On this day in 1942, the U.S. Army officially started its K-9 Corps, which featured a legendary canine war hero that was awarded the Purple Heart—amid much controversy.
Dogs have been a part of warfare for as long as people have been fighting each other. But in the United States, military dogs served roles mostly as mascots and messengers up until World War I.
During the Great War, dogs saw an evolving role on the front. One dog, named Stubby, became a national war hero.
Stubby fought in the Argonne, survived gas attacks, and even captured a German Iron Cross, according to tales told about the dog hero. After the war, Stubby met three presidents and was awarded a special medal by General Blackjack Pershing. After Stubby died in 1926, his remains were preserved and sent on to the Smithsonian.
But an organized dog division didn’t emerge until World War II, where there was a mass “volunteer” enlistment of canines in the first-ever K-9 Corps in the military. Actually, the pet owners agreed to lend their dogs to the war effort to perform tasks like patrol duty, mine detection, sentry duty, and message carrying.
The dogs in the first K-9 Corps did eight to 12 weeks of basic training before they were deployed. About 18,000 dogs were accepted into boot camp, but 8,000 didn’t make it to active duty.
According to the Army’s website, the dogs were intended to be used closer to home under command of the Quartermaster Corps. Supply depots and other facilities needed to be protected on the home front. However, in 1943 and 1944, some dogs shipped out for Europe and Asia in 15 dog platoons. Only seven breeds were used: Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Siberian huskies, farm collies, Eskimo dogs, and Malamutes.
The dogs performed heroically on patrol and in battle. And the top dog, in the K-9 Corps, at least in terms of publicity, was Chips, a Shepherd-Collie-Husky mix donated by Edward J. Wren of Pleasantville, New York.
Chips shipped out in early 1943. He was a guard dog at the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in Casablanca. He then saw battle during the invasion of Sicily, when he broke away from his handler and attacked a machine-gun nest. The dog was wounded in the attack but flushed out four enemy soldiers, who were captured. Chips later helped to capture 10 enemy combatants on another patrol—on the same day.
As a reward, in November 1943, Chips received a Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and Purple Heart. But the publicity about Chips and his medals upset a Purple Heart national commander.
William Thomas protested to President Franklin Roosevelt and to the War Department, and it became the subject of discussion in Congress. Today, it is widely reported that Chips was stripped of his Purple Heart and Silver Star, because he was a dog, but one contemporary account tells a different story.
In February 1944, Time magazine reported that Major General James A. Ulio said Chips was allowed to keep his medals, but that no more medals would be awarded to dogs going forward. In addition, two wire service stories from January 1944 and February 1944 indicate the Chips was awarded the three medals, but at two different times.
The AP reported on January 14, 1944 that Chips had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and that Chips had received the Purple Heart and Silver Star on November 19, 1943. Then on February 16, 1944, the wire service reported that after a protest from Thomas, he received a letter from the military that indicated that Chips was keeping his Silver Star, but no more medals would be awarded to dogs.
Chips was also well known for another public incident. Later in the war, he was personally congratulated by General Dwight Eisenhower for his heroics in battle. But when the future president bent down to pet Chips, the dog bit him (as he was trained to do when confronting an unknown person).
Chips only survived seven months after his discharge from the Army at the end of the war in 1945. In his obituary, it was noted that the reason Chips was sent to the military by his family was that he bit a garbage collector in Pleasantville.
In 2014, a second dog, Lucca, was unofficially given a Purple Heart by a recipient who had two ribbons. Lucca served for six years in the Marines and she lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan.
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