Dogs have always been important to Michael White of Starkville, Miss., although he has not had one of his own in the last 50 years.
Every morning, White looks at the photo of the last dog he shared his life with, Duke, the dog that possibly saved his life and many others.
Duke was a military working dog during the Vietnam War. He was the property of the U.S. government with his identification number 61A6 permanently tattooed in blue ink into his right ear. Duke was issued to White, a new dog handler in the Army's 44th Infantry Platoon Scout Dogs when he arrived in Southeast Asia in January of 1970.
Before going to Vietnam, White and his family lived in Buffalo, N.Y. His first dogs were Happy, a "mutt," and Rolf, a Gordon Setter. Rolf was White's partner through his adolescence into adulthood.
As the war in Vietnam was at a fever pitch in 1969, White had finished college with a degree in arts & sciences and communication and two years in the ROTC program. He enlisted in the Army before he would inevitably be drafted. After basic training and advanced infantry training, White went to Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga. but withdrew. He found an opportunity to become a military dog handler, and that called to him.
"That was offered to us, and I've always liked animals. I liked dogs," White said. "So, I jumped at that opportunity. I saw it as an opportunity to do something I really would like."
In the fall of 1969, White entered the three-month program, overseen by the Marine Corps and run by the Army, to learn the ways of scout dog handling. The training began with classroom work, but soon, the trainees were introduced to their dogs. White was assigned a Doberman Pinscher named Baron. Like most military dogs of the era, Baron was likely a family pet donated to the military. Because there were no military breeding programs in the U.S., civilians were requested to offer their dogs, primarily German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, or retrievers, breeds with known skills for tracking or aggressive natures.
Baron was 3 or 4 years old when paired with White. He was mature and experienced at following commands. Such training dogs were used to teach new handlers how to communicate with their dogs and build the handler's confidence, rather than giving them puppies.
"It wasn't like we were teaching them. (The dogs) were teaching us," White said. "We learned to read their body language and understand when they alerted, sensing wind movement or smells. We had to just watch every non-verbal behavior and learn to interpret it.
"It was a higher sense of feeling. It's hard to describe, but we were getting a heightened awareness and mindfulness of the dog's demeanor," White said.
Following the handler's school, White was on leave during Christmas of 1969. The following January, he was issued jungle boots and headed to Vietnam, where he would be assigned a new dog, leaving Baron behind to train the subsequent student handlers. By this time in the war, the U.S. had withdrawn nearly 60,000 troops, but the military still needed scout dogs.
In Vietnam, the handlers were taken out to meet their canine partners for the first time.
"We got to walk around and meet all kinds of different dogs, German Shepherds and Shepherd mixes, and I picked out the one I wanted, but they said, 'No, this … this is your dog," White recalled.
There stood a mature, 85-pound, German Shepherd that had already seen an abundance of action in the combat zone. His tongue dangling from his mouth, he had dark, silvery-grey fur with light, golden hair around his eyes, eyes that carefully considered his new handler. White thought he must have been five or six years old.
White suspects Duke recognized that his fatigue clothes were new and clean, unlike those of the veteran soldiers that Duke was used to seeing. Duke gave him a look that seemed to say, "Rookie." The dog would teach White more than the young soldier would ever teach him.
"I was going by how pretty the other dogs were, but I am delighted they did not give me the other one I wanted just based on looks," White said. "I hadn't seen Duke at first, but I thought he was beautiful, a very mild-mannered dog, and very calm and obedient.
"They gave me a seasoned, experienced dog. He had been wounded before I got him. I don't know where he had been before, but I was allowed to look at his medical records one time, and that's how I saw a list of his injuries. Part of his tail was missing. If I recall correctly, he had been hit in the shoulder, light shrapnel, I think, but having half of his tail … almost half of his tail gone … that startled me."
23-year-old White realized how close the war now was. As a scout dog handler, he would walk with Duke on point, the front position in a group of patrolling soldiers. They would look, listen and smell for the enemy, and he would have to know how Duke would respond when the enemy was close.
White was surprised that Duke was as mild-mannered as he was after all the action he had experienced. In addition to the fighting, the training methods of the day were harsh. Young Vietnamese boys were hired to "come up and hit the dogs." This training was done to instill in the dogs a dislike for the Vietnamese. This method shocked White because if a soldier hit his dog, he could be court-martialed, and "they paid them to do it."
After hitting the dogs, the Vietnamese kids would hide nearby, and the handlers were to watch and learn how their dogs responded to their abuser's presence when the dogs detected them in hiding. What was the dog's body language telling you? What did they do with their tail? How did they hold their ears? Did their hackles raise? What was their posture? The handler's life and that of other soldiers on patrol would depend on the handler recognizing the indications of his dog.
The dogs understood that their American handlers and soldiers walked differently and smelled differently than the Vietnamese due to diets and grooming standards. The dogs were taught to dislike or fear the Vietnamese.
"We were looking for the dog's alert, reading their behavior," White said. Duke "hated the Vietnamese."
Duke's training was not that of a guard or attack dog, but White recalled an incident where Duke once lost his cool. After a tiring patrol, Duke was supposed to be placed in his kennel at base camp, but being worn out, White decided to let Duke sleep under his bunk as he laid down next to him.
"I had my leg up against the side of the cot so that he couldn't get out. I had my M-16 in a corner, and I hadn't unloaded it … I was supposed to, but I didn't. And, the civilian Vietnamese "hooch maid" came in, and I was lying there. She wasn't that far from my M-16," White said.
"She was looking at my M-16, and I moved my leg and (Duke) started to come out at her, and he could really be like a bullet," he said. The woman retreated in fear of the large, angry dog. "He never did anything like that again, but he hated Vietnamese. I had to watch him around Vietnamese from then on."
The jungles of North Vietnam could be thick with brush, razor grass, and trees, sometimes blocking out the sunlight, and wrought with insects of every description, poisonous snakes, and crocodiles. Where they existed, pathways were typically narrow and often avoided.
The enemy were experts at laying traps, landmines, and ambushes for American soldiers. In a straightforward fight, the Americans would typically have the advantage of superior weapons, training, and airpower. Still, the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong guerillas did not always engage in a straight fight. Often, they would use bunkers or tunnels to move about, hit the Americans quickly, and disappear into the jungle before reinforcements could be brought into the fight. A barking dog could quickly bring about an enemy attack on a small, patrolling American unit. In addition, because they were so effective in their work, the North Vietnamese reportedly offered bounties to their soldiers for killing a dog or handler.
White knew he was a long way from home.
In the field, Duke was a quiet professional. Duke watched, listened, and "tested the air" with his nose. White also took to doing the same, constantly paying attention to the wind and its direction and speed, trying to get a sense of what Duke was able to understand. "I did it for years after I left Vietnam," he said. As for smell, White's human nose with its mere 5 million scent receptors would be no match for Duke's 300 million. That was why Duke was there, and it was the handler's task to make the most of it.
In college before joining the Army, White said he had taken a climatology course, but, not being part of his major studies of communication and history, he admits he did not take it very seriously. Now in Vietnam, he wished he had paid more attention to the things about the wind.
"I don't think I was listening," he said. "It would have been the most important class I would have had. I did it as something that I was never going to need for anything, but it was fun. Well, this I needed at the time. This I needed."
White recalled a training patrol with Duke, his first patrol in Vietnam near Cu Chi, designed to get new soldiers accustomed to fieldwork. Since the enemy often did not have uniforms, they blended in among the regular people. He was struck by how civilians could go about their everyday business in close contact with a patrolling group of soldiers. Such things were frightening to a young, fresh soldier.
"Duke taught me patience, to be calm, and he was very quiet. When we moved through the jungle, he never barked. He almost never barked except at base camp," White said.
Duke was the experienced veteran of war that helped suppress the fear of his young American handler. Step by step, they patrolled, Duke scanning, sniffing, and listening to the jungle, White's eyes on the dog with half of a tail. When they laid down to sleep, White's M-16 was tied to one hand, and Duke's leash was tied to the other. Duke's warmth and his smell provided comfort and security to 23-year-old White in a time and place where secure feelings were hard to come by.
"I think about that a lot," White said.
As a scout dog team, White and Duke would often be assigned to patrols with different military units and numbers of men. They would typically escort a squad of approximately ten soldiers, or perhaps a platoon of 30 or more men. Each mission was different. Often, they would operate from a fire support base, usually a company-sized temporary base of about 200 men, to provide artillery and some fortification to soldiers in remote areas and protect the main base. Patrols from the firebase could last from a few hours to several days.
"In the jungle on patrol, you tried to feel what's going on around you. You tried to pay attention to everything. You immerse yourself in it … to feel the jungle," White said. "And, that type of awareness stays with you for years.
White recalled that although being on point was a dangerous place, there was a sense of normalcy about the danger over time. He felt more in control of the situations that arose than when in the middle of a formation.
"You would think you'd hate it, but you don't. When you're not doing it, you're not happy," he said.
"When you got up in front, you would watch the dog, and you were always trying to learn what it was when they twitched their ear or their nose. You're just watching them, and you're focused totally on it," White said.
From a patrol in the Mekong Delta in 1970, White recalled a particular incident when Duke likely saved many lives. A perimeter had been established for a large group of soldiers to make camp. Duke was lying asleep when all of a sudden, he started growling.
"I wondered what it was. I realized that something was not right. I hit the guy next to me, tapped him on the arm," White said. "There's something out there. He told me to be cool, and I had to get Duke under control … pull him in close to me."
Duke had detected a significant movement of North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers nearby. White said the most enormous battle he was ever involved in ensued. Fighting included American aircraft and gunships and lasted for an hour and a half.
"I didn't know what it was until I watched it in a documentary," White said. "He might have done something in that instance that was really big. I was a little shaken. I was hanging on to the dog."
On another occasion, White was with Duke on patrol near the Vietnamese border with Cambodia; Duke found a large bunker complex, tunnels dug by the enemy to move men and supplies around undetected. Although no enemy soldiers were discovered in the bunker, it was an important discovery in the war effort.
White's time in Vietnam was cut short after about six months in June 1970 when he received word from the Red Cross that his father had passed away. He and Duke had just returned from a 10-day patrol in the mountains near Tay Ninh, and he only had two hours to catch a helicopter to begin his trip back home.
He returned home on leave, and after a 30-day leave extension to assist his mother, the Army decided to reassign White to the States. His new assignment in Geneva, N.Y. would only be an hour away from his mother in Buffalo. He would help her during rough times after his father's passing, but he would never see Duke again. By this time, the U.S. had withdrawn 110,000 soldiers from Vietnam, and White said the Army was not interested in sending him back.
When thinking back to Duke, 75-year-old White admits that the loyalty he had for his war dog had much to do with his holding out on getting a dog once back home.
"I think about him all of the time. I look at him every morning. I think about how loyal he was. He was my best friend there. I trusted him with my life," White said. "He knew when I told him I was leaving. Just walking up to him, I could tell, but I told him I was coming back … I got on my knees, and I said, 'I'll be back.'
"I feel very guilty about not going back."
Initially, Duke was not reassigned to another handler as his unit expected White to return, but Duke would eventually do his duty with another soldier. Unlike the war dogs of World War II that were typically given an honorable discharge and sent back home to the families who donated them, the war dogs of the Vietnam era were considered expendable, surplus equipment by the military. Most dogs used in Vietnam were either put down or given to the South Vietnamese Army, just like equipment. Most handlers never knew what exactly
happened to their dogs at war's end.
White assumed that Duke was likely euthanized as the war wound down.
Of the more than 4,000 dogs that served in Vietnam, only about 250 returned to the U.S. The military powers decided that dogs with such harsh experiences would not likely make suitable pets, and the risk of them bringing home a disease was too great.
After the war, White said times were not easy for Vietnam veterans to find work. He enjoyed learning, so he went back into academia, his original life-long plan. After earning his doctorate in Business Administration, he began teaching. Along with his wife, Rebecca Long, also a college professor, White ultimately came to Mississippi State University to lead business strategy classes. He is retired now.
White never had another dog after Duke until recently when he decided it was now the time.
"I have a picture of Duke. I look at him every morning. I figured that, you know, dogs were a part of my early life. I enjoyed them so much that at the end of my life, I probably should get back into dogs again," he said.
A few months ago, White and his wife brought a chippy English Spring Spaniel puppy into their lives. After the poet Dylan Thomas, they named him Dylan, incidentally the same as singer-songwriter Bob Zimmerman chose for his stage name, Bob Dylan.
Dylan does not remind White of Duke in any way, he said. Just the same, while practicing leash walking at Awesome Dog Academy in Tupelo, White watches Dylan in the same way, his nose and body language. "It's hard for me. I'm totally focused on him."
And, Dylan offers alert cues, too, but for turtles on White's property, not for enemy soldiers. "He's into turtles. When he gets really excited, he does a lot of tail-wagging. Doesn't necessarily bark at them," White said.
In writing this article, research was done to discover as much as possible about Duke to try and fill in some of the gaps about a dog that meant so much to his former handler. There were many military dogs named Duke, but only one with the identification number 61A6.
Duke 61A6 was one of the lucky few that returned to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. According to military records, Duke was born in August 1967 and purchased by the Army from a man in Hazelwood, Mo., in 1968. He would have been almost three when White saw him the last time, although his experience likely made him seem older to White. Duke 61A6 returned to Lackland AFB in Texas and euthanized due to paralysis of his right hindquarters on April 8, 1975. Degenerative myelopathy, a degenerative disease that can lead to paralysis, is common in German Shepherds and has no cure.
The research into Duke's history also led White to reconnect for the first time in 50 years with another handler he had known in Vietnam, who coincidentally also had a dog named Duke. They spoke by phone for hours about dogs and the men they served with, remembering the "brotherhood" born from the intensity of war.
White had no idea that Duke had returned in 1975. Studying at the University of Georgia at the time, White said he would have driven to Texas to see his old friend had he known.
If White could have seen Duke again, he said, "I would have told him more about how much I cared about him and how important he was to me and my life.
"I am so happy that they allowed him to live for five more years and he was not just thrown away," White said. "I can't tell you how happy that makes me feel."