your new bunk mates.”

The man shuddered. “All right then,” he said. He took a penknife out of his pocket. He flicked it open and reached down to draw a line across the dirt floor of the tent. “You keep that dog on your side of the tent,” he said. “I don’t want him anywhere near me.”

“But why?” asked Mark. “He’s a swell dog.”

“I don’t like no dogs,” said the man. “One bit me when I was a kid and I ain’t had no use for them since. So just keep him on your side of the tent and we’ll get along fine. My name’s Al, by the way… Sergeant Al Cooper.”

“It’s a pleasure, Al, I’m Mark Baker and this is Jack.”

Al shuddered again. “It’s nice to meet ya, Mark,” he said, “but I can’t say the same for your big furry friend.”

Two days later, Jack and Mark were leading their first patrol. They were climbing a hill when suddenly Jack alerted. Mark heard nothing but the desert wind. He saw nothing suspicious. But he knew better than to ignore his dog. There was no cover on the hill. Mark used hand gestures to urge his men back down the hill, where they took cover in some scrub brush. They had barely concealed themselves when a dozen German soldiers marched over the top of the hill. The Americans stayed hidden until the troops were almost upon them, then they jumped from their positions and took the surprised men captive. Jack had proven himself in the field.

Jack continued to work hard, and was a valuable member of the team. He often alerted the men to snipers and ambushes. They came to depend on him to keep them safe. But no matter how hard Jack worked, no matter how many lives he saved, Al still hated the dog. Sometimes at night, Jack would move over to Al’s cot and try to snuggle up against him. But Al would reward him with a hard kick and harsh words, sending Jack back across the tent to seek comfort from Mark.

They had been in Morocco for seven weeks and were out on another patrol, this time accompanied by their second lieutenant. Jack was once again on point when suddenly, he alerted. They were in an area with little cover. Mark gave the signal to stop. “No,” said the lieutenant, “you can see that there’s no threat up ahead. I say we keep moving.”

“But Lieutenant,” said Mark, “Jack just alerted. There must be some kind of danger ahead, even if we can’t see it.”

“Listen up,” said the lieutenant, “You’re lookin’ at a higher rank, Sergeant. Unless you want to lose those stripes, you’ll do as I say, get it?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Mark. He knew that something was wrong, but he had no choice but to obey the higher ranking officer.

A Dog of War dog attacking enemies

He leaped into the machine gun nest hidden behind it

They had gone no more than a few feet when suddenly, the sound of machine gun fire filled the air. The lieutenant fell immediately, along with several other men. Mark and Jack dove for cover, but not before a machine gun round tore into Mark’s leg. He cried out in pain as he fell. As he hit the ground, an enraged Jack tore the leash from his hands. The dog ran towards a small bush, dodging bullets the entire way He leaped into the machine gun nest hidden behind it.

Three German soldiers were inside. One pulled out a pistol. He had time to fire once before Jack was upon him, slashing and biting at his throat. The man tried to escape, but it was no use. He leaped from the nest, still struggling to pull the giant dog off of him. His two companions climbed out with their hands above their heads. Three American soldiers ran forward. They wrestled with the furious dog, trying to pull him away. When they finally calmed him, he ran to Mark, who was wounded, but alive. “You saved a lot of lives today, Jack,” said 1VIark. “We lost the lieutenant, but everyone else is going to be OK.”

Back at the post, Mark was attended by medical personnel. “You’re very lucky,” he was told. “This should heal up in no time. The bullet only grazed you. You’ll be back on your feet in just a few days.”

“A few days?” asked Mark. He turned to Al, who was standing at his bedside. “Al,” said Mark, “I’m going to need you to take Jack out into the field.”

“I told you before…”

“I know,” said Mark, “you don’t like dogs. But the boys are going out on an important mission tomorrow, and they need a little luck. Jack’s an easy dog to read. Besides, you’re the only other person Jack might let handle him. He knows you. Because we share a tent together, he trusts you.”

“Fine,” said Al, “I’ll do it. But I ain’t gonna like it.”

The next day, the patrol went out. Jack seemed a little confused at first, but he settled down quickly and paid close attention to Al. As they walked along, Al talked to the dog. “Now look,” he said, “I don’t like you, but we both gotta be here. I’ll put up with you if you’ll put up with me, but no funny business. Got it?” After a while, Al relaxed. He began to talk with Jack about his childhood, his family, and the sweetheart he’d left back home. Jack was a good listener.

They were walking through an area of thick brush, approaching a small clearing surrounded by low hills. Suddenly, Jack alerted. But Al was so busy talking that he didn’t even notice. He continued walking, and when Jack planted his feet and refused to budge, Al got mad. “What’s gotten into you?” he asked. “We got a job to do.” As he came to the end of the six-foot leash, Al entered the clearing. Jack grabbed the leash in his mouth and yanked hard. Al was pulled back into the brush. He stumbled and fell to the ground. “What the…” he exclaimed, as gunfire erupted all around them.

Al called for his communications man. “We’re surrounded,” he said. “We need to radio for help.”

“We can’t,” the young man replied. “The radio’s been completely shot up.”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Al. “We’ll send Jack for help.”

“Sorry,” said the communications guy “I know a little about dogs. Our army dogs are mostly trained to do one job. There are sentry dogs and scout dogs and messenger dogs. This here’s a scout dog. How’re you going to get him to take a message back to the base?”

“We got one thing goin’ for us,” said Al. “Jack’s partner is back at that base. If I tell Jack to find Mark and turn him loose, that’s where he’ll go. Our message will go with him.” Taking the ammo pouch from the stock of his MI carbine, Al removed the magazines. He then wrote a brief note that read: “Surrounded. Receiving strong enemy fire. Need help NOW” Looking at a map, Al added their coordinates, then placed the message in the pouch and attached it to Jack’s collar. “All right fella,” he said. “It’s up to you now. Go find Mark!”

Jack streaked off, dodging bullets until he was out of range of the enemy guns. He ran for miles. He finally reached the base, and went directly to the medical tent. A nurse spotted him first and screamed. She tried to chase him out but the dog was determined. He reached Mark’s side minutes later. Mark saw the ammo pouch and ripped it from his collar. Jack collapsed… he had been wounded by a bullet after all. Intent on his mission, he never even felt it.

Planes were dispatched to assist the men pinned down in the clearing. The troops returned to the base the next day Jack was recovering. Al fell to his knees and flung his arms around the neck of the dog that had saved his life.

Jack and Mark were back in action within a week. Shortly after, enemy resistance crumbled under the allied assault. The Third Armored Division was transferred to Sicily, and Mark and Jack went with them. They fought in Europe until the end of the war.

*          *          *

It was July 10, 1945. Jack was once again in a wooden crate, this time on a train. To pass the time, he thought of Mark, whom he hadn’t seen in weeks. They had traveled once again on the nasty ship that made him so sick. When the ship had docked in Virginia, Mark had come to say goodbye. Jack had wagged his tail hard when Mark had told him that he was a “good dog.” Jack could understand that Mark was sad, but he couldn’t understand why.

After Mark left, Jack had been transferred back to the training center in Front Royal. There he had been untrained and taught to be non-aggressive again, before being placed on this train to Connecticut.

As the train sped north, Jack observed many things. Through the cracks in the sides of the railcar, he could see green leafy trees and sparkling rivers. He saw people and cities and long stretches of cool forest. He heard dogs barking and car horns blaring. Eventually, the sound of the train lulled him to sleep.

A Dog of War meeting the dog

“Hey Jack! Over here buddy!”

When he awoke, his crate was being unloaded onto a platform. Suddenly the door to the crate opened wide. A long forgotten voice yelled, “Hey Jack! Over here buddy!” Jack turned to see Peter. It had been so long that he had almost forgotten the boy He ran to his young owner and began to lick his face. Peter sounded the same and smelled the same, but he did not look the same. He had grown. Jack did not look the same either. He moved with a slight limp and his muzzle was gray.

Peter threw his arms around the dog and gave him a big hug. “What do you think, boy?” he asked. “Should we go home?” Home was a word that Jack had not heard in a long time, but he remembered it. Home was family, and the cat to bother, and barking at the mailman. Home was sleeping in Peter’s bed and all that was wonderful. The war was over. Jack and Peter went home.

*          *          *

Jack spent his remaining years running through green fields on sunny summer days, and lying in front of the fire on cool crisp autumn afternoons. Occasionally, he dreamed of Mark, and his tail wagged as he slept.

A Dog of War William Gwaltney

William Gwaltney, 10
Englewood, Colorado

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