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.