Alaskan war dogs: Not forgotten

  • Published
  • By Jack Waid
  • 354th Fighter Wing Historian
Editor's note: This is part of a series featuring the history of the military's use of sled dogs in Alaska.

On Oct. 28, 2013, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, a monument was dedicated to military working dog teams, specifically recognizing the sacrifices of dogs in combat, a tribute to the military working dog and their handlers.

The military dog conjures up images of the Doberman on the sands of Iwo Jima or the Belgian Malinois as seen on many military installations today. It most certainly brings to mind the many images of the military working dog teams currently engaged in missions in the Middle East.

The importance of the monument at Lackland cannot be understated. It is a memorable reminder; a picture speaking a multitude of words. Its description of military working dog teams is relevant today, even here in Alaska.

In the not-so-distant past, Alaska boasted the only military working dogs in the whole of the U.S. military. In his book "War Dogs," author Michael Lemish shares that at the beginning of World War II, there were only about 50 military working dogs and they were all sled dogs in Alaska.

The use of dogs in Alaska is not a new concept. Author David Anderson said, "In interior Alaska, the history of dog team use ... can be traced to the contact period 150 years ago and before." He goes on to say dogs were used for a multitude of activities, including military applications such as exploration, accomplished primarily by the Army.

As a lieutenant in the Army, the late Maj. Gen. Joseph Castner explored the interior of Alaska. During his 1898-1899 exploration missions, he used dog teams and sleds as he explored from the Cook Inlet region to the areas around North Pole and Fairbanks prior to heading up the Yukon River to Ft. Yukon.

During the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush of the 1890s, Army Signal Corps officer, then Lt. William Mitchell arrived in Alaska. Between 1901 and 1905, he was directed to connect Alaska by telegraph, of which previous work had been hampered by the Alaskan interior winters.

Mitchell believed he could work year round while erecting the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System and the big proponent of his success would come by using dogs. Thus, he sought out local dog experts who taught him the fine art of mushing.

He used his new found skills and knowledge acquired to purchase 80 dogs along with harnesses and sleds for the government. With these dogs and equipment, hundreds of miles were traversed to complete the WAMCATS within two years, well ahead of Mitchell's five year schedule.

As time passed, the renown of the variety of Alaskan sled and pack dogs became well-known throughout the world, and their importance would become cemented in the history of the military.