Loyal Forces: The American Animals of WWII – Book Review
Loyal Forces: The American Animals of World War II. Toni M. Kiser and Lindsey F. Barnes. Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 121 pages, plus bibliography. Black and white photos on nearly every page; eight pages of color photos. Hardback. $31.50
The words “cute” and “adorable” rarely show up in descriptions of nonfiction books about wartime—but the adorable puppy that graces the cover of Loyal Forces: The American Animals of World War II is probably the cutest thing ever to appear on the jacket of a military history book. A few of the many photos inside can also produce “Awwwww, how cute!” moments, such as the pint-sized pooch peering out of a helmet on page 23, a Yorkshire terrier named Smoky. Loyal Forces, however, is not sappy, syrupy or lightweight: it is a well-researched, engagingly written book on the role of animals in the American military during the Second World War.
The book is divided into seven chapters: Dogs and War; The Army Mule; Pigeons; The Last Cavalry Charge (primarily about American horse-mounted cavalry in the defense of the Philippines, 1941–42); Loyal Forces on the Home Front; Foreign Encounters (camels and elephants and monkeys, oh, my!); and Pets and Mascots.
Virtually every page has at least one black-and-white photograph and some have sidebars to supplement the body text. Page 21 (“Dogs and War” chapter), for example, includes a photo of a USMC German shepherd being x-rayed after being shot by a Japanese sniper on Bougainville. A sidebar describes the wounding on another dog on Guam—Hobo, a scout dog—and the efforts made to save him in the war-dog hospital, including blood transfusions from other war dogs. Such images and stories are necessary to show the danger animals were exposed to (along with their handlers) and the medical care they received, but the authors wisely chose to keep the photos of dead and wounded animals to a minimum. I was even able to show the book’s pictures to a woman who refuses to watch an animal movie unless she knows nothing bad is going to happen to the animal.
Pictures include photos of dogs in training, loaded pack mules, a horse wearing a gas mask, pet monkeys, homing pigeons, a leopard cub, big snakes, elephants of a portable surgical hospital in Burma, and other animals. There are also images of War Dog Fund certificates, along with dog tags and a thank-you letter received for making donations; a veterinarian’s bag; a pigeon vest and message capsule; a pack saddle, etc. Many of these are from private collections and others from organizations such as the FBI, US Coast Guard Archives, University of the Pacific Library, etc.
The authors, Toni M. Kiser and Lindsey F. Barnes, an archivist and registrar at The National World War II Museum, say in their brief preface that the book developed from a 2010 exhibit at the museum, “Loyal Forces: The Animals of World War II.” Unless you have immersed yourself in studying that subject, you are almost guaranteed to learn things from this book that you didn’t know. A few examples follow.
War dogs were tattooed with a serial number that followed them throughout their military career. Initially, 32 dog breeds and their crosses were considered acceptable for service, but by 1944 that list had shrunk to just five breeds. Of 559 Marine Corps dogs that survived the war, “540 were returned to civilian life. Of the 19 others, only four were unable to be retrained (to return to civilian ownership). The other 15 were euthanized because of health problems.” Others, however, were euthanized before a retraining program began.
Mules and Horses
The US Army purchased more horses than mules in 1941-42, but in 1943 it purchased 10,000 mules and just four horses. During the fighting in the Philippines, 1941-42, the horse-mounted 26th Cavalry Regiment at times routed Japanese infantry and made the last cavalry charge in US military history. The Mars Task Force, which operated behind enemy lines in the China-Burma-India Theater, was able to perform its task because pack animals allowed it to be self-sufficient, porting two field artillery battalions plus traveling medical, quartermaster and veterinary units into areas impassable for motorized transport.
Look, Up in the Sky!
Homing pigeons seem out of place in a war with extensive radio communications, but the US deployed 36,000 of the birds overseas; even submarine crews used them. The Axis sent trained hawks to kill the Allied birds in the sky. A pigeon named G. I. Joe was the only American animal to be awarded the Dickin Medal of Gallantry by the Mayor of London.
In what was arguably the “battiest idea” of the war, Dr. Lyle S. Adams of Pennsylvania conceived the idea of attaching small incendiary bombs to millions of bats and releasing them over Japan, where they would roost under the eves of buildings. The bat bombs (Holy incendiaries, Batman!) would ignite, setting the roof the bat was sheltering under on fire. Extensive research and testing was done before the program was dropped in 1944, after the expenditure of nearly $2 million; the book’s details of how much effort went into the Adams Plan are among its most fascinating.
Spiders and Snakes
Spider silk, one of the strongest substances on earth relative to its size, was used for crosshairs on gunsights, periscopes, surveying instruments, etc. “Spider ranches” procured the silk from black widows and other arachnids. Among the best-known, uh, spider wranglers was Nan Songer of Yucaipa, California, who was able to split silk as fine as 1/500,000 of an inch.
As American troops traveled overseas, many of them got up close and personal with animals they never would have seen otherwise outside of circuses or zoos. Camels in North Africa, elephants in Asia, monkeys, jackals—it was a serviceman’s version of Wild Kingdom. One photograph shows troops in the Philippines holding a dead snake above their heads; six men were required to support it from its tail to its head.
Loyal Forces ranks among the most unusual books I’ve seen on World War II, and it is a pleasure both to read and to peruse its pictures, many of the latter unavailable anywhere else. At 121 pages, it doesn’t require a great investment of time, and the narrative flows smoothly. My one complaint is that it could use an index.
This is a must-have book for anyone interested in the role of animals in World War II, but I also recommend it to readers interested in World War II generally and to animal lovers who might otherwise never crack open a military history book. It would make a great Christmas or birthday gift.
Besides, who could resist owning a picture of that adorable puppy on the cover?
Gerald D. Swick is senior editor of the Armchair General and History Net websites. He authored several entries for The Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History (ABC CLIO, 2005) and presently is trying to find a home for an article about the FBI’s first therapy dog.