February 8, 1960 Rin Tin Tin

There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929

paris-gunAt 256 tons with a barrel of 111′ 7″, the “Paris Gun” hurled 38″ shells into the city from a range of 75 miles. If you were in Paris in 1918, you may never have heard of the German “super gun”. You’d have been well acquainted with the damage it caused. You never knew you were under attack until the explosion. The lucky ones were those who lived to see the 4’ deep, 10’-12’ wide crater.paris-gun-crater

Parisian children made little good luck charms, as “protection” from the Paris gun. They were tiny pairs of handmade dolls, joined together by scraps of yarn. They were said to provide protection for their owners, but only under certain circumstances. You couldn’t make or buy your own, they had to be presented to you. They also had to remain attached, or else the little dolls would lose their protective powers.

nenetteetrintintinThese little yarn dolls had names. They were Nénette and Rintintin.

Army Air Service Corporal Lee Duncan was in Paris at this time, with the 135th Aero Squadron. He was aware of the custom, possibly having been given such a talisman himself. In the wake of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Corporal Duncan was sent forward to the small village of Flirey, to check out it’s suitability for an airfield. The place was heavily damaged by shellfire, and Duncan came upon the shattered remains of a dog pound. Once, this kennel had provided Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) to the Imperial German Army. Now, the only dogs left alive were a starving mother and five nursing puppies, so young that their eyes were still closed.135th_aero_squadron_group

Corporal Duncan cared for them, selling several once the puppies were weaned. He sold the mother to an officer and three puppies to fellow soldiers, keeping two for himself. Like those little yarn dolls that French children gave to American soldiers, Duncan felt these two puppies were his good luck charms. He called them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.

jane-murfin-with-strongheart
Playwright Jane Murfin with Strongheart

Returning home after the war, Duncan placed the dogs with a police dog breeder and trainer in Long Island. Nanette contracted pneumonia and died, the breeder giving Duncan a female puppy, “Nanette II”, to replace her.

Etzel von Oeringen was born on October 1, 1917 in Germany, coming to America after the Great War and becoming a movie star in the ‘20s. Better known as “Strongheart”, Etzel was a German Shepherd Dog, whose appearance in silent films enormously increased the popularity of the breed.

A friend of silent film actor Eugene Pallete, Duncan became convinced that Rin Tin Tin could become the next canine film star. He later wrote, “I was so excited over the motion-picture idea that I found myself thinking of it night and day.”

where-the-north-begins-rin-tin-tin-1923Walking the dog on “Poverty Row”, 1920s slang for B movie studios, did the trick. Rin Tin Tin got his first film break in 1922, replacing a camera shy wolf in “The Man from Hell’s River”. His first starring role in the 1923 “Where the North begins”, is credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy.

Between-the-scenes silent film “intertitles” were easily changed from one language to another, and Rin Tin Tin films enjoyed international distribution. In 1927, Berlin movie audiences voted him Most Popular Actor.

There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. Wishing to appear oh-so serious and wanting a human actor, the Academy threw out the ballots. German actor Emil Jannings got Best Actor on the 2nd ballot.

rin-tin-tin-signed-photoRin Tin Tin appeared in 27 feature length silent films, 4 “talkies”, and countless commercials and short films. Regular programming was interrupted to announce his passing on August 10, 1932, at the age of 13. An hour-long program about his life was broadcast the following day.

Suffering from the Great Depression like so many others, Duncan couldn’t afford a fancy funeral. By this time he couldn’t afford the house he lived in. Duncan sold the house and returned the body of his beloved German Shepherd to the country of his birth, where Rin Tin Tin was buried in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, in the Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.

Duncan continued breeding the line, careful to preserve the physical qualities and intelligence of the original, avoiding the less desirable traits that crept into other GSD rin-tin-tinbloodlines. Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies. Duncan may have been obsessive about it, at least according to Mrs. Duncan. When she filed for divorce, she named Rin Tin Tin as co-respondent.

Rin Tin Tin was awarded his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Lee Duncan passed away later that same year.  At some point, Duncan had written a poem, a tribute to the companion animal who was no more.  If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain his final stanza.

“…A real unselfish love like yours, old pal,
Is something I shall never know again;
And I must always be a better man,
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin”.

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January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

Dr. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality rates among these populations could be expected to approach 100%

diphtheria
Corynebacterium diphtheriae

Diphtheria is highly contagious, with early symptoms resembling a cold or flu. Fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing. Later symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies, as proteins form a leathery, white “pseudo membrane” on the throat and nasal tissues.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a major killer of children.

Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease.  In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became illdiphtheria_vaccination_poster with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the white pseudo membrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the Lower 48, had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  It was enough for 30 patients. A million units were needed, but this was enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived in February.

serum-runThe 300,000 units shipped as far as they could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way by dog sled.

It was 9:00pm and −50°F on January 27, when “Wild Bill” Shannon and his nine dog team received the 20lb cylinder of serum. The temperature was −62°F when Shannon reached Minto at 3:00am, hypothermic, with parts of his face blackened by frostbite.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and

sepp-and-togo
Seppala & Togo

zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F. Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve year old “Togo” who was trusted with the lead. Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley” and across the unstable ice of Norton Sound, visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see the “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled. Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to his lead dog.

With Seppala’s 8 year old daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, stakes could not have been higher. Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the next handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

balto-of-nome
Balto & Team, in Nome

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 at night. At one point, hurricane force winds upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the dark with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

20 mushers and 150+ dogs had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks.  Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough serum for 30, the serum run had held the death toll at 5, 6 or 7, depending on which version you accept. Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died before completing the run, several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dogbalto-statue becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country after Rin Tin Tin. It was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53 mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead dog little more than a “freight dog”.

A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925 where it stands to this day, though he is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards). Togo lived another four years, though he was never again able to run. He spent his last years in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away on December 5 at the ripe old age of 16.togo

Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” Today, Togo is stuffed and mounted, standing watch in the Iditarod museum headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.

December 21, 2007 MWD Lex

Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs, or “TEDDs”, come in many shapes and sizes. They can be German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers or Belgian Malinois. Even Pit Bulls. The first thing they have in common is a high “ball drive”

Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs, or “TEDDs”, come in many shapes and sizes. They can be German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers or Belgian Malinois.  Even Pit Bulls. The first thing they have in common is a high “ball drive”. To these dogs, a tennis ball is the beginning and end of all joy. From that starting place, the dog is trained to associate finding a bomb with getting the tennis ball as a reward. The results can be astonishing.

The first official American bomb dogs were used in North Africa in the 1940s, where they were used to detect German mines. Today’s TEDD is a highly specialized and well trained soldier, working with his handler and able to detect 64 or more explosive compounds.

Military Working Dog (MWD) Lex was one such dog, deployed to Iraq with the Unitedlex-lee States Marine Corps in 2006. The dog’s second deployment began in November, when he was paired with Marine Corporal Dustin J. Lee, stationed in the military police department at Marine Corps Logistics Base (MCLB), “Albany”.

Detached as an explosive detection and patrol team for the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, then part of Regimental Combat Team 6, the pair was patrolling a Forward Operating Base on March 21, 2007, when they were hit by a 73 mm SPG-9 rocket attack. Lee was mortally wounded, Lex severely injured with multiple shrapnel wounds. Despite his own injuries, Lex refused to leave his Marine and had to be dragged away before corpsmen could attempt treatment. There is little in this world to compare with the magnificent loyalty of a dog.

lexThe most dreadful moment in the life of any parent, is when they receive word of the death of a child. It wasn’t long after Jerome and Rachel Lee were so notified, that they began efforts to adopt Lex. Dustin was gone, but they wanted to make his partner a permanent part of their family.

An online petition was created by the Lee family, soon gaining national media attention as well as that of Congressman Walter B. Jones of North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district, which includes Camp Lejeune. US armed forces don’t commonly release MWDs prior to retirement age, but there can be exceptions.

Meanwhile, Lex had gone through a 12-week recuperation at Camp Lejeune, later re-deployed to MCLB Albany on July 6. He was once again at full working capacity, despite the more than 50 pieces of shrapnel veterinary surgeons had left in his back, fearing that removal would cause permanent damage to his spine.

Lex was at this time under the jurisdiction of the Air Force working dog program managers at Lackland Air Force Base.  Marine Corps Headquarters made a formal request for the dog’s release in November. Lex was released on December 6, and turned over to the Lee family in a ceremony on December 21, 2007.

Lex was 8 years old at the time.  He soon began to visit VA hospitals, comforting wounded veterans and assisting in their recovery. He received an honorary purple heart in February, 2008, and the 7th Law Enforcement AKC Award for Canine Excellence in September.  On March 19, 2010, the base dog kennel at MCLB Albany was named in honor of Corporal Dustin J. Lee, with Lex in attendance.

Lex’ injuries troubled him for the rest of his life, despite stem cell regenerative therapy at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital, assisted by the Humane Society of the United States and Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield. Lex succumbed to cancer on March 25, 2012.

nate-zinoIn telling this story, I wish in some small way to honor my son in law Nate and daughter Carolyn, who together experienced Nate’s deployment as a Tactical Explosives Detection Dog handler with the US Army 3rd Infantry Division in Soltan Kheyl, Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Months after departing “The Ghan” in 2013, the couple was reunited with Nate’s “Battle Buddy”, MWD Zino, who is now retired and lives with them in Savannah.  “Here & Now”, broadcast out of ‘Boston’s NPR News Station’ WBUR, did a great story on the reunion.  You can hear the radio broadcast HERE.  Thanks for the great job, Alex.

To those TEDD teams deployed today and those of the 2013 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division: Spec.Nate Korpusik & K9 Zino, Sgt. Austin Swaney & K9 Rudy, Sgt. Logan Synatzske & K9 Bako, Spec. Chase Couturiaux & K9 Nina, Spec. Jake Carlberg & K9 Abby, Spec. Ethan Mordue & K9 Moto, Spec. Matthew Shaw & K9 Senna, Spec. Luke Andrukitis & K9 Robby, Sgt. Jeremy Shelton & K9 Rexy, Spec. Sean Bunyard & K9 Kryno, and Spec. Luke Parker & K9 Max:  I say with great respect and profound appreciation to these men, their dogs and their families, Thank you.

December 4, 1966  War Dogs of Vietnam

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset. It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

There are times when two highly trained individuals are able to function at a level higher than the sum of their parts.  Professional athletes like NFL linemen and NHL forwards are two examples.  Another is often the partnership formed between law enforcement officers.

On the battlefield, few assets more powerful than a well equipped and highly trained soldier. Unless we’re pairing that soldier with a Military Working Dog.

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

“Nemo”, born in October 1962, entered the United States Air Force as a sentry dog in 1964, at the age of 1½ years.  After an 8-week training course at Lackland AFB Sentry Dog Training School in San Antonio, Texas, the 85 pound German Shepard was assigned to Airman Leonard Bryant Jr., and sent to Fairchild Air Base in Washington for duty with Strategic Air Command.

The pair was transferred to the Republic of South Vietnam with a group of other dog teams, and assigned to the 377th Security Police Squadron, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.  Six month later, in July, Bryant rotated back to the States, and Nemo was paired with 22-year-old Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg.

Early on the morning of December 4, 60 Vietcong guerrillas emerged from the jungle, setting off a near simultaneous alarm from several sentry dogs on perimeter patrol.

Three dogs, Rebel, Cubby and Toby, were killed with their handlers in a hail of bullets.  Several other handlers were wounded, including one who was able to maintain contact with the enemy, notifying Central Security Control of their location and direction of travel.

Thanks to the early warning, a machine gun team was ready and waiting when 13 infiltrators approached the main aircraft parking ramp.  None of them lived to tell the story.  Security forces quickly deployed around the perimeter, driving some infiltrators off and others into hiding.  Daylight patrols reported that all VC infiltrators were gone, either killed or captured, but they had made a big mistake.  They should have brought the dogs with them.

That night, Thorneburg and Nemo were out on patrol near an old Vietnamese graveyard, about ¼ mile from the air base’ runways.  Nemo alerted on something.  Before Thorneburg could radio for backup, that something started shooting.  Thorneburg released the dog and charged in shooting, killing one VC before being shot in the shoulder.  Nemo was badly wounded, shot in the face, the bullet entering below his eye and exiting his mouth.  Ignoring his injury, Nemo attacked the four enemy soldiers hiding in the brush, giving his partner time to call for reinforcements.

Four additional VC were discovered hiding underground, as quick reaction teams scoured the area.  They found Nemo and Thornburg, both seriously wounded, together on the ground.  Both would survive, though Thorneburg was shot a second time, while returning to base.

I’m sure that individual dog handlers during the Vietnam era were as good to their dogs as they knew how to be.  That’s a guess, but having an MWD handler in the family, I think it’s a good one.  The Department of Defense bureaucracy was another matter.  The vast majority of MWDs were left behind as “surplus equipment”.

Nemo was one of the few lucky ones.  He was officially recognized for having saved thenemo-on-the-plane life of his handler, and preventing further destruction of life and property.   MWD Nemo was given the best of veterinary care and, on June 23 1967, USAF Headquarters directed that he be returned to the United States, the first sentry dog officially retired from active service.  The C124 Globemaster touched down at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, on July 22, 1967.  Nemo lived out the seven years remaining to him in a permanent retirement kennel at the DoD Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base.