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Memories of his wartime dog put man on the move

June 3rd, 2002, 12:25 PM
Memories of his wartime dog put man on the move
By Joseph D. Bryant
Staff Writer

KILLEN - At the edge of a winding two-lane road, a small grave lies under trees providing shade against rising summer heat.

Howard Killen thought it was a fitting place for his old war comrade.

"Old Jeep was a good dog," Killen said. "Probably saved my life a time or two,"

Killen was in the U.S. Marines 3rd Division during World War II and served as a scout dog handler in the Infantry. "Since I was a country boy and grew up with dogs, I had a good chance to be accepted," he said.

Before going to the Pacific, Killen served as a dog trainer at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the dogs underwent extensive training to transform household pets into animals able to survive combat. As a Private First Class, Jeep outranked his

handler who was a buck Private.

When the war ended, Killen got permission to bring the Doberman home to Florence after the dog was decommissioned and retrained to be a pet. Killen later moved to Tennessee and left his dog with a relative in Florence. Jeep died on Memorial Day 1954 and was buried in his owner's back yard on Royal Avenue, Killen returned in 1972.

It's been 48 years since his death, but he has never forgotten about Jeep. In recent weeks, those memories have intensified and created a desire to reconnect to the past. It started after a friend showed him old pictures during his time in the Pacific.

They showed the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle with Jeep and Killen. Only Killen's fingers are shown in the blurry picture, but he remembered the moment.

"It just brought back memories to me," Killen said. "I guess I go tenderhearted about it."

Last week, Killen's nostalgia reached a peak. The new residents at the old Royal Avenue house were surprised with a visit from the veteran. Killen wanted to dig up the old dog and bury it near his home. He showed them the 1954 Florence Times newspaper article telling Jeep's story as proof. They agreed. "I came back the next day with my pick and shovel and dug him up," Killen said.

After five decades, everyone except Killen had forgotten the unmarked backyard grave. He remembered the exact spot - between the house and a tree.

Now, Jeep has a new burial place. This time with a marker and nice cool shady spot just right for Jeep's resting place.

Dogs have been used in American military combat since the First World War and are credited with saving thousands of human lives. The dogs were used as messengers, mine detectors, scouts and guard dogs. At night, they stood guard for surprise attacks. And in the daytime, it was the dogs that often first sensed the enemy's presence. "You could tell by his reactions that someone was there," Killen said.

There are several memorials honoring the soldiers and their K-9 helpers including the Doberman War Dog Memorial in Guam, where the dogs were used extensively. "We put the dogs out in front of the troops," said William Putney author of "Always Faithful," a book chronicling the use of War Dogs in the Marines. "Having the dogs increased the distance between the troops and the people in the jungle."

Putney was a veterinarian who was assigned to the Marine Corps' War Dog Training School in 1943, after his graduation from Auburn University. He was the commanding officer of the 3rd War Dog Platoon, in the Marine's 3rd division in the Pacific.

"The dogs caught them before they could get to us," said Putney, who is retired and living California. "The dog would alert us to the ambushes."

In 1994, Putney established the War Dog Cemetery on the U.S. Navel Base on Guam. Killen's earlier dog is buried there. A sniper got him just a foot or two from his owner's head.

After the war, Jeep made a good transition to peacetime and made a gentle pet for Killen's family.

The three-foot Doberman has remained somewhere in Killen's mind for years since the war's end. Killen just completed the second volume of his book, "Possum Creek Tales."

In it, he documents life in Possum Creek, a community between Killen and Lexington, where the biggest industry was a molasses mill and its biggest employee was the horse that turned the grinder. In the latest book "The Possum Creek Flash," the author describes life away from Possum Creek after joining the Marines and being sent to fight for survival in the jungles of the Pacific.

There's a picture of Jeep in the book. Jeep's memory will be passed on to all who read the story of Killen's life. After facing the horrors of war and returning home for a normal life, together Jeep's story and Killen's life are inseparable.