Remembering Vietnam War Hero Bob Throneburg

This photo shows handlers and their dogs, along with Security Forces Museum Director Ken Neal, standing in front of Nemo's Memorial at Lackland Air Force Base. In the background is a wreath donated by MWDTSA in honor of Vietnam veteran dog handler Bob Throneburg.
Pictured here: MWDTSA is humbled to provide a wreath to honor the memory of Bob Throneburg. Handlers and MWDs from the 802nd SFS K9 Section—along with Ken Neal, Security Forces Museum Foundation—installed the wreath at Nemo’s Memorial on Friday, February 7, 2020, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. (Photo credit: TSgt Joseph Williams, NCOIC, Security Forces Museum)

On February 5, 2020, Vietnam veteran dog handler Bob Throneburg passed away at his South Carolina home. His obituary contains details on the memorial service.

The news spread quickly through the military working dog community, along with a 2017 article from Duke Energy’s Illumination. Duke Energy has graciously granted us permission to reprint this piece below.

As you reflect on Bob Throneburg’s life and legacy, we invite you to share memories and thoughts in the Comment section below. Rest easy and thank you for inspiring our nation’s MWD program.

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A soldier and the dog that saved his life

Nemo saved airman Bob Throneburg’s life during the Vietnam War and became a symbol of heroism

by Elizabeth Leland

Waiting until the cover of darkness, in the suffocating heat of Vietnam, Air Force airman Bob Throneburg started out on patrol with his war dog, Nemo. It was December 4, 1966. Sixty Viet Cong had infiltrated Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base the night before with a brutal mortar attack, and enemy stragglers remained hidden.

Nemo’s charge was to find them. He was trained to be a killer.

On Veterans Day, November 11, he is celebrated as one of the most heroic of the U.S. K9 Corps, which formed in 1942 and deployed more than 4,000 dogs during the Vietnam War.

That night in Vietnam, the German shepherd’s ears shot up. His body stiffened, hackles raised, tail rigid. He sensed the intruder before Throneburg saw him. The guerrilla tried to flee, but Throneburg fired his M16.

This graphic includes two 1966 photos of Bob Throneburg after the bandaging of his injury.

It was the first time in combat for Throneburg, 22, from Albemarle, N.C., who had arrived in Vietnam five months earlier. He couldn’t stop to dwell on the deadly encounter. He and Nemo, alongside another soldier and his dog, continued on their mission.

“The last thing I remember, it was 3 a.m. and I was hiding behind a bulldozer,” Throneburg said.

For a second time, Nemo’s ears shot up, alerting Throneburg to an intruder.

Throneburg turned Nemo loose.

The Viet Cong fired several shots from his AK-47. Throneburg took a hit in his left shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Nemo took one on his nose and lost his right eye. Nemo continued fighting, giving Throneburg time to call for backup.

The other U.S. soldier pulled Throneburg to safety.

“Then I started fading away,” Throneburg said. “Nemo came back and crawled on top of me.”

And there Nemo lay, guarding his handler the way he was taught, refusing to budge. “On a good day, he was just a normal laid-back sentry dog, easygoing,” Throneburg said. But when you got him mad, “he was about as mean as a brokeback snake.”

It took a former handler to finally pry Nemo off.

In a 1967 article in Air Force News, the base veterinarian was quoted as saying: “He was in pretty bad shape. I had to do skin grafts on his face and perform a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His right eye had to be removed, but even this didn’t lessen his ability. It only made his other senses – hearing and smell – more sensitive.”

Throneburg and Nemo were reunited one last time at the base hospital. In a photo taken that day, Nemo leans in toward a smiling Throneburg as the handler scratches his companion’s neck. They never saw each other again.

Left: Nemo (date unknown), Right: Bob Throneburg in 2017

Throneburg was airlifted to a hospital in Japan and underwent five surgeries over seven months to repair his shoulder. “It hurts every day of my life,” he said. “Every day. It never goes away. It always hurts. I’m starting to lose quite a bit of mobility.”

Nemo recuperated at Tan Son Nhut before retiring from active duty. He became the face of the K9 Corps, used to help recruit thousands of dogs into the service. He died in 1972 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where his kennel stands as a memorial.

Bob Throneburg received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star medal.

Back in North Carolina, he earned a degree in architectural drafting and took a job in 1976 in the drafting department at McGuire Nuclear Station. Bob retired from Duke Energy in 1999 but returned in 2001 and works as a contractor in the planning department at the Catawba Nuclear Station in South Carolina. He is 73.

He and his wife, Patricia, live in Gaffney, S.C., with their 4-year-old great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Jade – and two rescue Portuguese water dogs, Maggie and Bessie. Over the years, they’ve kept other dogs and they plan to have more. But for Throneburg, none can ever compare with Nemo, the dog who saved his life.

“Your sentry dogs become a part of you, a part of your being,” he said. “You work with them so closely and you depend on them and they depend on you. That’s why they call them dog teams.”

An inscription Throneburg wrote for a war dog memorial in Tampa, Fla., reflects the depth of his feelings:  

Brave beyond words.

Ferocious without self-regard.

Bonds never broken.

Loyal till death.

Defender of the night.

He was a war dog.

Stay back, handler down!

About Nemo

Nemo, serial No. A534 of the 377th Security Police K-9, was returned to the United States and spent his retirement at the Department of Defense Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He died there in December 1972.

German Shepherd Dogs in the Military: A Brief Historical Overview

This photo shows a German Shepherd Dog focused on her handler, who is not pictured.
Afola, a German Shepherd Dog with the U.S. Air Force, awaits commands from her handler. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Patrick Evenson) To learn how you can support military working dogs deployed in combat zones overseas, visit MWDTSA’s home page.

By Brad Cohick, MWDTSA

Development of the German Shepherd Dog Breed and Early Trials

Between 1899 and 1914, the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) was developed by Captain Max von Stephanitz of the German Army to be a working dog. Many years of selective breeding by Stephanitz honed the traits of intelligence, loyalty, dedication, and tenacity needed for military and police applications. Eager to show the prowess of the new breed, Stephanitz loaned these new dogs to German police departments–the first K9 Corps.

During this trial period with German police, these new dogs showed great promise in areas such as obedience, tracking, and protection. Stephanitz believed these dogs could also be useful to the German military. After these early trials with German Police units, Stephanitz sought to have GSDs added to German Military units. The timing could not have been better for Stephanitz and his new German Shepherd Dogs.

German Shepherd Dog (GSD) Photo: PDPics.com

World War I

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, German Shepherd Dogs began serving with the German Military. They performed a number of tasks on the battlefield and within the ranks of the German Army. These new dogs served as sentries, messengers, and ammunition carriers. They proved themselves especially capable in aiding wounded soldiers on the battlefield. They even led injured and blinded soldiers off the battlefield to safety and medical attention. This latter act by the new breed eventually led to the development of the first seeing eye dog, an important function the GSD still serves today.

While at first amused by the use of dogs on the battlefield, the soldiers on both sides of the conflict were quickly impressed. They saw these new dogs performing numerous heroic acts under stressful and dangerous conditions. In fact, soldiers were so impressed by the dogs’ capabilities that after the conflict, the Germans, as well as the Americans and the English, began to develop their own cadre of German Shepherd Dogs for use in the military. GSDs would prove themselves again in conflict when World War II broke out in 1939.

Photo: publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com

World War II

During WWII, the Germans again utilized GSDs, and the U.S. began deploying them, as well. U.S. GSDs served mainly as messengers, helping soldiers to communicate on the battlefield. GSDs also acted as guards and search and rescue dogs during the war. In all of these roles, the GSDs performed well. This led to the establishment of many K-9 training camps, where GSDs began training regularly for service in the U.S. Military.

Beginning in August 1942, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps established dog training centers at Front Royal, VA; Fort Robinson, NE; Cat Island (Gulfport), MS; Camp Rimini (Helena), MT; and San Carlos CA. The K-9 Corps initially accepted thirty-two breeds of dogs for training.

By 1944, however, the military reduced that list to seven: German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Siberian huskies, farm collies, Eskimo dogs, and Malamutes. Today, GSDs are the only breed still trained by the U.S. Military from that original list. Modern additions include the Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers now being trained and mobilized as Military Working Dogs (MWDs).

Formal training

Training for dogs at these K-9 Camps lasted between 8 and 12 weeks and consisted of “basic training” to get the dogs accustomed to military life. After this initial twelve-week training period, the dogs would go on to a specialized training course in one of four areas: Sentry Dog training; Scout or Patrol Dog training; Messenger Dog training; or Mine Detection Dog training.

After successful completion of the specialized training, the dogs and their handlers would be organized into War Dog Platoons. During the course of World War II, the military deployed fifteen War Dog Platoons to the European and Pacific Theaters of War. Seven served in the European Theater and eight in the Pacific Theater. It has been said that while on patrol in the Pacific Theater with a War Dog Platoon, no units were ever ambushed thanks to the K-9s assigned to those units. Many of the dogs trained and deployed during WWII were German Shepherd Dogs.

The Korean War

After World War II, due to lack of interest and budget issues, the military cancelled and closed most of the War Dog Programs. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon, however, stayed intact to some degree and moved from Front Royal, Virginia to Fort Riley, Kansas in 1948. On December 7th, 1951, the responsibility for dog training was transferred to the Military Police Corps. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon moved again to Fort Carson, Colorado.

The 26th Scout Dog Platoon was the only active War Dog Platoon to serve in the Korean War. It served with honor and distinction in Korea from June 12th, 1951 to June 26th, 1953. Platoon members were awarded a total of three Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars for Valor, and thirty-five Bronze Stars for meritorious service. On February 27th, 1953, the Department of the Army recognized the accomplishments of the platoon in General Order No. 21.

One Dog who proved an outstanding success with the 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon in Korea was Scout Dog York (011X). York completed 148 combat patrols, the last one coming the day before the Armistice was signed officially ending the war. On July 1, 1957, the War Dog Training Center was moved from Fort Carson, Colorado to Fort Benning, Georgia¹.
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¹Webpage, 47th Scout Dog Platoon, http://www.47ipsd.us/47k9hist.htm

Vietnam

During the initial phases of the Vietnam War, German Shepherds were used mainly on Air Force installations as sentry dogs. However, as the war escalated, The United States Marine Corps entered into a service agreement with the US Army to have them train German Shepherds as scout dogs. This would be the first time since World War II that the Marines had used scout dogs. Two Marine scout dog platoons were deployed to Vietnam in February 1966.

The Marines kenneled their dogs near Da Nang at Camp Kaiser, named after the first Marine scout dog to be killed in action in Vietnam. The first Army scout dog platoon was deployed to Vietnam when the 25th IPSD arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in June 1966. Between late 1965 and January 1969, twenty-two Army Scout Dog Platoons (including the 47th IPSD) and Four Marine Scout Dog Platoons were deployed to Vietnam².
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²Ibid

Dogs are comrades, not equipment

Over 9,000 handlers and 4,000 dogs served in the Vietnam War. The final disposition of the dogs after the war is a sad and disgraceful episode in our military’s history, however. At the time, the dogs were viewed as equipment by the military, and disposition of the dogs after the war was done in the most economical way. The dogs were given to the reluctant South Vietnamese military if possible for an unknown disposition, and at worst, were euthanized or simply left to fend for themselves. A most despicable and shameful ending for the beautiful and heroic dogs who had served our military personnel so gallantly on the battlefield.

This sad episode led to a large public outcry. In response, the military pledged not to dispose of military working dogs in the same manner. Congress eventually passed a law that allows military dogs to have an honorable retirement. President Clinton signed a bill in November 2000 (H.R. 5314), which amended title 10 of the US Code. This allowed for the adoption of retired military working dogs to former handlers and other qualified civilians.

Now, these life-saving dogs in the military can finally look forward to a comfortable and dignified retirement.

Author’s Note:

According to a former Vietnam MWD Handler here at MWDTSA, GSDs served in Vietnam not only as Scout Dogs but also as Mine & Tunnel dogs. The advent of IHS fever helped the US military decide not to bring home GSDs, since they and most US bred dogs were subject to it. After Vietnam, all dog units except AF were disbanded. Due to the “overbreeding” of American GSDs, the AF began its favoritism toward the Malinois, including a breeding program.

German Shepherd Dogs: 9/11 and Beyond

German Shepherd Dogs have been part of the US Military’s Military Working Dog program since the end of the Vietnam war, through the Cold War years and up to today’s climate of global terrorism and asymmetric threats. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common breeds of dogs used by military operators, because they have the best overall combination of keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence, and adaptability to almost any climatic condition.”

Currently, the Army has approximately 600 dog teams, which have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan³. The courage and loyalty of these dogs have continued to save lives and prevent injuries since creation of the K-9 Corps.

Many of the dogs on these current teams are German Shepherds, and they serve in many roles and perform many duties. Today, we can see German Shepherds performing HALO jumps with Special Operators and inserting from boats with Navy SEAL Teams. These dogs continue to be valued members of our Military and patriotic guardians of our freedom.

German Shepherd Dogs likely will have a place in our military for years to come. They have served with distinction in many theaters and in many conflicts around the world. Should you have the good fortune to meet MWD teams, please thank them for serving our country.
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³U.S. Army.mil

 

About MWDTSA

The Military Working Dog Team Support Association is an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit serving MWD teams in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. With your support, we send quarterly care packages to MWD teams deployed in global combat zones. Additionally, we boost morale with stateside MWD kennel visits. We promote veteran causes and memorials, including recognition of retired MWDs. And we host education events and create content to educate the public about the jobs of MWD teams. To learn more, visit MWDTSA’s home page.