Probably the most versatile unit in our battalion in any theatre of war was the tracker platoon and they filled several diverse roles.
In Borneo with our tracker dogs Gunnar, Rank, Simba and Toddy, they tracked and also acted as a reconnaissance and rifle platoon when required and what was amazing there was that in pure jungle the dogs could pick up the trail from the visual trackers and go like hell in pursuing the scent, oft times dragging the handlers around, through or over the massive buttress roots of gigantic trees. What was a little disconcerting was that on many occasions the trackers and the dogs were not believed. Lack of knowledge and appreciation of the dogs’ abilities unfortunately, caused the trackers to be let down at times. However it was probably the knowledge that the dogs were after them that drove the Indonesians back over to their side of the border and in the main kept them there, where we wanted them.
In 4RAR in South Vietnam, trackers invariably worked in three teams and the platoon could act as trackers, reconnaissance, a rifle platoon or as a heavy weapons platoon with up to two 106mm or 90mm anti tank weapons in each team. When working with any one of the black secret weapons we had, tracker dogs Milo, Trajan and Marcus on the first tour and Milo and Marcian on the second tour, a team consisted of a handler, cover man, team commander, radio operator machine gun crew and a visual tracker. By substituting a second visual tracker for the dog and dog handler, a versatile and independent tracking and reconnaissance team was formed.
Sometimes only a handler and dog made up the team. In training, it did not take the trackers long to come up to the standards set by the dogs; that is, determination, courage, endurance and loyalty.
Our dogs in the main were black, cross bred Labradors; Labradors because of their ability to track and to mix with their teams. Their social temperament of not being a one man dog allowed them to freely mix with other the soldiers of the battalion and their cross breeding improved their endurance. Probably the most famous of all Australian tracker dogs world wide was Caesar who was a Labrador Kelpie cross.
Why our dogs were classified as engineer stores and not war dogs will remain a mystery to me until the day I die. In transit or on war scales there was never a requirement for engineer stores to be fed, watered, groomed, toileted, fleaed, exercised, housed, or trained and sometimes the dogs suffered as a result of this; that is until the handlers either threatened, coerced or ‘found’ suitable amenities for their dogs.
The trackers had to carry the extra food and water for their dogs and it was not uncommon to see the dog drink from the same canteen as its handler and to eat from the same spoon and dixie. The riflemen often shared their rations and water with the handler and the dog but never accepted the offer of food from the handler.
We were never quite sure if we were being offered ham and lima beans or Pal. Mind you, there wasn’t much difference. What was always shared was the appreciation of a job well done by both the trackers and the dogs from the riflemen.
The dogs developed not only empathy with their handlers but with all members of the battalion. The times when a very wet and tired handler and dog would sleep together at night with the dog placed upwind by the handler to fend off the cold wind, only to wake up in the morning shivering with cold and the dog sleeping downwind snuggled up warmly against the handler; the handler digging a separate pit for the dog only to wake up sharing his own pit with the dog; and what possesses a dog, on his own initiative, to move outside the harbour perimeter in front of the machine gun piquet at night to relieve himself. They certainly were part of the team.
How all our dogs affected the outcome of the wars that 4RAR and indeed the Regiment were involved in will never be fully understood or recorded. They did cause some baddies to pay the supreme sacrifice for their country, they did prevent our soldiers from becoming casualties and we know that they caused the baddies to change their attitude and their intentions from time to time. What we will never be able to prove is how many of our soldier’s lives they saved, how many times that they prevented us from being surprised if not annihilated and how many times they were responsible for our successes.
There are many stories telling of the actions of dogs actually standing on their handler’s feet so that they would not take that extra pace that would mean standing on a mine or walking into an enemy ambush; of dogs detecting trip wires and of dogs working so hard to please that they were physically exhausted and had to be carried by their handlers.
We do know that our dogs were prepared to die to please us and Cassius with 7RAR, did die from heat exhaustion while Justin serving with 1RAR at the Battle of Coral, although being unsuccessfully rugby tackled by a captain in the middle of a mortar and rocket attack, went AWOL for a couple of hours in the middle of the battle. Both Tiber and Justin suffered shell shock and were not the same dogs after.
Our dogs not only worked with us but worked with many American units and were feted and acclaimed for their ability by all units.
Our dogs were prepared to give their all unconditionally and the only reward that they expected was a pat and a play with their handlers. They knew nothing about a twelve months tour of duty; they knew nothing about leave entitlements. They knew nothing about entitlements to pay and conditions and they knew nothing about two cans per man per day. All they knew was that they had a job to do and they did it willingly, without complaint. They knew that their job was to seek and find. They had been trained for that but they were not trained in the giving of love and devotion. That came because unlike many soldiers who developed a trust and allegiance to one another but operationally, hardly extending beyond the confines of a platoon, each of our dogs had 600 friends. They didn’t know our names, but we certainly knew theirs.
Not only their handlers but the whole Tracker Platoon, 4 RAR and the Royal Australian Regiment regretted with some anger and frustration at having to leave our dogs in South Vietnam, as the Australian Army policy was that the dogs would not be brought home at the end of their service. One reason, perhaps not adequately explained at the time, related to an Army veterinary report which noted that large numbers of American tracker dogs in Vietnam had died from a tropical disease, thought (but not confirmed) to be transmitted by ticks. The report recommended that no tracker dogs be allowed back into Australia “even under strict quarantine”.
Homes were found with European or Australian families resident in Saigon for 10 of the 11 dogs. One dog, Cassius, died of heat exhaustion after a training run.
They served and despite political utterances, deserved a better reward.
They are gone now but not forgotten. All the dogs that served, served us well, far beyond the call of duty and continually in harms way and, it is appropriate that there is a memorial to them at Alexandra Headland near Mooloolaba and another in South Australia erected by the Australian Trackers and War Dogs Association. The inscription on the Queensland memorial reads:
They did not return from war.
Caesar, Janus, Juno, Marcian, Milo, Trajan, Cassius, Julian, Justin, Marcus, Tiber .
Down jungle tracks, through shot and shell,
Ears pricked, keen sense of smell;
Our tracker dogs with care and poise,
Alert to ambush, foreign noise;
Never a whimper, whine or bark,
Their service honoured with this plaque;
No medals pinned to hairy chest,
They stayed behind, they were the best.
All gave something, some gave their all, those that knew you, will never forget you.
The 4RAR Tracker dogs in Malaysia and Borneo were:
Gunnar, Rank, Simba and Toddy..
Submitted by : Alan Price
All gave something, some gave their all, those that knew you, will never forget you.
The patron of the ADFTWDA, Major General Peter Phillips AO, MC (Retd), the President of the ADFTWDA, Bob Bettany, one of the founding fathers of the ADFTWDA and a continuing inspiration since the Association’s birth and Military Police dogs MPD 1759 Demi and MPD 1764 Shadow has unveiled the two plaques which sit upon a huge rock within the grounds of the Royal Australian Regiment National Memorial Walk. It is rather fitting that the rock and the plaques overlook the memorials to all those soldiers of the Regiment who died on active service. It appears as if the dogs themselves are still looking out for us in rest as they did in war.
The medals are not official medals but were designed by the ADFTWDA to honour those dogs who served or who are serving the Australian community at large and include all war dogs, Army, RAAF, Police dogs, Protective Services dogs and Customs dogs. The criteria for the issue of these medals is very strict and in compliance with the constitution of the ADFTWDA and is endorsed by the RSPCA and state and federal governments.
There are two medals.
1. The War Dog Operational Medal.
This will be issued to those military working dogs which have served for a minimum period of twenty-eight days in a Theatre or War or an Area of Operations.
2. The Canine Service Medal.
This will be issued to those working dogs which have served for a continuous period of five years.
The medals do not carry any official recognition as military honours and awards. They are to be presented to military units and government agencies as gifts from a grateful ADFTWDA. It will be up to each organisation to decide whether or not to wear them. The ADFTWA has been assured that many of the medals will be worn by their dogs with pride on parades and official occasions. The ADFTWDA represents the first nation on earth to recognise the service of its canines by the issue of a high quality military styled medal and medal ribbon.
The 4 RAR Association, Qld donated a framed print of Pte Dave Nelson carrying tracker dog Marcian across a swollen river. The original painting was by acclaimed artist, Pamela Webster Hart of Tamworth NSW, the wife of a 4 RAR veteran, Graeme Webster. The original oil painting hangs at the School of Infantry at Singleton, NSW. (see illustration below)
Alan won several raffle prizes, one of an Australian Combat Tracking Team Vietnam 1967- 1971 painted by Jennifer Cooke Harrison and an original cartoon of a dog and his handler flying in a Bell Sioux helicopter in Vietnam by Wilf Matusch. These have been gifted to the Gold Coast War Museum at Mudgeeraba, Qld by Maureen Price.
Alan was invited to the dedication and medal presentation ceremonies as a result of his original assistance in the very early days of this remarkable project.
Descriptive profiles and the medals awarded to each dog are now on display at the Queensland Military Memorial Museum, Church St., Fortitude Valley, Qld in the Trackers Corner exhibition of the museum. Another exhibition dedicated to the trackers and their dogs will also be on display soon at the Gold Coast War Museum.