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Scout Dogs and Their Handlers in the Vietnam War

by John C. Burnam

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7867-1137-X

Acrid memoir of infantry days spent in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968.

Four thousand dogs served in Vietnam for the American military. They were prizes for any unit, writes scout-dog handler Burnam in the gruff voice used throughout his text; sharp sensory equipment combined with extensive training gave them the jump on ambushes, booby traps, and kindred nasty battlefield situations. The first half of this work chronicles Burnam’s introduction to Vietnam—the clueless enlistee “had no idea there was a war going on in Vietnam or where that country was located on the globe”—providing a low-key but brisk primer on what it is like to be dropped into tropical landscapes to encounter people who want to kill you and work very hard to do so. (He will undoubtedly alienate some readers with his use of the term “Charlie,” but this seemingly derogatory nickname for “these fierce and savvy Asian warriors” comes as part of his rough packaging.) Luckily, Burnam managed to run a sharpened piece of bamboo through his knee rather than be killed, which certainly looked like his destiny. Recovering from that incident, he received training in dog-handling and then reenlisted for another tour of combat, a step for which he can provide no justification. The second half details his experiences on the battlefield with two German shepherds: Timber (“a grumpy draftee,” notes Burnam, tipping his hat to the dog’s native intelligence) and Clipper, who together saw the infantryman through traumatic combat shock, minefields, and intense battle fire. The dogs’ quick intelligence saved Burnam and his comrades’ bacon more than once. What thanks were they given? Fewer than 200 were shipped home, the remainder euthanized or slaughtered for food. The author and the Vietnam Dog Handler Association are seeking to acknowledge their contributions with a monument of their own.

Not a pretty story, nor prettily told. But few will deny that the dogs deserve this tribute.