Pawprints left on soldiers’ hearts

From left: 236th Medical Detachment unit pilots CW2 Dave Read, CW2 Harold “Pappy” Trafton (deceased), CW2 Burlin “Sandy” Letcher (deceased) and Major Gail Bowen hold court outside Pappy’s hootch at Red Beach in Da Nang in mid-1969, with Big Dusty in attendance. Photo by Robert Robeson

From left: 236th Medical Detachment unit pilots CW2 Dave Read, CW2 Harold “Pappy” Trafton (deceased), CW2 Burlin “Sandy” Letcher (deceased) and Major Gail Bowen hold court outside Pappy’s hootch at Red Beach in Da Nang in mid-1969, with Big Dusty in attendance. Photo by Robert Robeson

The human and animal participants in the following combat events happened 44 years ago in Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam War. All that is left — after many of the enlisted men and officer/aviators have passed on to their eternal rewards — are reoccurring thoughts of those remaining who remember our unique combat comradeship and the close companionship we experienced with a menagerie of dogs and one pig in our unit.

The war
The 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) was located at Red Beach on the scenic shore of Da Nang Harbor in Da Nang, South Viet Nam in 1969-70. Our 50-man unit was authorized six UH-1H (Huey) helicopters. They were used to evacuate wounded and dead soldiers and civilians, from both sides of the action, to battalion aid stations located at LZs Baldy and Hawk Hill and to a variety of hospitals in Da Nang.

I soon learned that war was emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually disturbing. It was a world of creative cruelty… like being invited to a suicide you didn’t want to commit. Intense combat action reminded me that it wasn’t always supposed to make sense. Life in this realm was contradictory. It was bloody. It was messy. It could also be silly, stupid and scary. And it was often so dangerous that even some pilots might have been tempted to mirror the actions of Air Force Captain Yossarian, a bombardier in Joseph Heller’s classic WWII novel “Catch-22,” who often checked himself into the base hospital with fake maladies in an attempt to keep from having to go on bombing missions. He was afraid of being killed and just wanted the carnage to stop.

In my own case as a U.S. Army captain, assigned as detachment operations officer and later unit commander, it involved flying 987 medical evacuation (“Dust Off”) missions where seven of my aircraft were shot up by enemy fire and I was shot down twice in one year. During those missions and emergency moments, I quickly realized that everything in combat I thought I could control was a little like attempting to put an octopus in bed.

Gone to the dogs
When I first arrived at Red Beach, there were only two dogs in our detachment: Big Dusty and Jackie. Big Dusty was a large, white, alpha male and Jackie, his sister, also white but smaller, whose hindquarters had been partially run over by the wheel of the unit’s jeep. The driver hadn’t noticed her lying underneath the vehicle in an attempt to escape the blistering Asian sun. A flight crew evacuated her to the only military veterinarian in Da Nang who was located near Marble Mountain Airfield next to the South China Sea on the east edge of Da Nang. Though she recovered, she was forever saddled with a distinctive limp.

It wasn’t long after this accident when a variety of other dogs began to mysteriously appear in enlisted and officer hootches. It was obvious clandestine contacts had been forged in the local community, when individuals weren’t on flight duty, and word had gotten around despite the frustrating language barrier. Money talked and allowed these animals to walk into a different community of foreigners.

This was something that has occurred with American soldiers in every war our country has ever fought. It wasn’t long before most of us realized that these four-legged fur balls had a positive effect on unit personnel. And, since rumors abounded that some Vietnamese civilians had a yen for roasted dog, that seemed by many American soldiers to be a valid excuse to rescue these cuddly canine creatures from what they believed was an unsavory and unacceptable fate.

Comfort in war
Another reason was that these young soldiers, whose average age was 19, were often apprehensive, afraid and a long way from home. These dogs helped to fill a void reminiscent of other pets they’d been surrounded by while growing up. When they took responsibility for an animal’s needs, it helped take their minds off what they were forced to experience and witness nearly every day. It was apparent that they relished the unconditional love these animals brought to their combat world. This was a win-win proposition all the way around.

A dog’s innate nature to please and its constant presence reminded us that we weren’t alone. We interacted with them as if we were still 12-year-olds. In a traumatic world that seemed remote and unreal most of the time, they helped to quiet the confusing voices and persistent noise in our heads. Even grown boys without an animal companion can seem like a body without a soul. Nothing can be as beneficial for soldier morale as adequate sleep, good food, letters from home and being surrounded by playful dogs.

Most of the time, flight crews would return from long and haunting missions looking and smelling like refugees from “The Grapes of Wrath.” Yet, we could always count on this canine contingent being there to greet us, their tails wagging like windshield wipers, when our ¾-ton truck ferried pilots, medics and crew chiefs back to operations from our flight line next to the beach.

When we dismounted, they’d vie with each other for position and surround us as though we were rock stars or gods of the universe. They always managed to wring smiles from even the weariest and most frazzled of crewmembers. And they weren’t impressed by anyone’s rank when they nuzzled a hand or exposed arm with a wet nose or tongue to welcome us back.

Part of the crew
I’m not sure which aircraft commander decided to take Jackie out to our field site at LZ Baldy, 25 miles south of Da Nang, where crews spent five to seven days on 24-hour standby duty at the battalion aid station. It wasn’t long before everyone knew she loved to fly as much as our flight crews. She’d stand on the radio console between the pilots in the cockpit as though she was an active member of the crew.

Sometimes this field site duty could be a boring exercise if no combat action was occurring in our area of operation. Other than preflighting the aircraft and taking oil samples each morning, our major goal was trying to stay out of the heat as much as possible. We’d write letters, read whatever was available and listen to Armed Forces Network radio in our hot and dusty hootch adjacent to the aid station and landing pad. Jackie helped us deal with this downtime and would make her rounds by walking into the aid station and making friends with the doctors and medics when there weren’t patients for them to tend to.

After a number of our helicopters were shot up near Baldy, the pilots decided not to take her on any more missions. It was too dangerous. They realized she hadn’t volunteered for this duty like we had. So she was left in the “Dust Off” hootch where aid station personnel kept an eye on her until the flight crew returned from its mission. When the helicopter was parked in its revetment by the landing pad, Jackie was often observed lying under the aircraft to stay out of the sun.

Jackie, in her favorite spot under a unit helicopter to escape the oppressive heat. Photo courtesy of Robert Robeson

Jackie, in her favorite spot under a unit helicopter to escape the oppressive heat. Photo courtesy of Robert Robeson

New puppies
Toward the end of 1969, one of the commissioned pilots was given a gray puppy as a gift from his girlfriend. She was a nurse at the 95th Evacuation Hospital on China Beach who later became his wife. He named this puppy Little Dusty. She was a teddy bear, a real sweetheart, and the friendliest of all our dogs.

In an effort to bond with her, he took her everywhere… even out to our new field site at LZ Hawk Hill, 32 miles south of Da Nang along Highway 1. Like Jackie, she also loved to fly. A number of times when wounded Americans were being evacuated, she’d bound off the radio console into the cargo compartment and snuggle up with these patients. It was as though she knew they needed encouragement and a bit of canine love. Our medics mentioned, numerous times, that the wounded would often reach out to pet her. Little Dusty’s presence appeared to quiet their anxieties, help them deal with their pain and was definitely a unique surprise for them in the middle of combat action.

He quickly reversed this decision when more of our birds were shot up. He didn’t want any harm coming to her, so she was returned to Red Beach for her own safety, as happened earlier with Jackie. For the final time, we realized that it only took one iceberg to sink the Titanic and one of David’s five stones to bring down the Bible’s Goliath. So it was decided not to put these dogs in harm’s way anymore. Combat flying was our job, not theirs.

The next puppy to show up belonged to a pilot whose alternate call sign was “The Mexican.” He named her Pachuca, which had some Spanish connotation that has escaped my memory after all these decades. A light-brown bundle of energy, she loved to chase her tail and perform a crazy little dance whenever someone attempted to pet or pick her up. She was a squirmy bundle of continuous motion and as perpetually antsy as a kindergartner in line for the restroom.

She and Little Dusty became inseparable. They could often be found in one pilot’s air-conditioned hootch, asleep on their backs on the tile floor, with all eight paws pointed heavenward. It was as if they were unconsciously attempting to cool their bellies from the extreme heat outside. We pilots never seemed to tire of laughing at this comical scene.

The rats
Both Little Dusty and Pachuca were as perky as rats in liverwurst. And speaking of rats, this is where our pack of dogs would unite in battling a common foe, much like their human handlers. The Vietnamese rats residing in hootch ceilings or under buildings in our compound were not of the Lilliputian variety. Many of them were as large as small cats and some were known to carry bubonic plague (which we’d all been inoculated against). I had already evacuated a number of Vietnamese civilians who had contracted this contagious disease from the bites of fleas that these rats carried.

Big Dusty was a rat’s worst nightmare, the local enforcer. For a rat to expose itself on the ground in our unit area with him around was about as smart as shaving your beard with a lawnmower.

When he’d corner one of these sneaky, annoying and potentially dangerous critters — that carried both plague and rabies — the other dogs would block all escape routes and begin barking and growling until he dispatched this intruder on his home turf.

Some rats were so big they’d turn and attempt to fight him but that was always a bad decision. After he’d made the kill, he’d often carry the deceased around in his mouth until he’d chosen someone to give it to. He’d drop the carcass at this person’s feet as though he was bestowing a gift. Maybe he was merely making a dog point by attempting to prove that he was actually earning his keep.

He and I often had our differences after I discovered that one of the pilots had shown him how to open the spring-loaded door to our rustic, one-room pilots’ lounge. Someone had dragged in a mattress and placed it on the floor so any of us could use it to snatch a few “Zs” in peace and quiet. Whenever I entered the lounge to restock our small communal refrigerator with drinks, Big Dusty would inevitably be caught taking a nap on this mattress. I’m surprised some of the officers didn’t acquire a retinue of his fleas, too.

Big Dusty couldn’t get out of the lounge until someone else opened the door, but it didn’t appear to faze him. He knew no unit court would ever convict him of trespassing or squatting and that there would never be a penalty for his actions.

Another benefit of having dogs around was that they were our early warning system if any strangers approached the detachment area. A cacophony of barking would always note their arrival. But new unit members were immediately adopted by these dogs into their inner circle because they were probably viewed as additional possibilities for play, food and rooming accommodations.

This little piggy
After Pachuca arrived on the scene, one of our warrant officer pilots came home with a pig he’d procured from another Vietnamese intermediary. He named it Arnold (Ziffel) after the famous pig from TV’s popular “Green Acres,” even though “he” was actually a she.

Arnold in her pen at Red Beach in mid-1970. Photo by Gary E. Hagen, a unit crew chief

Arnold in her pen at Red Beach in mid-1970. Photo by Gary E. Hagen, a unit crew chief

This pilot built a fenced area for Arnold behind the unit water tower and officer shower, where water could drain, making it a veritable five-star pig sty. During monsoon season, Arnold’s living room resembled a miniature lake of mud and sludge. Here she frolicked in her own little hog heaven with its out-of-this-world aroma.

Every day, this pilot and some enlisted cohorts would bring back mounds of food on paper plates that they sneaked out of our unit mess hall. For as long as she was with us, the U.S. Army unknowingly kept Arnold as nutritiously fit and fed as it did its soldiers.

About once or twice a month, Arnold would manage to dig out or escape from her lockup situation. A cry of “Arnold’s AWOL” would resound throughout the compound. This call would usually be accompanied by intense barking from our dog pack. They loved to chase Arnold around the unit area until officers or enlisted men could recapture her. It was one of the highlight events for our dogs at Red Beach when there weren’t rats to exterminate.

One night, someone erected a large sign above Arnold’s pen that said “Officer’s Swimming Pool.” I believe we officers laughed harder about this than the still-anonymous guilty enlisted culprits who’d put it up.

That sign remained intact until Arnold received official orders to depart our unit, over a year later, in a porker swap with Vietnamese civilians. A unit hog roast became necessary due to Arnold’s increased girth, weight and voracious appetite. But unit members had become too attached to this swineheart to do her in themselves, so they traded her for a pig without emotional bonds to serve as a sacrifice in her place. To this day, the subject of Arnold and that sign still finds their way into letters written to each other by unit members.

Canine companions
Reflecting on this time in U.S. military history, I believe Little Dusty was the most loving and unique dog in that entire pack with her animal personality that demanded to be noticed. If she sidled up to you and was ignored, she’d give a sharp bark like “Hey, you’d better pay attention to me.” And she loved to have her belly rubbed, which would make one of her hind legs go into a spasm. Most of the time, she presented herself like she was the center of our universe. It was as though she was verbalizing the following statements: “Here I am. You dig me, of course. Isn’t it about time to feed me again?”

These canine companions circulated among unit members, both officers and enlisted personnel, to whoever needed an emotional lift at the moment. None of them slept outside. They were either formally invited to spend the night in a hootch or would use their own initiative to procure appropriate quarters. They were family and we all looked out for each other.

I was walking out of operations one overcast afternoon and noticed a pilot sitting with Big Dusty on a sand-bagged wall next to the entrance. He had his arm around the dog. When he saw me, he turned to Big Dusty and asked, “Do you mind if I discuss some of my personal problems with you for an hour or so?” Looking back, although it caused me to laugh, there was more truth to that question than may have been evident at the time.

These funny, feisty and friendly animals helped all of us cope with life’s combat burdens, boredom and often brevity. When we were afraid, doubt-ridden or anguished while enduring war’s trauma — that often felt like jumper cables had been clamped to our brains — they helped us deal with these emotions. They were our personal cadre of psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists who didn’t seem to mind living with us on our compound in what most Americans would describe as a third-world ghetto existence.

As any accurate war movie will reveal, consistent exposure to danger, destruction and sudden death can draw men and women together. Being surrounded by animals, with their unconditional love, can lighten this human burden and draw soldiers even closer. It’s still apparent to me that these creatures gave us the extraordinary gift of themselves during our tumultuous moments in ’Nam. They were a part of our lives for at least a one-year tour of duty and still remain so to this day.

Memories of the companionship and happiness they provided remain vivid with the passing of years… even over four decades later. It’s possible that their hoof and paw prints will remain imprinted on a diminishing group of old combat soldiers’ hearts for as long as they continue to beat. Perhaps that is the way it was meant to be.