Date archives: October 11, 2023

The History of Military Sled Dogs in Alaska

History of Military Sled Dogs in Alaska

Did you know that sled dogs played a pivotal role in World War II and today we are going to learn the fascinating history of these dogs and how it was not long after the war that organizations such as the Alaska Dog Mushers Association and Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association were established. At the same time, races such as the North American Championship sled dog derby and the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Sled Dog Race were started.

It was into this world of dogs and racing that enlisted airborne instructor and World War II veteran Joe Redington Sr., Father of the Iditarod, arrived in Alaska in 1948.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Mushing Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michele Forto: From First Paw Media, This is Mushing

On Oct. 28, 2013, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, a monument was dedicated to military working dog teams, specifically recognizing the sacrifices of dogs in combat, a tribute to the military working dog and their handlers.

The military dog conjures up images of the Doberman on the sands of Iwo Jima or the Belgian Malinois as seen on many military installations today. It most certainly brings to mind the many images of the military working dog teams currently engaged in missions in the Middle East.

The importance of the monument at Lackland cannot be understated. It is a memorable reminder; a picture speaking a multitude of words. Its description of military working dog teams is relevant today, even here in Alaska.

In the not-so-distant past, Alaska boasted the only military working dogs in the whole of the U.S. military. In his book “War Dogs,” author Michael Lemish shares that at the beginning of World War II, there were only about 50 military working dogs and they were all sled dogs in Alaska.

The use of dogs in Alaska is not a new concept. Author David Anderson said, “In interior Alaska, the history of dog team use … can be traced to the contact period 150 years ago and before.” He goes on to say dogs were used for a multitude of activities, including military applications such as exploration, accomplished primarily by the Army.

As a lieutenant in the Army, the late Maj. Gen. Joseph Castner explored the interior of Alaska. During his 1898-1899 exploration missions, he used dog teams and sleds as he explored from the Cook Inlet region to the areas around North Pole and Fairbanks prior to heading up the Yukon River to Ft. Yukon.

During the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush of the 1890s, Army Signal Corps officer, then Lt. William Mitchell arrived in Alaska. Between 1901 and 1905, he was directed to connect Alaska by telegraph, of which previous work had been hampered by the Alaskan interior winters.

Mitchell believed he could work year round while erecting the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System and the big proponent of his success would come by using dogs. Thus, he sought out local dog experts who taught him the fine art of mushing.

He used his new found skills and knowledge acquired to purchase 80 dogs along with harnesses and sleds for the government. With these dogs and equipment, hundreds of miles were traversed to complete the WAMCATS within two years, well ahead of Mitchell’s five year schedule.

As time passed, the renown of the variety of Alaskan sled and pack dogs became well-known throughout the world, and their importance would become cemented in the history of the military. 

During World War I, the French government asked Alaska’s Darling Kennels and Alaskan Scotty Allan, All Alaska Sweepstakes winner of the 1909, 1911 and 1912 races, to provide and train Alaskan sled dogs and sleds for the French war effort.

One hundred-six dogs were provided from Alaska and eventually found their way to France. While in France, these dogs provided invaluable service; they opened mountainous supply routes and communication between units in the field and headquarters not previously accessible.

Their actions were so important that in his book, “Soldiers and Sled Dogs,” Charles L. Dean wrote, “Three Alaskan sled dogs in French service were awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honors, for actions in combat.”

It was not long after the end of World War I that the nation was again drawn into another world war. At the beginning of World War II, the only military working dogs in the whole of the U.S. military were being utilized by Navy and Army forces in Alaska.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a real need to increase the number of military personnel in the Alaskan Territory. Gov. Ernest Gruening, Alaska Territorial Governor at the time, asked for military support and a plan was derived to create a territorial guard. Thus the Alaska Territorial Guard was formed by Maj. Marvin “Muktuk” Marston, an Army Air Corps officer.

Marston, along with Gruening, agreed to use the Alaskan native population to form this guard. Being predominately comprised of Alaskan Native Americans spread out from the Aleutians, the interior and coastal areas of Alaska, a form of transportation was needed so Marston could make contact with potential members.

 The ATG members put hundreds of miles behind them as they used dog teams and sleds over tundra, through woods and mountain passes. These teams not only scouted, but also transferred munitions, firearms, and other supplies to remote areas. For his efforts, Marston was recognized as an inductee in the Mushing Hall of Fame in Knik, Alaska.

One of the more colorful joint Native and white Alaskan units to come out of World War II was Castner’s Cutthroats, officially the 1st Alaska Combat Intelligence Platoon, or Alaska Scouts.

Led by Col. Lawrence Castner, men of this special unit knew how to live off the land, and by the war’s end they traveled thousands of miles to gather intelligence. They did so by means of boat and submarine, on foot, and by U.S. Army-owned dog teams and sleds.

Search and rescue teams were also operated throughout Alaska during World War II, often used to locate and retrieve downed pilots. At Ladd Field, later Ladd Air Force Base, experienced Alaskan dog handlers in the Army were brought in to help train and create policies on dog care and use in the field.

It goes without saying that during the entirety of World War II, dogsled racing was severely interrupted. However, it was not long after the war that dogsled racing came back full swing to Alaska. 

It was not long after World War II that organizations such as the Alaska Dog Mushers Association and Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association were established. At the same time, races such as the North American Championship sled dog derby and the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Sled Dog Race were started.

It was into this world of dogs and racing that enlisted airborne instructor and World War II veteran Joe Redington Sr., Father of the Iditarod, arrived in Alaska in 1948.

Shortly after his arrival, Redington was able to secure a government contract and served with the 5039th Maintenance and Supply Group from 1949 to 1957.

 He, along with other dog team drivers such as Sgt. Eldon Bush and Tech. Sgt. Bud Nesji, took dog teams out to aircraft crash sites to help recover personnel and aircraft. Also, members of a U.S. Air Force Intelligence unit trained with Redington as it was believed familiarization on the use of dogs and sleds may be needed in the future by the USAF Intelligence Corps.  In 1966, another big organization-sponsored team took center stage: The U.S. Army Alaska Modern Winter Biathlon Training Center dog team from Fort Richardson. At the team’s head, though low in rank, was Pfc. Joe Redington Jr.

Redington Jr. was enlisted specifically by the Army to race dogs in Alaska. “They came to me and told me I was going to be drafted and then offered to enlist me and bring me back to Alaska to race for the Army on a two-year enlistment,” he said.

Redington Jr., along with Sgt. 1st Class James VanHoutan, Spc. Five Larry Gibson, and Pfc. Johnny Armstrong raced and trained the dogs Redington Jr. competed with in 1966. That year, Redington Jr. won the coveted Fur Rondy trophy, bringing it back to Alaska after many years of being won by Dr. Roland Lombard from Wayland, Mass.

With things heating up in Vietnam, the military sled dog racing programs in Alaska were effectively disbanded. Redington Jr. was discharged and permitted to purchase a few of his previous military dogs and returned to civilian life, which would be the final curtain for the use of Alaskan military sled dogs in Alaska.

Whether it is pack dogs, sled dogs, sentry dogs, airborne dogs, or search and rescue dogs, the heritage of the Alaskan war dog is still seen today, specifically in the military working dog teams scattered throughout the state of Alaska at multiple military installations, our very own Eielson included.    

Redington is thought to have had had a strong association with the 10th Air Rescue Squadron. The 10th ARS used dog teams as part of search and rescue operations in Alaska and had jump-qualified dogs, which had to have five jumps to wear jump wings, assigned to the unit. The history of the 10th ARS is today maintained by the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard.

In the ’60s, the helicopter continued to become more technologically advanced and could reach places where only dogs could go before. The need for military dogs was beginning to fade, but not before the military found other uses for Alaskan war dogs.

Though fading, there was still a need as dogs were being studied at the Aero Medical Laboratory on Ft. Wainwright in an effort to understand the affects cold had on humans. From the lab emerged Master Sgt. Walter Millard.

Similar to Redington, Millard was jump qualified and a World War II veteran. After the war and a short break in service, Millard became a part of the Air Rescue Service and made over 250 jumps throughout his service in the military and many times with sled and dogs on rescue missions.

Millard was the first known Air Force participant in sled dog racing in the Fairbanks area. In March of 1963, he competed with huskies owned by the Aero Medical Laboratory in the preliminary heats for the North American Sled Dog Derby. Later, his Air Force “team” was invited to participate in the 1964 annual 10-mile Jeff Studdart Invitational Race.

So, what do you guys think? Did you learn something from today’ podcast? If you like this content please consider subscribing to Mushing+ over at mushing (dot) com.