When I was a child, when dogs were free-range when days were forever and were inside was the prison, I knew a German Shepherd named Sheba.
Sheba was massive, collarless, dirty with oil from sleeping under a dump truck at night, and frightening to strangers, but she was profoundly and warmly gentle with our group of neighborhood children. At night, she guarded wrecked vehicle carcasses and parts heaps in the back lot of Corkery’s Cartage and by day, she was free to wander as we were. She was protective, omnipresent, playful, and she gave us the confidence to roam onto neighboring turf where rival gangs of kids were always looking for a fight.
Sheba was our talisman, our juju, our good luck charm. We couldn’t start a game without involving her or walk home without calling her to our side. She would crawl into our underground forts, and we even constructed an “elevator” to give her access to our tree house. Dogs and young boys have a bond of understanding that is never spoken about, never analyzed, never strained – only enjoyed. To this day, I think of Sheba and how proud I was to be shadowed by her as I rode my bike down the dirt roads of a timeless Elmvale Acres. I have no memory of what happened to her, just images of her somewhere in the sunlight on those long, loose and happy days spent in her company. How she met her end is thankfully not in my head, but I know now that her assignment was to protect us, the Smyth Road Boys.
Every dog has its own cosmic task. Some snarling and unhappy German shepherds are to be chained to an engine block in a Pennsylvania junkyard, some bloated spaniels comfort lonely octogenarian spinsters while dining on marshmallows and cashews, some Pekingese change for the better the lives of shut-ins with requited affection while some pit bulls are slated to bring menace and a degree of unearned security to mullet-headed reprobate dope dealers.
Every dog has an assignment; every dog has his day.
While canines have roamed the planet for eons and shared the company and shelter of man over millennia, one powerful latter-day assignment is but a century old – the squadron or hangar dog. It is perhaps the highest calling any dog can have, for he or she will provide anchorage and embrace for those in peril in the air.
We now know that the appearance of the first squadron or aviation dog dates to the crack of dawn of flight, to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers were still experimenting and preparing their machine for their now seminal flight. The dog was there, but his name is not recorded; just a nameless black dog accompanying a man and a boy in a photograph of the 1903 Wright Flyer on the launching track.
The Wright brothers’ flight was only 11 years before the half-decade-long misery and meat grinder that was the First World War. By that time, the squadron dog was already part of the culture of aviation and, in particular, military aircraft. Many a group photo or image of pilots relaxing included a four-legged aviator standing mutely with his or her pilots and ground crews.
Over years of storyline research on the web and in books for our Vintage Wings of Canada website, I consistently ran across these images of smiling pilots and their dogs. In almost every picture, the pilots appeared to be relaxed, confident, positive and even laughing. It got me to thinking about the role of these hangar hounds, these unit pooches, these squadron dogs. What is their universal appeal for the aviator? You never see dogs hanging around race car drivers or lawyers or locomotive engineers, so why the abundance of Pooch ’n’ pilot imagery throughout the history of aviation?
The connection, I believe, is found in three of the most important factors impacting a combat pilot’s life – youth, fear, and loneliness – a potent mix that finds a semblance of balance and normalcy in a four-legged animal with no animosity.
To begin with, fighter pilots and bomber crews are, if anything, young. Boys, really, just a couple of years past high school, first dates, harvest time and field sports. And kids love dogs, and dogs, as they do, return that love in a never-ending do-loop of unconditional affection. Growing up, they see dogs as companions in adventure, not- judgmental listeners, and surrogates for youthful love. It’s just natural.
Secondly, combat airmen were facing repeated peaks of ungodly stress, horrific personal losses, endless deprivation and, in what has to be an understatement, an uncertain future. These strains and bombardments on their psyches caused extreme degradation to their confidence and overall mental state. The squadron dog provided momentary release from these responsibilities and, in the same way, that, today, dogs are used to help comfort, ground and bring relief to patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression, aircrew found solace in a dog and a link to a real world without the stresses they faced.
Thirdly, and most importantly, most combat groundcrew and aircrew, despite the bravado and squadron camaraderie, were profoundly lonely. They longed for mail from home, their mothers and girlfriends, a home-cooked meal, high school buddies, and some semblance of the way it was before they found themselves in their predicament. While stories abound of pub-fueled exploits with Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute girls and London “birds”, the vast majority of these young men spent their months and years of hardship without the simple blessing of affection. Mothers were not there to stroke their hair. Fathers were not there to lay a hand upon their shoulders. Sweethearts were not there to fold them in their arms. It is a known phenomenon that one sure way to feel the warmth of affection is to give affection. Enter the scrawny, floppy, slobbering, squadron puppy whose affection meter (sometimes called a tail) is always pinned at “Happy To See You”.
The squadron dog had an important role in squadron life, and some dogs were given official status as “Squadron Mascot” such as the spaniel Straddle of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 422 Squadron or the Vietnam Thud [F-105 Thunderchief] drivers’ legendary Roscoe, of the United States Air Force’s 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron. But the vast majority of these welcome creatures were simply the stray puppy or the starving cur that haunted the chow line or the flight line. I have always wondered what happened to these dogs as the unit got transferred or the war wound down or their masters failed to return from a mission. I know that in many cases of the death or capture of the pilot or crewman who owned the dog, the little guy would have been adopted by a fellow airman. In rare cases, the dog immigrated to Canada upon the return of the squadron. The vast majority, unfortunately, were victims of the war.
I have this maudlin image in my head of the fate of most of these lovely dogs, especially those adopted in-theatre. I see the desert of North Africa. The last aircraft is fading into the haze, trucks filled with equipment and ground crew are raising a cloud of dust in the low light of a late afternoon as they too fade into the distance. I feel a growing silence. I see the detritus of war blowing and flapping in the desultory breeze, flies buzzing over middens of cans and boxes. I see heat rising from the desert floor and a single whimpering dog, standing, looking… waiting. War is hell, even for dogs.The Squadron Dog… long may the little guy live!
This article originally appeared on the Vintage Wings of Canada website and is translated and reproduced with permission of the author.