If there is a creature on earth that is completely selfless, it is a dog. Like most pack animals, dogs try to find their role in their packs, contributing to a group and always putting the greater good of the group over themselves.
Military dogs are no different. When coupled with a handler who is a part of a larger team, the dog comes to understand that his or her role is to sniff out bombs or drugs and protect those who are a part of his or her pack.
Using U.S. Defense Department data, we’ve narrowed down a short list of military dogs everyone should know. They contributed in U.S. war efforts over the years and the U.S. military credits them with contributing positively to their respective military campaigns.
Here are six military dogs you should know.
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 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. Military dogs 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 military dogs in country. In all, roughly 4,000 military 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 today stands as a memorial.
Most military 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 military dogs were euthanized by the U.S. military. Viewed as surplus and unneeded equipment, they were treated accordingly. Those military dogs not killed, died of disease and starvation. Despite saving countless lives and having protected U.S. resources, these four-legged warriors were abandoned.
Stubby was a stray dog smuggled to Europe by a soldier with the 102nd Infantry Regiment during World War I. He charmed troops by learning bugle calls and how to salute with his right paw.
Eventually, he would become one of history's military dogs. He contributed in more important ways by alerting soldiers to gas attacks and even capturing a German spy dressed as a U.S. soldier.
Stubby would ultimately serve in 17 battles. His heroics earned him the distinction of being the first dog to receive a rank – sergeant – from the U.S. armed forces, according to the Smithsonian Institution. It should be noted that military dogs, as a matter of policy, are not decorated or given rank. Military dogs are normally considered one rank higher than their handlers in order to set an expectation with the handlers that the military dogs are to be treated with respect.
A Marine Corps explosives detection dog, Lucca served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan during her six-year career, leading nearly 400 patrols and identifying about 40 improvised explosive devices, according to the Department of Defense.
Not a single Marine was injured while following the half German shepherd, half Belgian Malinois. But on March 23, 2012, Lucca was, while leading a patrol in Afghanistan with her handler. Shortly after she found an IED, another device detonated, badly injuring Lucca. Her handler applied a tourniquet and she was quickly placed on a medevac for advanced treatment.
She survived, but she lost her left front leg. Lucca was medically retired, but quickly adjusted to life with three limbs and a new home with her original handler. She died in 2018.
Not all military working dogs in recent history have fancy pedigrees. One heroic pooch from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gabe, was a pound puppy before he was adopted and trained for military service. Just weeks after completing training in 2006 with his handler, Army Staff Sgt. Chuck Shuck, the two deployed to Iraq, where Gabe sniffed out insurgent explosives, ammunition and other weapons.
He was exceptionally productive, racking up 26 finds during his 170 combat patrols. Gabe returned home laden with accolades, and Shuck adopted him when he retired. Even then, Gabe worked on behalf of the nation, visiting with kids and wounded soldiers in hospitals.
Gabe died in 2013 from cancer.
A German shepherd-collie-husky mix, Chips served overseas during World War II as one of the members of the military’s newly formed K-9 Corps. During the invasion of Sicily in 1943, Chips attacked an enemy machine gun team firing at soldiers in his platoon. He got a scalp wound and powder burns, but was credited with saving the lives of his human teammates.
Military dogs primarily detect explosives or narcotics, in addition to performing attack (patrol) work. And while most military dogs are bad ass, as you’ve read above, Cairo, is an exceptional bad ass as he was the only military dog to be a part of Operation Neptune Spear, the covert military operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. A combat vet who had been combat wounded, it was no surprise Cairo was on the mission.
Cairo was a Belgian Malinois and a member of the elite Navy SEALs. Cairo was there when the SEALs raided Bin Laden’s compound in May 2011. Cairo secured the perimeter of the building and was responsible for finding anyone who tried to escape the compound.
In 2015 Cairo was put down because of failing health.