Ton Sun Nhut Air Base (USAF)
December 04 – 25, 1966
He had somehow sensed that I was going away. His one good eye told me so. It had neither disappointment, nor hurt, just understanding. The other eye was heavily bandaged. He didn’t show any pain or discomfort. He was just plain glad to see me again in the world of the living, I guess. And boy, was I glad to see him. I had learnt to live for the moment. From him.
“You won’t forget me, will you?” he seemed to say, as he peered across my hospital bed. Then all of a sudden his expression changed, like he’d just remembered something. He nuzzled up toward me and tried tickling me through the hospital gown with his muzzle,” We kicked some ass, didn’t we, boss?” he seemed to say.
He had that bare toothed panting, grunting grin, the one he gave out whenever you scratched his tummy. It usually ended in him furiously pedaling with his hind legs, as if to say,” Ok, Ok, cut it out will you. Hoh, Hoh, hey! Watch it, Tiger! Jesus, you’re really a piece of work. Ha! Hah! Yeah there! No, slightly to the right, yeah, oh yeah, ok, enough, stop, before I bust sumpn!” The gesticulating would be closely followed by a storm of grateful licks.
” You go on and build yore life, you hear?” the one good eye continued,” Marry that chic whose photo you bin slobberin’ over all the f–kin’ time. I’ll be just fine. Who knows, maybe you’ll find another Nemo over there, Stateside…”
I couldn’t focus well, the tears blurring everything, as I lifted my good arm and tried to turn so I could hold him to my chest one last time. Airman Nguyen Ban, his new handler, held on to the leash but played it out just enough so Nemo could get in a last cuddle. Unleashing was not permitted inside the wards. The huge German Shepard looked gaunt and haggard, his rich fluff hanging over him like a loose fitting overcoat. I remembered how magnificent he had looked once.
He had difficulty climbing onto the bed, still weak from all the blood loss. Ban lifted him up gently, cradling him in his arms and deposited him softly by my side on the bed. The nurse peeked in, took in the sight of two wounded soldiers, one holding the other close to his chest and she withdrew, pulling the olive green curtain behind her. The muscular Vietnamese serviceman then stepped back and stared down at the floor, his face inscrutable but understanding. Only a K-9 handler understands how another K-9 handler feels.
Outside, the base was a mass of chaotic sounds as daily life went on in the suffocating heat, punctuated by the occasional screeching roar of an F4 Phantom II of the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron taking off on a sortie.
“I’m sorry, Nemo, I’m sorry old buddy,” I kept repeating over and over as I held him tight and he buried his nose in my arm pit. We lay that way a while. I felt his huge bushy tail wag tiredly and slap my thigh rhythmically.
Nemo always took great pride in his tail. Boy it was magnificent. You could feel the breeze ten yards away, if he wagged it. And he wagged it all the f–kin’ time. He was a generally happy dog with a sunny disposition. His idea of a good time was rolling around in the wet grass, giving you mock bites that looked savage but were timed perfectly. He would let go the moment he had any part of you between his teeth, accompanying the bite with a look that said,” Relax, just kidding, I wasn’t really goin’ ta chomp on you”.
Having tired of rolling around, wrestling with you, he’d then try to pin you down while he slobbered all over your face with glee. Wrigleys, he just loved Wrigleys and it was hilarious watching him trying to figure out how to dislodge the gum from his teeth.
That was the fun side of Nemo, but there was another side, the one he was trained to be. A killer. That was something everyone who came in contact with him had to remember, including his handler, me. Nemo was trained to be a cold blooded killing machine when the order was given. And the kill order was usually a terse, “Get him!” Unless he happened to be a very good shot and quick on the draw, the other guy wouldn’t survive the encounter. With half his throat missing and his external carotid artery severed, the bad guy would bleed to death within sixty seconds.
Likewise, the order to hold a guy and make sure he didn’t make a run for it was “Watch him!” After that if the sucker wanted to have half his ankle or his nuts chewed off, he was welcome to run. If you’re at the receiving end of a K-9, there is nothing you can do really. You cannot fight him, he is immensely powerful, you can’t reason with him or placate him, he doesn’t give a shit about mushy stuff unless the mush flows from his one buddy, his handler. From his handler, he is prepared to listen to anything, take any shit, give his life unflinchingly. The bond between the K-9 and his handler is spiritual.
Like Nemo, at that point in time, the US Military had over 5000 dogs in active service in Vietnam, engaged mainly in guarding perimeters, spotting intruders, detecting explosives, weapons caches, ambushes, booby traps, Vietcong concealed under water with reed breathing straws sticking out. In all, K-9 units in Vietnam have been credited with saving 10000 plus human lives.
Captured guerrilla fighters showed genuine fear and respect for K-9s and reported that the Vietcong had even placed a bounty on them and their handlers, so great was the success of these four-legged wonders. The practice of awarding medals to animals had been discontinued after the World War II, or else there would have been at least a few Medals of Honor or DSCs among these heroic beings.
The main breed was the Dobermann Pinscher, followed closely by the German Shepherd and a small minority was made up of Labs. In decreasing order of ferocity were the Dobermans, then the German Shepherds and lastly the Labs. Ferocity was the main attribute that one looked for in a war dog and it was inversely proportional to the readiness to show affection. Nemo was a German Shepherd who fought like a Doberman and cuddled like a Lab.
That night had been like any other. It was early December and the air seemed brittle, cold and hard. The perimeter fence was guarded by a company of fifty dogs and their handlers, each assigned to a sector. Nemo and I had been assigned Sector-G, overlooking the sea, one of the least eventful sectors, since it was butted on one side, by a stretch of clean open beach and the vast Gulf of Tonkin. There was a small band though, a tree line that separated the base from the beach and it was in this tree line that the four Vietcong lay hidden.
At a hundred meters, Nemo drew up sharply, his ears erect, tail quivering like a hard, closely coiled bushy spring. He was alert, seeing and hearing things that I didn’t.
That is the moment when the handler lets his charge take over command. Nemo glided forward, his head low, nose to the ground, his mane erect and bristling. I followed in a low, crouching lope, switching on the radio and speaking into it in a whisper as I ran, while at the same time bringing up the M-16, safety off, in my right hand.
“GeekayNine…Charlie, think there’s something near the tree line. Maybe just quail.”
“Copy, GeekayNine, holler if you need back-up”. I left the send button on.
The chatter of automatic weapons suddenly crashed through the stillness and a section of the underbrush exploded in scattered torn leaves up front where we were headed. I was crouched low but still took one in my left shoulder. Must have been one of those high powered Soviet hardware that the VC were using those days. The round hit me with a dull thud and spun me around. I took one more round in my upper thigh and then another somewhere in my abdomen and I went down, but not before I had let that brush have it with my M-16.
Nemo meanwhile had sped forward like a bullet. He tore into the brush and from my prone position I saw twigs and leaves flying around all over the place and the sound of some random shots muffled by Nemo’s blood curdling growls. Nemo emerged after a while, limped over and stood astride me, across my chest. The underbrush had fallen silent. I couldn’t see any activity there from where I was, flat on my back. From time to time, he stooped to lick my face, as if to say,” You’ll be ok, hang in there.”
It’s when he stooped that I realized that he had taken a hit in the eye. A Vietcong round had entered through his eye and exited through his jaw on the other side. The eyeball was hanging out, blood running down from the eye cavity down to the tip of his snout, from where it dripped on to my tunic. On his side, a round had grazed his pelt and an ugly gash was welling up with fresh blood. All that seemed to bother him none. He just stood there over me, alert, his eyes and ears tuned toward the tree line.
The back-up in the APC found us that way. Me, on my back and Nemo standing astride me. It was over but even then Nemo wouldn’t budge until I made to move and he saw I was alive. Only then did he step aside and let them pick me up. Collins and Jenkins went over to the tree line and found four dead VC. Two had taken my rounds and the other two had had their tonsils removed, by Nemo. The base vet was also there. He took a look at Nemo and said to me,” Nothing life threatening but the eye doesn’t look good, Bobby.”
That was two weeks back. My wounds had turned out to be more serious than they had looked and a decision was taken to evacuate me for treatment, which would be preceded by a promotion, a Purple Heart and the Air Medal.
Now, as I held on to Nemo, after a while he gave a deep sigh and was out like a light. My medication took over shortly and the last that I saw of him, he was nestled in my arms, his breathing even and steady. I noticed he had been unleashed and Airman Ngyun Ban was no longer in the room. As the drugs slowly took hold, I heard faint voices filtering in from the other side of the curtain,” …..be fine, Sir…..let ’em be…..just a few more minutes…….be back from the mess hall…”.
The next day, they loaded me into a C130, for the 30 hour flight back via the Ramstein US Air Base in Germany. The next eighteen months had me in and out of surgery and I didn’t know up from down, most times. I haven’t come through yet and have to get around on a wheel chair.
Nemo, with his handler, Bob Throneburg. On the way to recovery. (Photo courtesy: nationalmuseum.af.mil)
But I do have a new buddy who’s by my side always. A German Shepherd pup that my parents have gifted me. I have named him Nemo.
Ps: The above is a fictionalized account of actual events. In June 1967, Air Force Headquarters directed that Nemo be returned to the United States with honors, as the first sentry dog to be officially retired from active service. After settling in, till the Vietnam war wound down, Nemo made a number of cross country tours and television appearances, as part of the Air Force’s recruitment drive for more war dog candidates.
Nemo, by his kennel at the Lackland AFB (Photo courtesy:dogguide.net)
Nemo spent the last years of his retirement at the Department of Defense Dog Center, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He was given a permanent kennel near the veterinary facility. A plaque with his name, serial number and details of his heroic exploit in Vietnam is on display even today, in front of his kennel.
Just before the Christmas holidays in December 1972, at Lackland AFB, Nemo died at the age of 11. He could not recover from a liver infection.