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William W. Putney (1920–2003)

Author of Always Faithful

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Short biography
William W. Putney, 83, a retired Los Angeles veterinarian and World War II Marine Corps captain who will be remembered for his work with dogs and devotion to their memory, died of cancer March 18 in Woodland Hills, Calif., where he lived.

Dr. Putney was a January 1943 cum laude graduate of the Auburn University veterinary school and received his Marine commission later that year. He was assigned to the new War Dog Training School at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was head veterinarian and the officer responsible for the dogs' training program.

The dogs, about three-quarters of them Doberman pinschers and the rest German shepherds (with a smattering of collies and Labrador retrievers), were family pets donated by their owners for the war effort.

In 1944, as commander of the 3rd War Dog Platoon and head of the War Dog Field Hospital, Dr. Putney and his dogs participated in the bloody invasion of the Pacific island of Guam.

In his book, "Devil Dogs: The Story of the Gallant War Dogs of the United States Marine Corps and their Courageous Handlers in World War II," he wrote of Kurt, a Doberman, who was credited with saving 250 Marines' lives when he alerted them to Japanese soldiers lying in ambush in steaming jungle cover. While those Marines were saved, Kurt and his handler (called "dogmen" in Marine jargon) received critical injuries from an enemy mortar shell.

Dr. Putney, who immediately operated on Kurt in a vain effort to save his life, described how he held the dog in his arms to shield him from the shaking of the ground from the giant 16-inch shells launched from U.S. battleships.

Kurt was one of 60 dogs and 110 handlers who served on Guam. They became valued members of the corps -- holding ranks from private to sergeant -- and saved countless lives.

The dogs patrolled and took the point on advances, working as mine detectors. They also sniffed out booby traps, did messenger work and hunted Japanese soldiers hiding in jungle and caves. As the battle wore on, the dogs even stood sentry duty while exhausted Marines slept.

As Dr. Putney told a reporter, "Patrols with dogs were never ambushed during the war," adding, "It's true the dogs paid a heavy price, but they saved many lives, including my own."

The dogs became a target for the desperate and ferocious Japanese soldiers. Twenty-five gave their lives on Guam and were buried in a section of the Marine cemetery there.

The dogs went on to further glory in the Marine Corps' Pacific campaigns of Iwo Jima, Saipan and Okinawa. The war ended with 559 dogs on active Marine Corps duty. Before leaving the corps in 1946, Dr. Putney served again at Camp LeJeune. This time he supervised the program that prepared the canine corps for a return to civilian life.

Many of the dogs were returned to their prewar homes and families. Many others were adopted by their Marine Corps handlers. Only four were judged unfit for civilian life.

Dr. Putney, who held the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, was a native of Farmville, Va., and attended Virginia Tech and Longwood College.

After the war, he settled in the Los Angeles area, practicing veterinary medicine from 1946 until he retired in 1990. In 1955, he served as president of the California Veterinary Medical Association.

He also was active in church, civic and volunteer groups. As chairman of a Los Angeles City Council health advisory committee, he led a successful fight against rabies and, as a Red Cross volunteer, led earthquake disaster relief operations. From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, he was a Los Angeles animal regulation commissioner.

Near retirement, Dr. Putney returned to Guam to visit the war dog cemetery. Finding it overgrown and forgotten, he took up a crusade to get recognition for those heroes.

In 1994, a new cemetery was dedicated at the naval base on Guam. It featured a granite monument inscribed with the names of the 25 dogs that died in action. It was topped by a bronze statue of Kurt.

The statue, titled "Always Faithful," is the English translation of the corps' Latin motto, "Semper Fidelis."

Dr. Putney said: "What's all this hullabaloo about a bunch of dogs that died 50 years ago? The reason is, these dogs lived in foxholes with their men. Their handlers killed 301 enemy soldiers with the loss of only one of my men on patrols. So the fact that these dogs were killed instead of us and kept us from ever being ambushed or surprised at night makes them heroes in my mind."

Survivors include his wife, the former Betsy Allen of Woodland Hills, and two sons, William W. Putney of Oakland, Calif., and James Putney of Atlanta.
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