September 11, 2015 | Posted in War Dogs
In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, it was common to see a returning, wounded vet walking or being wheeled off an Air Force carrier. But one day, at Kelly Airfield in Texas, a very special veteran arrived. He was an 85-pound German Shepherd named Nemo, considered every bit the war hero that many of the other soldiers were. He was one of the first, and the few, Vietnam war dogs to be given passage back home to the United States.
The handsome black and tan Nemo was born in 1962, belonging to an Air Force Sergeant. When he was 1 ½ years old, he was purchased by the military and entered 8 weeks of sentry dog training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The Air Force had been planning to send dogs into battle and the military wanted to be prepared if final approval for the effort came from the government. In late 1965, dogs were given the stamp of approval. In January of 1966, Nemo’s left ear was tattooed with serial number A534 and he was sent into active duty – one of the first military dogs to go to Vietnam. At first, there were 99 dogs performing sentry duty throughout Vietnam – later in 1966 there would be more than 500 teams of dogs and soldiers, assigned to 10 bases.
His first handler was Airman Leonard Bryant, Jr. The two were assigned to patrol the 377th Air Police Squadron at the Tan Son Nhut base, near Saigon. Nemo, as well as fellow 377th Squadron dog soldiers Rebel, Cubby and Toby, were to become the first line of defense in case of an attack from the Vietcong. Each dog and soldier spent the night alone in their particular area of the base, patrolling the perimeters to spot any intruders. The dogs were trained to be the first to detect trouble and their training prepared them to notify their human security partner by way of a look or movement, to maintain silence, while the dogs further investigated and the humans, if need be, radioed for backup.
Original handler Airman Bryant, Jr. returned to the U.S. and was replaced by 22-year-old Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg. He and Nemo bonded and were reported to make an excellent team. This would be put to the test on an early December night in1966, when they began their patrol. Two Vietcong units tried to infiltrate the base. The military dogs got the word out, raising the attention of members of the 377th, who fought hard against the intruders for seven long hours. When the battle was over, three Airmen and their team member dogs (Rebel, Cubby and Toby) were dead.
The following night, December 4, brave Airman Thorneburg and his partner Nemo pulled duty near a graveyard next to the base runways. It was assumed that there could be remaining Vietcong who remained from the previous night, waiting to attack again under the cover of darkness. Early in the shift, Nemo sensed something. His eyes grew wide and his hair stood on end. He warned Airman Thorneburg, but before the soldier could radio for help, gunfire erupted and four Vietcong attacked. Thorneburg was shot in the shoulder – Nemo was hit in his face, under his right eye. But Nemo was not going down without a fight. He lunged at the enemies, buying Thorneburg time to call for backup. While waiting for help to arrive, 85-pound Nemo, bleeding but loyal, crawled across the body of his partner, guarding him from further harm.
Before the battle was over, two Vietcong were killed and the others “handled”, according to the official report. As for Airman Thorneburg, he said a painful goodbye to his faithful partner and was rushed to a nearby hospital. Nemo was taken to an emergency care vet, who performed skin grafts on the dog’s face and did a tracheotomy to allow him to breathe easier. Unfortunately, his right eye could not be saved.
Both “soldiers” recovered but were not reunited. In early 1967, Nemo was returned to Lackland Air Base in Texas, via a very long series of flights that included stops in Japan, Hawaii and California. At each stop, a vet was on hand to examine him – he was, after all, a war hero. He received his hero’s welcome when he stepped off the plane for the last time, at Lackland, and was allowed to live out his remaining days in glory. He was given a special kennel area on the base and spent time as a recruitment dog, encouraging further use of canines in battle.
The brave and trustworthy Shepherd lived until 1972 and was given a burial on the grounds of the base. But that is not the end of the story.
In 2003, a group of retired Military Working Dog Handlers met for a reunion at Lackland, and one of their visits included a trip to the base. They knew of Nemo’s legacy and wanted to see his former kennel. Unfortunately, only crumbling borders and a barren pad remained. Many of the current military personnel were unaware of the significance of the dog who had saved not only his partner but potentially many other soldiers that night in 1966. The retirees formed “Nemo’s War Dog Heroes Association” and raised funds to refurbish the dog’s kennel to a place of appropriate stature.
Today, the kennel has been restored, a sign hangs nearby declaring it Nemo’s former home, and a memorial stone explains the story of Serial Number A534, who fought so bravely many years ago.