Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Dog Soldier: a short story

On November 3rd, 1957, the Russian Space Agency launched Sputnik 2 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  Onboard this satellite was a lone intrepid traveller, a mongrel dog named Laika.  Little Laika was the first living creature to successfully travel in orbit, but this is not his short story.

Laika bravely prepares for launch at the
Baikonur Cosmodrome
Sputnik 2 demonstrated to the Americans just how far ahead the Soviet space program was.  As the Cold War Space Race began in earnest, a panic set in to redress the apparent technological imbalance and prove the supremacy of the American Space program.

Whilst the Americans usually preferred using primates in spaceflight tests, for various physiological and symbolic reasons a dog was chosen for the following attempt at a planetary orbit.  So, on November 29, 1961, a young Alsatian named Major made a pioneering dual orbit around the Earth in a Mercury capsule as preparation for the following manned flight.

On his safe return, Major was retired.  As government property, Major would probably have been euthanised had he not shared his retirement with NASA Professor Daryl MacIntyre.

“To me he was a symbol of our achievement, a brave friend and a true American hero,” explained MacIntyre, “Our entire research team had bonded with him and his survival on re-entry had marked a turning point in our space program.  His neutralisation would have been a public relations disaster.”

Major enjoyed his civilian status for only a short while before Prof. MacIntyres’ son, Jamie, a 2nd Lieutenant assigned to the US Scout Dog Unit, suggested that Major could return to the service of his country.  In early February 1968, Major officially enlisted at Fort Benning, Georgia, undergoing basic training with the 48th Scout Dog Platoon. 

Filled with patriotic enthusiasm, Major excelled in his new role.  However, before Major could properly settle into the routine of the peacetime military lifestyle, the same fear of communism that had originally launched his flight into space would soon send Major on a new and very different mission on behalf of his country.  

Lance Corporal Ralph H. McWilliam & his
scout dog, Vietnam, November 1967
In November 1963 puppet President Diem of Vietnam had been overthrown and executed.  By 1964, the North Vietnamese, with the assistance of the Communist Viet Cong and aided by allies in Russia and China, began a massive drive to conquer the entire country. Fearing a communist takeover of the entire region, the United States grew increasingly wary of the progress of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, finally making the controversial decision to commit troops to liberate the region.  By 1968, the Vietnam war was underway.

Despite his advancing years, “Major the Space Dog” had become something of a troop mascot and was inseparable from MacIntyre and so, on May 27th 1968, Major bravely travelled with his master to Bien Hoa with the 48th Scout Dog Platoon.  After a month of in country processing, the platoon began moving up the country to establish a permanent base camp at LZ Sally, located about 30 miles NW of the Imperial Capital of Hue.  By August 17, 1968 the platoon had become fully operational and began its first field assignment, supporting the ground infantry missions of the 101st Division.

By now Major had ably adapted to his new role as a highly trained scout dog - capable of locating enemy tripwires, traps and troops at up to a thousand yards - but soon after arriving in the unfamiliar jungles of Vietnam, a melancholy aspect began to develop.

“Major isolated himself from the other dogs.” relates Jim MacIntyre, “You could see a change in those once loving, deep hazel eyes.  It wasn’t fear, more like a gradual loss of faith with his masters.”

US Marines fighting in Hue
During the next 12 months, MacIntyre and Major safely led hundreds of troops through the jungles of Vietnam. They were a team both on and off-duty.

As the grim reality of the war unfolded, Major - like many other young Americans both canine and human - became increasingly unstable and took to drinking.  This habit ensured he became a popular character as he often calmed himself by lounging with the conscripts who would always toss a few beers into his bowl.  Despite the obvious bouts of depression, his head always remained clear and he never once neglected his duties.

Many remember his bravery and uncanny instincts.  One particular evening, despite the fact that he was off-duty and had been drinking for hours, he sounded an alert moments before an unexpected sniper attack and this swift action was credited with saving many lives.

“His love of life and his desire to protect those around him at all costs, was his one enduring constant,” recalls MacIntyre.

Majors life was to reach its tragic end patrolling in the mountains outside of Phu Bai. The platoon had only just left their base camp when Major alerted them to a booby trap ahead.

“He was getting more agitated as the platoon prepared to move on.  Feeling he was anxious, I tried to calm him.  I had been assured the area was clear and was given the order to advance the platoon regardless.  By now, there were serious doubts about Majors competence.  He was getting old and had seen many friends disappear. I was beginning to think that he had finally freaked out.  I should have known better.”

“As the order was given to move on, Major slipped my grasp and ran ahead.  In a desperate final gesture to save his comrades, he ran forward into the dense jungle and deliberately slipped the tripwire that would surely have been fatal to the whole platoon. He didn’t stand a chance.”

Majors modest final resting place would be the Hartsdale pet cemetery on Central Park Avenue in New York.  Where a small oblong gravestone bears the name of Major along with the 12 other canine casualties of the 48th Scout Dog Platoon.

Jim MacIntyre, an anti-war campaigner since his return from Vietnam in 1971 and appearing more like an aging deadhead with his long grey ponytail and ragged goatee, remembers Major fondly,

The planet Earth from orbit
(Photo: NASA)
“It upsets me to think about Majors final moments, his life slipping away, hundreds of miles from his home and  family.  I doubt he would have understood the purpose of his sacrifice after seeing our tiny planet Earth from a cosmic distance.   He saw a view that only a blessed few of us will ever see, suspended high above us all in the heavens for just a few precious hours.  I think he caught a glimpse of our lonliness and the foolishness of our petty conflicts.

I’m sure his last sad moments were filled with both forgiveness, but confusion. He saw the best of us and the worst of us.  I think he could never have comprehended the senselessness of our war.   He thought he was fighting for a land of peace, I think in those final moments - dying in an unfamiliar jungle - he realised we were just fighting over a piece of land.  After all he had seen, I doubt he could understand us at all.”

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