The Allied nations prevailed during World War II by working in concert to defeat the tyranny entangling several European and Pacific locations. However, what few people realize, one local veteran affirmed, is that not only did the men and women of the military help the Allies succeed, but there were also contributions made by “man’s best friend.”
Born and raised in the Brazito community, Ralph Popp was in his senior year of high school at Eugene when he received his draft notice in January 1945.
“I was 18 years old at the time and didn’t even get to finish high school before they sent me to Camp Hood, Texas, for basic training,” said Popp.
When his boot camp was finished, Popp explained, most of the recruits were immediately sent to fight in overseas locations, but he was instead assigned to a rather unique section of the U.S. Army.
“They put me in the K-9 Corps to train dogs for scouting purposes,” he said. “The only reason I can think that I was even selected for such a thing was when I had been asked about my hobbies, I told them that I was interested in coon hunting and hunting dogs,” he added.
Popp then traveled to Ft. Robinson in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, becoming part of the Army’s War Dog program. The program was born out of an initiative first “intended to train dogs to perform sentry duty for the army along the coast of the United States,” as noted in an article by Dr. Arthur Bergeron, Jr., accessed through the U.S. Army Military History Institute website.
As part of the Quartermaster Corps, the program later became the “K-9 Corps” and was expanded to train scouting and patrol dogs, messenger dogs and canines that could detect trip wires, booby traps and mines.
During the months he spent at Ft. Robinson, Popp explained, he was placed in a platoon with more than two dozen soldiers and assigned two dogs that he would train for scouting purposes.
“The primary dogs we trained on the post were Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds,” Popp said. “The dogs I trained were German Shepherds and they were so smart that you could teach them to count the number of fingers you held up by barking,” he grinned.
The soldier also remarked that the dogs, in anticipation of the invasion of the mainland of Japan, were trained to become “fierce fighting dogs,” and the only ones that could handle them were the individual soldiers to which they were assigned.
“We taught the dogs how to detect people hiding in caves or up in trees,” Popp added. “The time we spent in Nebraska was kind of like a basic training for the dogs.”
In April 1945, his platoon placed their dogs in cages and boarded rail cars bound for Camp Butner, N.C., where they joined the Fourth Division, which had recently returned from combat service in Europe.
“We had to take care of our own dogs the entire time because no one else could handle them,” Popp said, “or else they’d attack.”
While stationed in North Carolina, they continued training in preparation for the invasion until Japan surrendered weeks later, which meant the end of the war and thus heralded the conclusion of the K-9 Corps.
“Everything was dissolved in the K-9 Corps and the dogs were taken somewhere to be ‘deactivated,’ they called it,” said Popp. “I’m not sure what happened to my two dogs but they tried to get all of them back to the original owners because they had only been loaned to the Army by their owners.”
Many of the dogs, the veteran said, were unable be separated from the ferocity that had been ingrained during their training, resulting in them having to be euthanized to avoid any potential dangers they might pose to civilians.
“I had to take part in bringing some of the dogs to a veterinarian—the ones they couldn’t deactivate,” Popp solemnly noted. “That was a very difficult thing for me to have to do.”
With nearly a year remaining in his term of service, the soldier was transferred to Ft. Sill, Okla., where he became a supply sergeant with an artillery battery until receiving his discharge in 1946. He returned to Mid-Missouri, finished earning his high school diploma and, in 1947, married Irma Sommerer, the woman who had patiently awaited his return from the service. Raising one daughter, Lora, the couple was married for 61 years when Irma passed away in 2007. In 1959, the veteran founded Popp’s Lawn and Garden Center in Jefferson City, operating the company for four decades. Though he is now retired, he enjoys spending his free time gardening, working around his farm and supporting Immanuel Lutheran Church at Honey Creek.
His military service, he adds, might not possess the flare and excitement of many of the combat veterans of the Second World War but, he affirms, his is a story that truly represents a unique type of sacrifice made by our canine friends.
“Really, it was a sacrifice for so many citizens to give up their dogs for military service during World War II,” he said. “I know I was very close to my dogs and I miss them as much as anything.”
He added, “For many people, I’m sure saying goodbye to their dogs was like saying goodbye to a son heading off to war … not knowing if they would ever return home.”
The 90-year-old veteran passed away on December 4, 2016 and was laid to rest with Full Military Honors in the Immanuel Church Cemetery in Honey Creek.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.