Alaskan war dogs: Bridging past to future

  • Published
  • By Jack Waid
  • 354th Fighter Wing Historian
Editor's note: This is the third and final part of a series featuring the history of the military's use of sled dogs in Alaska. For the first part, click here. For the second part, click here.

It was not long after World War II that organizations such as the Alaska Dog Mushers Association and Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association were established. At the same time, races such as the North American Championship sled dog derby and the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Sled Dog Race were started.

It was into this world of dogs and racing that enlisted airborne instructor and World War II veteran Joe Redington Sr., Father of the Iditarod, arrived in Alaska in 1948.

Shortly after his arrival, Redington was able to secure a government contract and served with the 5039th Maintenance and Supply Group from 1949 to 1957.

He, along with other dog team drivers such as Sgt. Eldon Bush and Tech. Sgt. Bud Nesja, took dog teams out to aircraft crash sites to help recover personnel and aircraft. Also, members of a U.S. Air Force Intelligence unit trained with Redington as it was believed familiarization on the use of dogs and sleds may be needed in the future by the USAF Intelligence Corps.

Redington is thought to have had had a strong association with the 10th Air Rescue Squadron. The 10th ARS used dog teams as part of search and rescue operations in Alaska and had jump-qualified dogs, which had to have five jumps to wear jump wings, assigned to the unit. The history of the 10th ARS is today maintained by the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard.

In the '60s, the helicopter continued to become more technologically advanced and could reach places where only dogs could go before. The need for military dogs was beginning to fade, but not before the military found other uses for Alaskan war dogs.

Though fading, there was still a need as dogs were being studied at the Aero Medical Laboratory on Ft. Wainwright in an effort to understand the affects cold had on humans. From the lab emerged Master Sgt. Walter Millard.

Similar to Redington, Millard was jump qualified and a World War II veteran. After the war and a short break in service, Millard became a part of the Air Rescue Service and made over 250 jumps throughout his service in the military and many times with sled and dogs on rescue missions.

Millard was the first known Air Force participant in sled dog racing in the Fairbanks area. In March of 1963, he competed with huskies owned by the Aero Medical Laboratory in the preliminary heats for the North American Sled Dog Derby. Later, his Air Force "team" was invited to participate in the 1964 annual 10-mile Jeff Studdart Invitational Race.

In 1966, another big organization-sponsored team took center stage: The U.S. Army Alaska Modern Winter Biathlon Training Center dog team from Fort Richardson. At the team's head, though low in rank, was Pfc. Joe Redington Jr.

Redington Jr. was enlisted specifically by the Army to race dogs in Alaska. "They came to me and told me I was going to be drafted and then offered to enlist me and bring me back to Alaska to race for the Army on a two-year enlistment," he said.

Redington Jr., along with Sgt. 1st Class James VanHoutan, Spc. Five Larry Gibson, and Pfc. Johnny Armstrong raced and trained the dogs Redington Jr. competed with in 1966. That year, Redington Jr. won the coveted Fur Rondy trophy, bringing it back to Alaska after many years of being won by Dr. Roland Lombard from Wayland, Mass.

With things heating up in Vietnam, the military sled dog racing programs in Alaska were effectively disbanded. Redington Jr. was discharged and permitted to purchase a few of his previous military dogs and returned to civilian life, which would be the final curtain for the use of Alaskan military sled dogs in Alaska.

Whether it is pack dogs, sled dogs, sentry dogs, airborne dogs, or search and rescue dogs, the heritage of the Alaskan war dog is still seen today, specifically in the military working dog teams scattered throughout the state of Alaska at multiple military installations, our very own Eielson included.