Surviving Vietnam War Thanks To 'Man's Best Friend'
by U.S. Army Chuck Cannon
January 19, 2019
When Jerry Shirley left his home in DeRidder for the U.S. Army’s basic training on April 1, 1968, he thought he was headed, like most other draftees from Southwest Louisiana, to Fort Polk and a date with its infamous Tigerland.
“I was wrong — sort of,” Shirley said. “Fort Polk was full, so I ended up at Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training. From there, I went to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for MOS 11C — mortar man — training. I thought, ‘At least I don’t have to go to Tigerland.’”
At least he thought.
Shirley said when he rode through the gate at Fort McClellan, their first thing that greeted new arrivals was a sign that read, “Welcome to Tigerland.”
“It turned out Fort McClellan also had a Tigerland,” Shirley said. “The only difference was theirs had mountains.”
About two weeks before graduating, Shirley said the Soldiers in his advanced individual training unit heard rumors they were headed back to Fort Benning for scout dog school.
“I thought, ‘Scout dog school? I don’t even like dogs,’” he said.
The rumors turned out to be correct and Shirley and his classmates returned to Georgia to learn dog training and handling. He said the first two weeks of school were spent in garrison, living in barracks and learning about how to handle dogs. Then came the “fun” part of school.
“We spent the next 10 weeks in pup tents in the field training dogs,” he said. “We rappelled with our dogs out of helicopters, down mountains and off the side of hills. We’d make a sling out of a poncho and lower the dogs down.”
After finishing school, Shirley said it was off to Vietnam where he spent about 10 days training with his assigned dog, before being picked up by his unit, 34th Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog), 1st Cavalry Division.
U.S. Army Jerry Shirley, with his scout dog, Jack, in front of their unit, the 34th Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog), 1st Cavalry Division, in Vietnam in 1969. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Shirley)
Shirley said scout dogs and their handlers served an important — and dangerous — role in Vietnam, one not lost on the North Vietnamese Army.
“We learned we had a $1,000 bounty on our heads — both the Soldier and the dog,” he said. “We walked point, down trails. The dog was first, I was second. Most of the time units would call for us to go out with them when they thought the were about to get in some bad stuff.”
And as far as the training with ponchos to let their dogs down easily, Shirley said that went out the window in Vietnam.
“I never had to rappel with my dog in Vietnam,” he said. “Most of the time we were inserted by helicopter, and I’d just toss my dog out, then follow him.”
Once on the ground, Shirley said he would put his dog on a choke chain.
“When we were ready to go on a mission, we’d put a harness on them,” he said. “As we moved down the trail we’d say, ‘Search boy, search, find him, where is he?’”
Shirley said his life depended on his dog, how Shirley could read him. He said he had three dogs while in Vietnam — Ricky, a Black German Shepherd who had heat stroke and had to be euthanized; Billy, who Shirley refused to go to the field with because he was unreliable; and Jack.
“Jack was a good dog and could work off of his leash,” Shirley said. “I knew how to read him; if he alerted I would let the unit know and it would be up to them to check it out.”
Walking point can be stressful, Shirley said, especially in jungle canopy or at night when visibility was bad.
“When you’re on point, you don’t know what’s out there,” he said. “It was hair-raising all the time. Often the enemy was just minutes away. It was a scary thing the whole time, especially when you were on point. You had to know and trust your dog.”
As a result, Shirley said he kept what he did in Vietnam to himself while over there.
“I didn’t let my parents know what it was like over there,” he said. “My mom would have worried herself sick if she had known what I was really doing.”
Shirley said when his dog alerted, the dog would normally sit, start sniffing and perk his ears up.
“I’d go tell the unit I was with which direction he alerted,” he said. “They would go check it out. Once we were walking down a trail near Cambodia and the dog alerted. A member of the unit came up behind me. There was a footprint on the trail. He said it was about 5 minutes old.”
The unit set up that night and Shirley said he was in the middle of the perimeter with the commander and the radio operator.
“I remember hearing the scouts on the listening posts saying there’s hundreds of them (enemy) out here going down the trail carrying flashlights,” Shirley said. “Trip flares started going off and I guess I was just blessed because nothing happened that night. I got out the next day and that night the unit was wiped out.”
Once his year in Vietnam was complete, Shirley said he returned home to DeRidder.
“When I came home, my parents, brothers and sisters-in-law and other family members met me at the airport,” he said. “No one ever called me a baby killer or spit on me, so I can’t relate to that. But there was no welcome home ceremony for anyone.”
Shirley said the biggest difference he sees in Vietnam-era Soldiers and today’s Soldiers, who he’s in contact with as part of the role-playing team at the Joint Readiness Training Center is the training.
“Soldiers today are trained a lot different,” he said “From day one, when I went to basic, it was ‘You’re going to Vietnam and you’re going to kill.’ We’d do our training and they told us, ‘If you don’t do it like this, when you get to Vietnam, you’re going to get killed.’ Then the day I got back from Vietnam, they expected you to be normal. It’s hard to be normal. There is a lot more offered to vets now than there was back then.”
Shirley said not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about something in Vietnam.
“It’s embedded there,” he said. “We rode on helicopters a lot, and every time I see a helicopter, my first thought is Vietnam. I’m sure today these guys don’t get away from it either. Anytime you have an experience like that, it stays with you.
“I’ve seen things that no one should have to see. They’re implanted in my mind, and they don’t go away. I pray a lot and ask the Lord to help. I realize I’m home today because the Lord protected me.”
Shirley said he sometimes wonders how he made it out of Vietnam alive.
“I’ve wondered that for years,” he said. “I wondered why. Our life expectancy as a Soldier who walked point was not very long”.
He said he learned to appreciate what the term “suck it up” means.
“Two feet sticking out of a steel pot,” he said. “You can make yourself scarce if you want to. That helped when you were in Vietnam.”