The history of humanity is held in the fragile palm of our stories. When they are lost, a part of us leaves with them. Perhaps that is why, even as a young child, I treasured the stories my father told us.
Although a born raconteur, he was oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII. My older brother and sister were on the cusp of adolescence and I was still engrossed in childhood, so we were too young to understand the brutality of war. Thus, intrigued and naive, we cajoled him mercilessly to tell us about his life in the army during those years, especially when the tales spoke of life-and-death adventures.
Unlike his other stories, which were invariably charismatic and often humorous, those from the war were meant to serve, like Aesop’s Fables, as moral lessons for his children to learn. I didn’t grasp this until many years later. when it was too late and my father was gone, felled by a heart attack. By then, the stories he’d told were either forgotten or punctured with holes, the remaining threads barely clinging to our fading childhood memories. But one remains, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related just moments ago.
I always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it was much more than that.
In light of the horrendous events of WWII, many have forgotten that in the early years of the war, the United States stood staunchly isolationist. Our country was still struggling to recover from WWI and a cascading economic depression. Thus, on September 3, 1939, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, our president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his staff watched with mounting concern the steady onslaught of Hitler’s armies. They knew it was not a question of “if” the United States would enter the war, but “when.”
FDR appointed a small number of military advisors to go to Europe and observe, first-hand, what was happening. My father, an attorney in civilian life, was also a military intelligence officer and a colonel in the reserves. He was selected to join this elite corps. Their ostensible purpose was to assess the status of readiness and provide tangential assistance to various Allied nations, without any formal commitment. Their actual purpose was to determine what the needs and potential repercussions would be when we joined the battle.
England, in particular, was desperate for the United States to come to its aid. When my father was sent overseas, the British high command accorded him all the hospitality available, hoping he would send back reports urging our involvement. While billeted in London, he was among the first Americans to hear about the impending catastrophe at Dunkirk.
On May 20, 1940, the first German panzers rumbled through France, their armored columns advancing inexorably toward the seaports of Boulogne and Calais. Both towns fell quickly under the onslaught. The panzers then blitzed north to Dunkirk.
Officers of the RAF Coastal Command; courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Surrounded by the advancing Germans, 428,000 French and British troops were squeezed into a seven-mile-wide perimeter around the port. The beach exploded around the stranded men as bombs from screaming Stukas rained down on them. Bullets poured out from the enemy machine guns encircling the troops. Meager fortifications built from sand fell apart, revealing blood and bodies. All of Dunkirk seemed to be engulfed by fire.
In England, over the airwaves and by word‑of‑mouth, the call went out for every seaworthy vessel to cross the treacherous channel to rescue the stranded men. Responding to the need, and heedless of strafing from the German planes zooming overhead, the channel was soon speckled with hundreds of vessels. For days, boats of every conceivable size, from large navy ships and private yachts to fishing vessels and tiny sailboats, steadily crisscrossed the channel, determined to save the men.
In Dunkirk, bombs from the German planes circling over the helpless troops churned the harbor and smashed into the ships, while enemy machine guns bore down on them all. Many of the vessels that had come to the rescue burned and sank. Their wreckage turned the harbor into an obstacle course. Still, whether large or small, the ships and boats continued to come, intent on rescue.
Despite the carnage and peril, the men on the beach maintained order during the nine days between the arrival of the first rescue ship and the final German breakthrough that sealed off the beaches. Solid, stubborn and resolute, the troops and their would-be rescuers ran the fiery gauntlet across the English channel to and from this hellish edge of France.
The country cheered in their common joy and strength of purpose as boat by boat, ship by battered ship, the soldiers reached the shore and safety of England. Incredibly, in spite of horrendous casualties, most of the stranded men made it back.
Among the exhausted and injured soldiers taken from that fateful position at Dunkirk were a young lieutenant and his large, black-and-tan German Shepherd. These dogs were used as couriers. With messages in little canisters tied to their collars, they raced between bomb blasts and bullets to bring information to other units. The dogs were famous for their courage and loyalty, and the lieutenant’s dog was no exception.
The young officer was gravely wounded. When they came ashore, his men brought him and the dog, which had jumped into the boat, to a small, coastal hospital. Throughout the entire ordeal, the lieutenant’s dog had trotted along, always close to the litter on which the young officer lay. But, as they approached the elevator, the stretcher-bearers were told the dog could go no farther. Raising himself as best he could, the injured officer turned to the dog and softly said his name, though no one heard it. His trembling hand reached out, gently patting the dog's head. “Sit,” he said. Then, laboriously, he added, “Hold your position.” The litter moved into the elevator and the dog inched forward on his haunches. When the elevator doors shut, the dog whimpered then stilled, eyes fixed on the closed doors. The young lieutenant did not return.
For several days, the dog sat at attention before the elevator doors. Periodically he would leave his post to go outside and take care of his daily needs, but immediately he returned to sit facing the elevator, watching intently as the doors opened and closed.
Over the next few weeks, the staff tried to entice the dog out of the hospital, but once outside, he would bark and scratch the outer doors until someone, taking pity, let him in. The butcher across the street began to feed him. Every day, around 5 pm, the lieutenant’s dog would cross the street, take the offered meat, gobble it down, then dash back to the hospital entrance. Eventually, when the dog left for his daily ambulation, one of the hospital staff would prop open the door. It wasn’t long before the dog learned how to kick out the prop and close the door behind him after he returned.
Rescue ship returning from the Battle of Dunkirk (left); wounded soldier at Dover, England (right); courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
People hearing the story started to come to see the lieutenant’s dog. Perhaps as a brief antidote to the misery of the war, the little hospital became a popular tourist stop. News of the crowds who gathered to see the dog brought the situation to the attention of the hospital administrator in London. At first, he decided the dog simply could not remain in the hospital lobby. “It’s not hygienic,” he said. “It’s not safe.” But the area where the dog lay was an enclosed entrance foyer, separated from the main hospital. Eventually, the hospital’s director may have found this modest architectural division sufficient, or perhaps he was kind-hearted, or the affection of the staff and nurses swayed his resolve. Whatever the reason, after his orders to evict the dog were repeatedly ignored, no more were issued. The dog became a permanent part of the hospital routine.
The only problem was that as the weeks and months went on, an increasing number of people crowded the entrance to the hospital, making it difficult for patients and staff to go in or out. Equally disheartening was the public’s reaction to the dog. Fascinated by his rapt attention to the elevator doors, the visitors tried to distract him, gawking, laughing, pulling his tail and tweaking his ears. They pestered the dog relentlessly, much to the consternation of the staff, who had accepted this dog as their own responsibility.
“Something must be done!” cried the hospital employees. “This dog, our dog, must be left in peace to obey the last command entrusted to him.”
That is when my father got involved.
After the attack on Dunkirk, my father was invited to tour a few of the hospitals and meet some of the valiant men who were there. When he arrived at this sleepy fishing village, he saw a caravan of cars and buses. Behind this encampment was the little hospital, with hordes of people streaming in and out.
My father and the administrator pushed through the crowds. Once inside, they saw a beautiful German Shepherd, shrinking from the multitude of hands vying to pet him. The dog was pressed against the floor, tail tightly tucked in, struggling against this clamoring assault, earnestly trying to keep his attention focused on the elevator doors.
Undoubtedly due to the hospital’s strategic placement on the coast, photographs were not allowed. For that I will always be sorry because I would love to have seen what he looked like. But in my youthful memory, the dog’s image was clear and vivid. The young lieutenant’s dog looked, I was sure, exactly like the noble canine of Hollywood’s favorite hero: Rin Tin Tin.
Although my father was in the American military, many of his legal cases crossed international borders, and his judicial prowess was renowned. While he couldn’t practice law in England, the hospital’s solicitors believed his expertise could help them. They wanted to find a way to claim the dog and bar the general public from the hospital foyer.
Moved by the valor and steadfastness of this remarkable dog, my father agreed to help prepare the case, although he feared they could not win. The main difficulty, he informed the hospital staff—the plaintiff—was that a case like this could elicit a challenge from the military and undermine the very thing they wanted to keep and preserve. “You must remember, this dog isn't yours. Technically, he belongs to the army. “Furthermore,” he counseled, “dogs aren’t allowed in hospitals, so I don’t see that we would even get past the courts, much less be granted an injunction to protect the dog from the public.”
In spite of these reservations, my father, in his usual meticulous style, researched the law to support the hospital’s claim. Yet, he found no precedents that might provide a clue as to how to proceed.
My father was a clever man, not someone easily daunted. Nevertheless, on the day the case was to be heard in court, he was still mystified about how best to present their arguments. “Then,” he told us, “on my way to the barrister who would try the case, inspiration came.”
The case was heard and the court, somewhat bemused by the motion, entertained the barrister’s supposition that this dog, the lieutenant’s dog, was not military property but a national treasure. After considerable motions and countermotions, that is exactly what happened. As a national treasure, the dog became part of the public domain. Concurrent with this designation, the public was restrained from “damaging” him. A court injunction was handed down, barring anyone except hospital employees or designated representatives from approaching closer than 15 feet. The butcher was named “Guardian of the Trust.”
My father remembered his surprise at the voluble applause and appreciative yelling from the gallery when the verdict was read, and especially when the butcher was named. It was an outcry, he remarked, so unlike our American courts, which would have demanded obeisant quiet. Everyone heartily agreed that the butcher should have this honor since he had, from the beginning, been kindly feeding the dog.
For some months more, packs of eager tourists continued to arrive at the hospital. Unable to see the animal unless they happened to be present when the dog took his daily constitutional or his run to the meat shop, the notoriety faded. The dog remained at his sentry post, undisturbed and free from the clamoring crowds, for many more years.
“And then what happened?” my brother, sister and I cried excitedly when the story appeared to be concluded.
“What do you mean?” my father asked. “The case was won. The dog could stay, unmolested and free from prying eyes.”
“Is he still there?” we cried in chorus.
If memory serves me, my father glanced at my mother, uncertain as to how to proceed. We were still fairly young and at that time, I suspect my parents maintained a fantasy that they could protect us from all unhappy things.
“The dog was old, hard of hearing and possibly partially blind,” my father continued. “One evening, after leaving the butcher shop, he started to cross the street and was hit by a truck and killed.”
When I heard what happened to the young lieutenant’s dog, I was grief-stricken. Undoubtedly, in my six- or seven-year-old reaction, there were agonizing tears. I couldn’t understand the awful unfairness of this ignoble end for such a valiant dog. Now, decades later and well into my senior years, I still recall this dog with both wonder and sorrow. Yet, there is sweetness to another revelation. I recognize that this was not only the story of a dog, but a parent’s effort to give his children a lesson in courage, devotion, loyalty and love.
WWII soldier and military dog in the field (left); WWII Messenger Capsule (right); courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Almost 50 years after the incident related here, I researched the story in an attempt to find the hospital and, especially, someone who had worked there and seen the dog. Tantalizing clues popped up. One clerk in a government office remembered that the dog had been written up in her local newspaper, but that paper had long since gone defunct. Another vividly remembered her grandparents talking about the dog; a third woman thought she might have a photograph of the dog. The Alsatian* in the photograph, however, turned out to be a short-lived family pet. Finally, without knowing which court or even the date of the hearing, it has not been possible to find the judicial record.
In sum, beyond my own memory of the story as it was told to me, no other record appears to exist. However, with the increasing proliferation of digitized records, perhaps some enterprising journalist, writer or dog lover may stumble on the information that has, for so long, eluded me. I hope so, since such a worthy dog deserves to be honored and remembered.
*In WWI, the British renamed the German Shepherd as the “Alsatian.” In 1977, they restored the breed’s original name.