This story originally was published in the Sun Herald on January 11, 2009.
Cat Island was turned over to the dogs in World War II. A year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the barrier island 10 miles off the Mississippi Coast was occupied by about 25 dog trainers and an equal number of dogs, many of them giant breeds such as Irish Wolfhounds and Great Danes.
The war dogs and the military trainers were on a top secret mission. The temperate, sandy, sometimes marshy Gulf of Mexico island was chosen because of its similarity to Pacific islands, and that’s a hint at the secrecy. The dogs were to become weapons against the Japanese.
Locals knew something was happening on the islands because in October 1942, a month before the dogs moved in, this newspaper reported a federal eminent domain trial for Cat Island, named for the raccoons or “wild cats” French explorers found there. Another hint was found in the same news report, which mentioned the American Legion had leased its portion of neighboring Ship Island to Uncle Sam “for defense.”
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The new four-legged residents moving onto Cat Island were pets patriotically donated for the war cause. Unknown to their previous owners, they were to be trained to recognize Japanese by sight and smell and to viciously attack them in packs.
The failed experiment lasted less than four months and resulted in government investigations, unforgettable stories and misinformation that continue today.
“You can train dogs to identify Japanese and other Asians, and there is no question that they can alert on Asians, as was proven in Vietnam,” said Michael G. Lemish, military dog historian and author of “War Dogs: Canines in Combat,” which includes a section on the Cat Island boondoggle.
“The Asian diet is based on rice and the diets of Westerners, for the most part, is wheat based. That s two different scents for the dogs.”
What became controversial was the use of attack dogs in packs, said Lemish, a field service engineer who lives in Westborough, Mass., and is historian for the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association. His 1996 book is now in paperback titled “War Dogs: A History of Loyalty and Heroism” and another book on Vietnam-era war dogs is due out this year.
“The pack dogs on Cat Island never really got off the ground,” Lemish said. “The civilian pushing the program blamed it on not getting the right dogs, but what chance does a pack of dogs have attacking a machine gun nest? Not much, but back then the military was desperate and would look at any possibilities. They even strapped explosives on bats [the winged creatures] that could be dropped out of planes to roost in Japanese houses and buildings. That program stopped when in training they exploded a building in California.”
The Cat Island attack dog packs didn’t last much longer. Americans who had donated their pets for the war cause would never have allowed their dogs to be used as offensive suicide weapons.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the military had about 40 military dogs. A civilian dog expert, Arlene Erlanger of New York, approached the government about forming Dogs for Defense, and through that program 40,000 dog owners volunteered their pets. All but 17,000 were weeded out because of size or temperament, and of those 12,000 completed training.
“Everything I’ve read about the Cat Island experiment comes across that it wasn’t working out and it was being done half-heartedly,” Lemish said. “You can train attack dogs, but to train them in packs is a farce.”
One thing is certain: No one can question the loyalty of the Army trainers and their dogs who stayed on Cat Island. And certainly no one can question the patriotism of the Japanese-Americans, called Nisei, who bivouacked on Ship Island and traveled by boat to Cat to be tracked and attacked by dogs.
This was going on here as thousands of Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps across the country because national leaders feared they would spy for Japan. Despite this discrimination, Nisei served in the military and were highly decorated for heroism.
Many soldiers involved in the island experiment — both the American dog trainers and the Nisei who allowed themselves to become the hunted — are gone, but they’ve left behind memoirs and books.
For those still alive, the experience was unforgettable. When 89-year-old Arthur Lang read a news article last autumn about an upcoming PBS’s “History Detectives” special on the Cat Island war dog experiments, memories flooded back.
The New York native was one of the trainers, picked because before the war he had trained greyhound racers and show dogs. Many trainers had similar stories; one was even connected to famous Rin Tin Tin, another to Alaskan sled dogs.
“We, of course, didn’t talk about it back then, but I felt the program was very limited,” said Lang, a longtime Coast resident and Army sergeant at the time.
“Here we were at war in Europe and the Pacific and we’re trying to train dogs to scent only one thing, Japanese, only one area of operation and even that was limited to island warfare. So you eliminated much of the American military and the whole European Theater of operations.
“We trained both scout and attack dogs. We found out that mixed breeds and medium-sized dogs were better candidates that giant pets.”
Being a good soldier, Lang kept quiet. The world was at war and he was doing his part, having arrived secretly by night. His mission led to a new life in Mississippi after he married the late Audrey Davis of Hancock County.
When the experiment shut down, Lang was transferred to Army Air Corps Gulfport Field, where he worked with sentry dogs, then later in protection duty for Gen. Douglas MacArthur before being among the first to land in Japan after surrender.
Lang lived on the Coast until Hurricane Katrina claimed his Waveland house and he moved to New Mexico. He learned of renewed interest in the Cat Island experiment when his son sent a news clipping on the “History Detectives,” which is investigating a mysterious dog trainer letter.
The show invited 92-year-old Raymond Nosaka of Hawaii to the Coast to film his memories for the show. Although the show won’t air until June, the advance publicity is tweaking memories. Nosaka, for example, remembers the Nisei clinging to swamp trees, facing the possibility of falling into the mouths of vicious dogs — or alligators.
“It was so top secret that for 10 years we were not allowed to talk about it,” said Nosaka, who was in Company B, 100th Infantry Battalion Separate.
Lang’s memories are from being on the other end of the dog training. He remembers giant mosquitoes and alligator gars and killing a wild hog but being unable to eat it for fear of disease. With no land passes, boredom abounded when the dogs were at rest.
The civilian (sometimes described as a Swiss man name Pestre) who persuaded the Roosevelt administration that attack dogs could be weapons against fortified positions had the trainers chain or tie them together in attack packs. Although dogs were used across the world for warfare, that particular use had been abandoned hundreds of years ago in favor of using them for patrols, messengers and scouts.
Lang remembers government horses were brought to a Gulfport farm for slaughter to feed the secret dogs, and when locals found out they were unhappy, suspecting the meat was for human consumption. One sidebar to that was the island trainers were assigned horses they used for transportation.
Lang distinctly remembers an island inspection that put the coffin nail in the program. After watching the dogs attack the Nisei, an Army Ground Force inspection team was uncertain about how aggressive the dogs, once pets, would be in a real war situation. That much is written about in books, but Lang emphasized another point: “When the inspector saw the guy being attacked, even though he was wearing a padded suit, he knew that Americans would not be happy that their pet dogs were attacking someone.”
After the inspection, the program wound down and trainers returned to their units.
Although the Japanese experiment had disbanded, Cat Island continued to be used for secret dog training, but this time for something more sensible. One of the experiments was with the 828th Signal Pigeon Replacement Company, which teamed messenger pigeons with dogs for communication. As historian Lemish put it, “They found the dogs’ true calling, to be able to silently alert when enemy is near, for communication, sentry and to detect explosives.”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes Coast Chronicles as a freelance correspondent. You can reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.