The Depot

Nemo's Legacy

As a young military working dog handler trainee attending the Department of Defense Dog School in 1983, I heard about Nemo the military working dog and his brave handler Bob Throneburg and how they stopped a Viet Cong attack at the perimeter of an air base in Vietnam. 

Back then, we still had a few old sentry dogs kicking around the kennels at the annex of Lackland Air Force Base and some of our K-9 instructors who had served as sentry dog handlers in ‘Nam were also at the dog school eager to share what they had learned in war with scrawny teenagers like me.

They taught us how to work as a team, man and dog, to detect the enemy at night. It’s a job I did for several years in Korea and in Germany, so I am a little biased towards military K-9s.

The bond that is forged between handler and dog is unique, unlike any relationship I’ve ever had. When you are out on a post, in the snow, on a holiday in the blackness of night, thousands of miles from home, there is only you and your dog. When the world is celebrating and exchanging gifts, and you are standing post, there is warmth that you find when your dog pins her ears back and wags her tail at you just because you made eye contact with her. It truly is unconditional love.

Here’s what that love looks like in action.

In December 1966, 22-year-old U.S. Air Force Airman Bob Throneburg was on patrol with his K-9 Nemo at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. The base had been attacked by a barrage of mortar fire and more than 60 enemy were dispersed around the base trying to breach the perimeter. The military working dog team of Throneburg and Nemo were charged with finding the enemy and killing them.

About 0300 hours on Dec. 4, Nemo detected someone and almost instantly the intruder started to flee. Throneburg engaged the enemy soldier firing his M-16. It was his first time in combat after being in country for five months.

Nemo’s ears shot up a second time only this time Throneburg turned loose the 95-pound Nemo. The Viet Cong soldier fired several shots from his AK-47. Throneburg was shot in his shoulder and fell to the ground wounded and Nemo took a bullet on the nose while he was charging at the enemy. Nemo continued to engage the enemy and that allowed Throneburg time to call for backup.

As Throneburg started to fade out of consciousness, Nemo came back out of the darkness, severely wounded, and crawled on top of him. Nemo lay atop Throneburg guarding him as sentry dogs were taught to do. A former K-9 handler was finally able to get Nemo off of Throneburg so he could be medically treated and taken to the hospital.

Nemo was taken to the base veterinarian and he was in “bad shape,” according to the base vet. Nemo required skin grafts and a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His right eye was removed as a result of the gunshot wound.

The K-9 team was briefly reunited at the base hospital, but the two never saw each other again. Throneburg was airlifted to Japan where he underwent multiple surgeries and recovered for seven months. Throneburg earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal.

Nemo recovered from his wounds at Tan Son Nhut and was later retired from active duty. He was five years old when he returned from the war having spent eight months in recovery. He was credited with saving Throneburg’s life. The Air Force would later say that Throneburg and Nemo killed two from an element that had engaged them. The others were killed by forces responding to Throneburg’s call for backup. Overall, K-9 and security forces would kill more than a dozen enemy in that engagement at Tan Son Nhut.

That night, three sentry dogs, Rebel, Toby and Cubby, would die in action and one airman, George Bevich, would also be killed in action. Bevich would become the first Air Force sentry dog handler to be killed in Vietnam. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for engaging the enemy and calling in their position. He was killed by enemy mortar fire.

Nemo’s action that night propelled him to become the face of the K-9 Corps and his actions that day became the stuff of legends for those who worked military working dogs. Nemo was credited with not just saving Throneburg’s life, but also preventing further destruction of life and property at Tan Son Nhut. 

Air Force dog handlers in Vietnam, according to the Air Force, provided a unique and critical capability in defending air bases against attack when they patrolled base perimeters in the darkness. Teams were able to detect the enemy trying to infiltrate bases using the cover of night. They were used as part of Project Top Dog 145 where the Air Force sent 40 sentry dog teams to Vietnam in 1965 eventually peaking in 1967 with more than 500 teams in country. In all, roughly 4,000 dogs deployed to Vietnam during the war.

Bob Throneburg died in 2020 at the age of 75. Nemo A354 (his brand number) died in 1972 at Lackland Air Force Base at the Department of Defense Dog Center where his kennel stands as a memorial.

Most military working dogs which were sent to Vietnam were not returned home to the heroes welcome that Nemo received. In fact, only 204 of the thousands of dogs sent to Vietnam returned home or were reassigned to other peacetime assignments. During the last years of the war, many of these hero dogs were euthanized by the U.S. military. Viewed as surplus and unneeded equipment, they were treated accordingly. Those not killed, died of disease and starvation. Despite saving countless lives and having protected U.S. resources, these four-legged warriors were abandoned.

Not long ago I came into contact with former handlers who had worked with some of the dogs I had once handled. We shared funny stories and not one of us had a bad thing to say about any of them. Imagine having that kind of reputation? They too likely met the same fate, euthanized because they could no longer perform their missions. Seven of my partners who accompanied me on duty, who helped me grow up in the ranks; I do not know how long they lived or how or when they died.

Luckily, that changed not long ago. I adopted Max from the Department of Defense. Max is an explosive detector military working dog who was medically retired. When I learned that military working dogs could be adopted from the dog school, I made the trek down to Lackland to try to give a fellow veteran a good home. In 2019, he joined our family and he is also the official mascot of USAMM. To mark his retirement, I had a flag flown over the U.S. capitol.

Today, Max spends his days relaxing on a soft therapeutic bed, his body broken from his military service, he still tries to do his duty when I enter the room. He sits up, almost as if to say, “I’m ready to go to work,” and he wags his tail at the sight of me. Each time, I gently lay him down, rub his belly and tell him he’s a good boy. I give him his Kong not because he found a bomb, but because he’s been a good dog and he's earned it. 

Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books.

Comments on this post ( 10 )

  • Mar 18, 2022

    I loved the story. I would love to a trained k9. Is there a way to find one around Roanoke VA

    — Barbara Green

  • Mar 16, 2022

    I am a proud to have served in the USAF. I have read about K9 dogs and their absolute life giving service. I honor these dogs. I am ashamed that our country would leave behind dog soldiers to starve, ant treated with cruelty. These soldiers gave their life at all costs. They are not a throw away piece of flesh.
    Thank you to our soldiers who treated them as a soldier, as they should be treated, with respect and dignity.

    — CMSgt Angie Lamie

  • Mar 16, 2022

    Thank you.
    To the Men,Women & Dogs of the Military.
    Thank you for giving up seeing the birth of you children,anniversaries with your husband or wife.
    Christmases,Birthdays. The passing of loved ones at home.
    Thank You for all You leave behind.
    So We may live Free.
    God Bless You and Yours

    — Patricia Morton

  • Mar 16, 2022

    I was in Viet Nam in 1969. My job was tank commander at 19!
    We would pick up the infantry from helicopters. The dogs were
    jumping out ready to go. We mounted the infantry and the dogs on the tanks and ACAVS. The dogs loved it all! They were real
    soldiers! We worked with the infantry and dismounts with the
    handlers. I loved the dogs! Take care of them and as long
    as these dogs can live!
    SSG. JC Hughes
    Tank A-18. M551, First Platoon
    A-Troop 11’th Armored Cavalry

    — Joseph Colan Hughes

  • Mar 16, 2022
    I met Nemo during Security Police training as a promotion to enlist in K-9, but I had orders to Clark AB and wanted to ride Mounted Horse Patrol. I did until they downsized and became an OJT handler, a black German Shepherd named Beowulf. My next dog, Nicky, saved my life when he alerted while we were posted in the bomb dump at NKP in May, 72, a night that lives with me every day.

    — Charles Ogletree - Nightfigher

  • Mar 16, 2022

    Great Read!

    — Daj

  • Mar 16, 2022

    Great Read!

    — Daj

  • Mar 16, 2022

    I take pride of our K9 Military dogs I love them and appreciate their services for our country. I wish I had a German Shepherd Dog for my pet & friend. They are very expensive.

    — Teresita Picillo

  • Mar 16, 2022

    3 years ago we, my wife and I, were fortunate enough to acquire a retired K-9 Belgian Malinois that was chipped in Feb 2008 at Lackland AFB. As with Max, she was medically retired. we are her four “service animals” and are glad for the opportunity to have her trust and respect us. Being retire we re-adjusted our budget to accommodate her medical needs. Most recently she under went surgery for the unfortunate condition of twisted bowl syndrome.She rebounded with new vigor. the cost was difficulty to absorb but given her health at the time money was not the issue. I willing gave up drinking expensive whiskey in the evening as homage to our buddy. Now sitting on the front porch in the evenings she lays next to me and is ‘on’ duty. She does not go to bed until we are in bed, the house is quite and secure. If I knell down to due a task she comes and tries to ‘push me upright. Within one (1) week after moving in, she became attached and began to do her job. on three (3) separated occasions she has shown her comment to protect and defend the family. the story that came with Shea was that she was injured in Afghanistan after being deployed as a bomb detection K-9 as well.
    I feel the the DoD should allot a stipend for retired K-9’s the help keep them feed, health and most of all happy.
    I could ramble on but the last three (3) years have been rewarding beyond description with meager words.A longtime ago when I returned from the Far East, a co-worker who adopted many dogs of all breeds told me that “dog was God spelled backwards”.I believed him then and ten fold now.
    I would like to have more information as to Shea’s history but inquiries the the DoD have not been answered.
    Keep in touch and thanks for the article.

    — Andrew George

  • Mar 16, 2022

    What an amazing story. I worked with a number of teams and couldn’t be prouder for just knowing them.

    — Robert Reiser MSG, US Army, Ret

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