Can you help this Marine find a dog handler he was wounded with in 1968? (Tragically, the dog, Wolf, was KIA that day.) It would mean the world to him. He has been trying to no avail for more than four decades. The handler’s nickname was probably “Heck.” Please read on for more details. I’ll post it in the form of his correspondence to me and try to stay out of the way of his words and his story. My words will be in italics. The rest are his. (The photos of dogs in Vietnam are not photos of Wolf. They’re just reminders of these canine heroes. They come courtesy of the excellent 366th Security Police K-9 website.)
Dear Maria, I have been trying for over 40 years, with no success, to find the name of the dog handler with whom I was wounded on 22 May 1968 while serving with the 3d Bn, 3d Marines along DMZ in RVN. His dog, Wolf, was KIA on that date. The handler was wounded and I was wounded trying to help the handler. The handler was an attachment (presumably from 3d MP Bn in Danang) so his name does not appear on the 3/3 unit records. Do you have an sources who can help? Many thanks. Semper Fi. . .
Tim Snyder, New Mexico–former S-2 scout.
I was, of course, intrigued by his request. I wanted to help him, so asked him for more details and any in-country photos so we could have the best chance of finding this man. He wrote back:
Thank you for your prompt response! The VDHA site lists Wolf (ID 150X) as KIA on 22 May 1968. It lists his handler as John Guerrero. I found John in Atlanta and he was very glad to speak with me. He said that he rotated out of country in April ’68 (a month before my incident) and had to leave Wolf behind. He didn’t know the name of the handler that was getting Wolf.
I had only been in-country for four months when I was wounded and medevaced out and this was my first experience working with this dog and handler. I remember that the handler was a little older (maybe 26?) and that he wouldn’t swear so his nickname was ‘Heck’. I’ve talked with some of my fellow scouts and they couldn’t remember his name either.
On the morning of 22 May, I was on the point of India Company (3/3) with Heck when Wolf alerted. Our protocol called for sending the dog and handler back down the column after an alert because there was nothing more the dog could do for us–plus the dog would draw enemy fire in a firefight. The patrol moved forward for about 15 minutes when our flank engaged the enemy and than we were all engaged. Four of us in the point element were isolated for a while and fought from a bomb crater. When we could no longer hold that position, we beat feet back to where the main column was and I heard Heck calling my name. I ran over to him (about 50 meters), not paying attention to where he was. On the way I passed Wolf, lying on the ground, dead. Heck had a hole in his lower leg that was bleeding badly and I was kneeling by his leg pulling out a bandage to stop the bleeding when a piece of shrapnel from a chicom hand grenade entered my right chest, pierced my lung, and exited my back. I rocked back on my heels and Heck could see that we were both in trouble–particularly since we were in an exposed area out in front of where our company was. Heck told me, “I’ll go this way, and you go that way, and we’ll meet at the LZ.” That was the last time I saw him.
I was in some sort of shock and I couldn’t move for a while. The guys behind me could see me out front and were telling me they’d get me, but the fire was too intense. After about 15 minutes, I was able to cut my pack off and low-crawl along a narrow depression. When I started to draw fire (I was close enough to see the eyes of the enemy soldier firing at me), I decided my only chance was to get up and run. My guys caught me as I stumbled back into the perimeter and took me to the LZ. I don’t remember who was there but I knew it was crowded. There were two supply choppers bringing in more ammo, who were also picking up dead and wounded. I got the last slot by the door and watched the enemy mortar rounds raining into the LZ as we pulled up. Everybody on the ground was scattering.
When the choppers landed in Dong Ha, all the stretcher cases were hustled into the hospital. I was left alone because I could still walk. I made it into the hospital and passed out on the floor. I remember somebody saying, “Hey, this guy’s got a red tag”, and the next thing I remember is a bleary-eyed surgeon telling corpsmen to get me into the operating room. They stripped my clothing, turned me on my side, put my right arm over my head and the doc said, “Now hold him”. He sliced my right side with a scalpel and shoved a drainage tube down into my lung. I was very awake at that point and, regrettably, had more than a few choice words for those working on me. They gave me a shot of morphine afterwards and I asked the corpsman why they didn’t give me something before. I’ll never forget his words, “There’s no time for that here, man. As long as we can hear you scream we know you’re alive.”
Anyway, that’s my story, and it would bring closure to me if I could talk to Heck and find out the rest of his story. I attended a battalion reunion earlier this month and asked around with no luck. I got my VFW magazine in the mail yesterday and saw Soldier Dogs on a list of new war-related books. I haven’t yet ordered it, but will soon.
Anything you can do to help find Heck would be much-appreciated. In my book, he was a great guy just doing his job like the rest of us. I’m sorry I don’t have any photos of myself at that time or of him. We lived in the bush most of the time, and very few of us carried a camera.
When I wrote him again, I asked him if he was comfortable putting into words if he had any thoughts or feelings about that day, scout dogs, this dog, the situation, and just why he’d like to be in touch with the handler again. I was going to help him either way, of course, but I thought it would be helpful if putting this story out to dog handlers and dog lovers, we had some of his perspective about the dog, etc. This was not problem. Tim had a lot to say about this, and it’s very touching:
A little background on the scout dogs from one (old) Marine’s perspective. . . They were critically important to the common grunt, and we knew it. Everybody had respect for the dogs. Not only did they save lives (ours!) by telling us when the enemy was near, but they worked in the same conditions we did. They slogged through the same paddies, brush, and jungle. They were hot and tired just like us, and the oppressive RVN heat and humidity had to have been miserable for the German Shepherds with their heavy coats.
Their handlers evoked the same respect. We knew that the dogs were trained to obey only one man so everybody else had to keep their distance. The dogs were not known for being friendly, and any bystander who got too close received a warning growl that was unmistakable in its message.
Even in good times, there’s a certain cachet about a man and his dog. In war, that is intensified. We were all a bit envious of a Marine whose duties consisted of caring for and working with a dog whose only allegiance was to him. AND, not any dog, mind you–but a German Shepherd. It can’t get much better than that for a guy.
Handlers and their dogs were assigned to a central unit–ours were from the 3d Military Police Battalion in Danang–but “attached” to operational units. This meant that they were moved around frequently and didn’t ordinarily have time to develop relationships with their attached units. The S-2 scouts were the same. We were formally assigned to Headquarters and Service Company but attached to line companies. I worked mostly with India Company. Heck was calling my name because I was most likely one of the few guys he knew, plus I hope he felt like he could count on me to help.
On my run to Heck, I actually leaped over Wolf. Things were happening so fast that all I could think was “oh, no” and kept running. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve looked at Wolf’s name time and again on the VDHA page and I have his ID memorized. When I found his former handler, John Guerrero, I could tell that he loved Wolf. He had heard that Heck had walked Wolf into a U-shaped ambush and he was glad to hear a different story from me.
I wonder what the KIA rate was for the scout dogs as compared to regular grunts? It may have been myth, but we strongly felt that the dogs drew enemy fire for two reasons, 1) the enemy knew that the dogs could detect them, and 2) it cost a lot more to train a dog than a Marine. (I don’t know if #2 is true or not, but that’s the story that went around.)
For those reasons, Marines in a firefight don’t want to be anywhere around anything or anybody (even a dog) that will draw extra enemy fire. Marksmanship is not at a premium in chaotic firefights, just fire superiority. So anybody positioned near a target was bound to be “included” in the volume of fire.
Of course, the need to protect the dog and handler was another reason for sending them back into the column after alerting. As cited before, they were extraordinarily important to us.
My drive to find Heck is four-fold. First, I would like to find out the rest of the story. Did he make it out? How did he make it out? Is he okay now? Second, I would like him to know why I couldn’t finish helping him. I’m sure all he knew was that I was bending over him and then just blanked out. I was conscious but largely unresponsive. He did the right thing by leaving. He couldn’t help me and I couldn’t help him. The two of us together made a more conspicuous target. Third, I would like to thank him. He was a friend to me, and he called to me. That meant a lot to me. Fourth, I would like to share my sympathies for the loss of Wolf. Their bond had to have been strong, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to lose him.
In summary, I guess I am seeking a measure of closure to events that have lived with me every day since then.
Just so you know, after I was finally discharged from a stateside hospital, I volunteered to go back to Vietnam and made it a full 13 months without major mishap. I got out of the Marines, got married, and then re-enlisted for another five years, the last two of which I served as a Warrant Officer for the 12th Marines in Okinawa. My wife and I had three children while I was still serving, and another four afterwards. I went back to school and went into school teaching, and then school administration. I am retired now, and my wife and I enjoy our 26 grandchildren. We just returned from a two-year church mission to Cambodia so I now have time to resume my search for Heck.
Maria, I really appreciate your help AND listening ear. I have attached three photos–an official one taken four months after I was wounded, one taken about a year later on the USS Iwo Jima, and a candid shot of an aging warrior. I am searching for a photo taken of me at Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu and will send it if I can find it.
Again, many thanks for helping out on this. You are wonderful!
Tim, you’re a pretty wonderful person yourself, being able to write such a heartfelt account of that terrible day so long ago, and keeping this hero in your thoughts for this long. I really hope our community can help you get closure on this. Thanks for letting us lend a hand.
OK folks, please help spread the word about this Marine’s wish. I know there’s a very strong Vietnam handlers’ community out there, and it would sure be nice if someone could help him find this handler.