Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NEMO, THE VIETNAM WAR DOG

Nemo was a black-and-tan German Shepherd who became the first war dog brought back to the U.S. from Vietnam.  He was born in October of 1962 and the Air Force bought him in the summer of 1964 to be trained as a sentry dog for one of four Air Force bases in Vietnam.


Military working dogs were approved for use in Vietnam in March, 1965.  Forty teams of dogs and handlers had been deployed by July 17, and by the end of the year, there were 99 military dogs in Vietnam.  More dogs were sent the next year, and by September of 1966, there were 500 dog teams deployed to ten bases.  Between July 1965 and December 1966, not a single group of Viet Cong managed to get inside a base guarded by sentry dogs.

Nemo began his military career by training for eight weeks at Lackland's Sentry Dog Training School in San Antonio, Texas.  Then he was assigned to a handler, Airman Leonard Bryant, Jr., of the Strategic Air Command.  In January 1966, Nemo and Airman Bryant went to South Vietnam with a large group of other dog teams.  They were stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base with the 377th Security Police Squadron.  After six months, Nemo's handler rotated back to the U.S., and Nemo got a new handler, Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg.


During the early morning hours of December 3, 1966, a group of 60 Viet Cong approached the air base.  The sentry dogs alerted the men, who spent seven hours fighting off the enemy.  Three dogs and their handlers were killed.

On the following evening, Nemo and Airman Thorneburg went on patrol to look for Viet Cong who might still be lurking around the base.  They were fired on, and Thorneburg was wounded twice in the shoulder.  Nemo was shot through the right eye and also got a wound to his muzzle.  But Nemo didn't let his injuries stop him.  He threw himself in a vicious attack at the four Viet Cong who had shot him.  This gave his handler time to radio for help before he passed out.


The backup teams used dogs to find four more enemy fighters and kill them.  Meanwhile, Nemo had dragged himself over to Thorneburg and covered him with his own body.  He would not allow anyone to touch his handler, and finally a veterinarian from the base had to be called to get the dog off.

Nemo needed lots of medical attention and skin grafts to save his life.  He lost one eye, and eventually it was decided to return him to the U.S. for further treatment.  So on June 23, 1967, Air Force Headquarters said that Nemo should be returned home with honors.  He was the first sentry dog to be officially retired from active service.

Photo: Nemo's War Dog Hero's Memorial

Meanwhile, Airman Thorneburg was evacuated to the hospital at Tachikawa Air Base in Japan to get healed up.  But before he left, he and Nemo said their final goodbye.  Eventually, Thorneburg also returned to the U.S. with honors.

When Nemo arrived at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas on July 22, 1967, he was welcomed by a committee headed by Captain Robert M. Sullivan.  Captain Sullivan was the officer in charge of sentry dog training at Lackland.  "I have to keep from getting involved with individual dogs in this program," he said, "but I can't help feeling a little emotional about this dog.  He shows how valuable a dog is to his handler in staying alive."


Nemo and Captain Sullivan made a lot of appearances across the country and on TV.  They were part of the Air Force's recruitment drive for more war dog candidates.  After the American involvement in Vietnam began to wind down, Nemo settled into his special, permanent kennel at the Department of Defense Dog Center on Lackland AFB.  There was a sign there with his name, serial number, and details of his heroic deed in Vietnam.  Just seeing him there reminded students of how important a dog is to his handler and to the entire unit.


In December 1972, at the age of 11, Nemo died at Lackland AFB, and his remains were buried at the Department of Defense Dog Center.  He was lucky to be one of the few Vietnam-era war dogs who got to come back to the U.S.  Most were just left there when the troops came home.  Sadly, Nemo never got to live in a home with a family, but since he had never had that kind of life, maybe he didn't miss it.  Now his kennel is a permanent memorial to him and to all war dogs.


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