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Parachuting Dogs

The American military started putting pooches under parachutes during World War II

Duty For Dogs

By the end of the war, the Army had acquired about 20,000 dogs through donation and purchase, but only about half actually completed training; the remainder were “disqualified” for a variety of reasons, such as disease, inferior scenting powers, and extreme excitability when exposed to loud noises like explosions and gunfire.

The War Dog Program ultimately trained canines for five types of duty:  sentry, scouting, messenger, mine detection, and sled and pack.

World-War II Dog Rescue Mission

A dog sled team approaching the crash site of a C-47 during a World War II rescue mission. National Archives photo

Sentry dogs were taught to patrol with a handler and give him warning of the presence of strangers in the area being protected; many sentry dogs also were trained to attack on command. Scouting dogs were trained to work with combat units, and these dogs learned to give silent warning of the approach of a strange person or group. Messenger dogs were taught to carry messages between two different handlers; these canines had to be fast and agile, and have great endurance. Canines trained as mine detectors were supposed to find non-metallic land mines, trip wires, and booby traps. Finally, sled and pack dogs were trained as dog teams for transportation in cold weather terrain.

It was in the sled and pack dog training discipline that the Army first began using parachuting dogs. When Army Air Forces aircraft began flying to Great Britain, they used the Great Polar Route. This was the shortest and most direct way to cross the Atlantic, but the route passed over some of the most remote and desolate land in the world.

Inevitably, and almost immediately, some aircraft flying the Great Polar Route went down, and since motorized vehicles could not travel over ice- and snow-covered terrain, the Army soon realized that the only way to reach these cold, rugged, and remote areas – and rescue downed airmen – was to use military sled dogs. Sleds pulled by dogs also could travel much faster than could men traveling on foot. But, since time was of the essence, those who were training sled dogs decided that parachuting dogs to the crash sites would be the quickest way to get the dogs, sleds, and rescue personnel to the downed aircraft.

Military sled dog trainers designed parachute harnesses for dogs, and the dogs made many jumps. One pararescueman reported that the dogs seemed to enjoy parachuting: “They wagged their tails the whole time and became extremely excited every time they were strapped into their harnesses.”

World War II Sled Dog Rescue

Dog sleds and ski plane used to evacuate a rescued aircrew during World War II. National Archives photo

On one occasion, in a drama recounted in the Army’s Quartermaster Journal (but without names and dates), a sled dog driver and team were parachuted into Canada to rescue 25 airmen who’d been stranded on a glacier after they ran into bad weather, ran out of fuel, and were forced to land their two B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and five P-38 Lightning fighters on the ice. The sled dogs reached the crews and guided them to the coast, where a boat rendezvoused with the airmen and took them to safety.

In the excitement of the rescue, a Norden bombsight had been left on one of the B-17s. Unaware that the Axis powers had gained access to plenty of Nordens and studied them inside and out, the AAF treated them as top secret (even requiring bombardiers to swear an oath of secrecy before learning to use them). Under established procedures, the Norden should have been recovered or destroyed in place. So a sled dog driver had to be put ashore from the boat to return overland to the aircraft to retrieve it.


Rough Return Trip

The journey back turned out to be incredibly treacherous: at one point, the dogs and their handlers had to scale a 200-foot ice cliff that now blocked the return journey. But, after hauling the dogs up the face of the cliff one at a time using ropes, and then bringing the sled up the same way, the dog handler managed to reach the B-17. It took him all night to remove the bombsight. When he returned to the boat with bombsight in hand and the dogs safe, he’d proven that recovering equipment could be part of search and rescue operations conducted by parachuting sled dogs.

Other rescue dogs parachuted into locations in Greenland to bring food and supplies to downed airmen and haul them to safety, usually to naval vessels offshore.

According to the Quartermaster Corps website, the Army remembered its responsibility to its animals when the war ended and put into operation a plan for return of war dogs to their civilian owners. Dogs were sent to a reprocessing section to be rehabilitated into civilian life. Dogs were trained that every human was friendly and tested for such things as reaction to people riding around them on bicycles or placed in an area with a great amount of noise. Before return, a veterinary officer gave each dog a final check. Shipment of the dog back home to its owner was made at government expense. Where the original owner was unable to take a dog back, the dogs were sold to the public by the Treasury Department with the assistance of Dogs for Defense. By early 1947, the return of all borrowed dogs was completed.

The need for parachuting sled dogs disappeared in the 1950s when the helicopter began to gain maturity and proved a more effective rescue tool. But, while parachuting sled dogs now are a thing of the past, it appears that canines under silk are not:  Today, the U.S. Navy’s SEALs, among other U.S. forces, have dogs that parachute or rappel with their handlers into action. Cairo, a dog taken into action via helicopter, had a role in the May 2, 2011, SEAL raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...