BOOKS: Finding Jack

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2011:
Finding Jack by Gareth Crocker
St. Martin’s Press
(c/o MacMillan, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010), 2001.
289 pages, hardcover. $23.99
Finding Jack, by South African first-time novelist Gareth
Crocker, is at least the fifth book in 10 years to explore the fate
of the approximately 4,000 scout and sentry dogs used by U.S.,
Australian, and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War–a
story seldom told during the first 25 years after the U.S. left
Vietnam in March 1975, after a five-year phased withdrawal of troops.

The first book about the war dogs, None Came Home, by John
E. O’Donnell, appeared in 2001. A year later Paul B. Shaw produced
K-9 Soldiers: Vietnam & After. In 2003 came A Soldier’s Best
Friend: Scout Dogs and Their Handlers in the Vietnam War, by John
C. Burnham. These three titles, all nonfiction, appear to have
inspired Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, by Cynthia Kadohata
(2007) and now Finding Jack.
Kadohata, an accomplished literary author, is not a Namvet,
but–at age 19 when the war ended–is old enough, just barely, to
remember the context of the times. Crocker, born in 1974, appears
to have neither relevant memories nor pertinant experience, either
with war dogs, as a soldier, or as an author.
Jack, a yellow Labrador retriever, first appears after 10
chapters of a profanity-laced but not especially gripping
conventional war story. Ordered to shoot Jack, a reluctant soldier
botches the job. Relenting, the commanding officer allows troops to
carry Jack to base for treatment. Bonding with soldier Fletcher
Carson, Jack becomes the camp mascot. At the war’s end, when
Carson is ordered to board a helicopter without Jack, he scuffles
with military police who force him aboard, but he jumps out as the
helicopter lifts off. Another soldier tosses him a gun.
Carson plans to walk 50 miles to Laos–which would have
entailed crossing the heavily bombed and mined Ho Chi Minh Trail into
another country hostile to the U.S. Already mostly under Communist
control, Laos formally went Communist soon after Vietnam. Landing
in a Cambodian prison camp, Carson escapes to find Jack waiting
There is, as yet, still not a book which does justice to
the tragic story of the Vietnam War dogs. The first were deployed by
the French, who left behind kennels at Go Vap, near Saigon. The
U.S. Air Force trained sentry dogs at Go Vap as early as 1960.
Air Force sentry dogs at Tan Son Nhut in December 1966 led
the fight against repeated pre-dawn attacks by about 60 Viet Cong.
Dogs named Rebel, Cubby, and Toby were killed in action, but Nemo
–who lost an eye and suffered additional wounds–won a flight back
to the U.S. and a hero’s welcome by saving the life of his injured
handler, Bob Thorneburg. Nemo died in December 1972 at Lackland Air
Force Base, near Waco, Texas.
The U.S. military in September 1970 disclosed that no other
war dogs were to be returned home. Instead, they were to either be
turned over to South Vietnam, whose military reluctantly accepted
more than 830 between 1966 and 1972, or were to be shot. The Los
Angeles Times reported that about 3,000 dogs had already become
casualties of the war, often from disease rather than combat, and
that about 1,000 dogs were still serving.
California Congressional Represent-ative John E. Moss
introduced a bill to require that the war dogs be retrained,
rehomed, or sheltered for life, but the bill died in committee.
The Air Force in May 1971 made a show, however, of flying 15 dogs
from Vietnam to Okinawa and 105 more to Lackland and Fort Benning,
“According to the Army Veterinary Corps,” says the Dogs of
War web site, “109 war dogs died from heatstroke in 1969 alone.
From June 1970 thru to December 1972, 371 dogs were euthanized as
being noneffective in combat, and another 148 died from various
causes. During the entire war 281 were officially listed as killed
in action.”
Eleven dogs used by Australian troops were given to civilians
who remained in Vietnam after the soldiers left.
Somewhere amid the sketchy history and the unknown fate of
perhaps thousands of war dogs, a great dog story may emerge.
Meanwhile, we can only hope that the current K-9 Corps
protecting U.S. soldiers receive the respect and dignity they have
earned when current overseas conflicts end.

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