A German shepherd named Prince was left behind in Vietnam decades ago, and the story of what happened to him after the war is just now coming to light.
Prince truly was a war hero. Although Purple Hearts are only awarded to humans, an exception was made for Prince, who received two of them. He was also the first dog ever to become a prestigious Navy SEAL.
Yet, like hundreds of other military working dogs (MWDs) at the time who helped protect the lives of countless U.S. troops, Prince was abandoned in Vietnam.
Prince’s heroic service didn’t matter back then. The Pentagon had unfounded concerns that the MWDs — some of whom had been family pets or police dogs, as Prince had been in Norfolk, Virginia — might carry deadly diseases that could be transmitted to other animals. The dogs were ordered to be euthanized in Vietnam after serving their purpose there.
What’s especially heartbreaking in Prince’s case is that after three tours of duty, he returned home in June 1970 and was going to retire. But when the Pentagon found out about it, Prince was flown back to Vietnam, despite protests from the Norfolk SPCA and Prince’s many fans.
When the war ended, MWDs were regarded as surplus equipment and left behind in Vietnam. Only about 200 of them returned to the United States, and about 1,600 of these four-legged heroes were euthanized by military personnel.
Others were given to the South Vietnamese army, and it’s assumed they were all killed when the army was overrun by the North. Many were simply abandoned and probably starved to death.
For nearly 50 years, the fate of war hero Prince has been a mystery. Finally, in a compelling three-part story for The Virginian-Pilot earlier this month, reporter Joanne Kimberlin revealed what happened to the German shepherd all those years ago. Here is an excerpt from that article:
Rick Woolard, one of those original SEALs, remembers being on a patrol with Bailey and Prince where they were beating their way through tall grass.
“It was hot as blazes,” Woolard said. “We ended up carrying the dog out. I’m sure it was Mike who carried him. It was either that, or the dog was going to die.”
Bailey says he hoisted Prince over his shoulder more than once, but mostly for stealth. Dogs splash across creeks and rice paddies. It’s impossible to teach them otherwise.
“But he sure didn’t like being carried,” Bailey said. “He was no lap dog.”
Prince distinguished himself at a place called Qui Nhon.
He and Bailey were scouting with a platoon trying to disrupt arms flowing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Prince was leading a night patrol up a sandy ridge when he “locked up – a hard-scent alert. His nose was going back and forth, testing the air. He stayed stiff, with his ears cocked and moving. I knew he had something, and it was big.”
Bailey and Prince melted behind a sand hill while the others stole back to warn another squad.
“We stayed hunkered down there for what seemed like a long, long time. Then I could hear them – North Vietnamese, around 100 of ’em. They walked right by us. Prince stayed quiet. No whining or nothing. When they got past us, our guys opened up and all hell broke loose.”
It was a tough fight. Plenty of casualties, no real winner.
Gary Parrott, a former officer, was on that patrol.
“I shudder every time I think of how close we were to losing the whole squad that night. There’s no doubt whatsoever, if it hadn’t been for Prince and Bailey, all our names would all be chiseled in black onyx today.”
Mike Bailey, one of Prince’s handlers, happened to see a story the newspaper published last year about the dog’s disappearance and got into contact with Kimberlin.
When Bailey returned to Vietnam on another tour in early 1971, he found Prince in a kennel with hundreds of other doomed MWDs.
“I bent down and he came to me, and he put his head right in my chest,” Bailey told the Virginian-Pilot, choking up at the memory.
Bailey was given permission to “borrow” Prince for his platoon, but he secretly planned to smuggle the hero dog back to the United States without anyone knowing the dog’s true identity. A veterinary tech was able to obtain Prince’s record and noted on it that the dog had been euthanized.
The next step was to fly Prince back to the U.S. along with SEAL equipment. Unfortunately, an admiral found out about Bailey’s plan and threatened to have him court-martialed.
As a last resort, when Bailey’s tour of duty ended months later, he tried to sneak Prince onto the plane with him. That plan also failed when suspicious officials showed up on the tarmac.
Bailey ended up leaving Prince with a warrant officer who promised to do his best to bring the dog home. It wasn’t until five years later that Bailey found out what had happened to Prince when he saw the warrant officer at a training school in Maryland.
Prince had wandered off and killed a water buffalo belonging to local villagers. “They were beating him with two-by-fours, but they couldn’t get him off,” Bailey told the Virginian-Pilot.
The warrant officer told Bailey he had to put Prince down – and it “wasn’t done the nice way, with a needle,” Bailey said. “We didn’t have things like that down there.”
Prince’s tale is truly heartbreaking, but what happened to him and all those other MWDs served as the impetus for new legislation that would prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
MILITARY WORKING DOGS NO LONGER LEFT BEHIND
So that other four-legged heroes would not have to suffer the same terrible fate as many of the MWDs in Vietnam, two important federal laws have since been enacted:
- “Robby’s Law,” enacted in 2000, made retiring military dogs eligible for adoption. It was named for a dog who was euthanized while his handler was trying to adopt him.
- In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the defense department to return military dogs to the United States when they retire and to give their handlers first dibs on adopting them.
Thanks to these laws, there are many more happy endings for retired MWDs. In fact, more than 90 percent of them are spending the rest of their lives with their beloved handlers.
RESOURCES FOR FINDING THE FATES OF VIETNAM WAR DOGS
Vietnam veterans who want to know what happened to the dogs they handled can visit the Vietnam Dog Handler Association website, which contains information about the fates of many of these dogs.
Bill Cummings, a veteran who was one of an estimated 10,000 dog handlers during the Vietnam war, has also created a database of information based on 38,000 military dog records from the defense department. He still gets calls “all the time” from veterans wondering what happened to their dogs.
“It felt like leaving a brother behind,” Cummings told the Virginian-Pilot. “So, yeah, even after all these years, they wake up one day and they can’t take it anymore. Their dogs are long dead, but they still want to know: ‘What happened to him?’”
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