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War dogs to be memorialized in Columbia

On Oct. 16, 1970, Johnny Mayo and his scout dog, Tiger, were leading a foot patrol from Landing Zone English near Bong Son in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, searching for snipers, ambushes, anything that could harm the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade following behind them.

Mayo – who now lives in Lexington County – served in the Army’s 39th Scout Dog platoon. Tiger was off leash, 37 feet ahead of Mayo, on their second mission, when he hit a trip wire while trying to slip under a limb. Tiger died from shrapnel embedded in his abdomen, but he saved Mayo’s life.

Tiger was one of 4,000 scout dogs who served in Vietnam. Sadly, in addition to the nearly 800 who died of wounds or disease, 2,000 were euthanized at war’s end.

“It was the biggest punch in the gut for any handler,” said Mayo. “They were considered surplus equipment.”

Mayo has spent the last 13 years educating people about the war dogs’ service and raising money for a monument to them in Columbia’s Memorial Park at Hampton Street at Gadsden Street. He now has a strong backer and a dedication date has been set for Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, if the remainder of the funds can be raised in time.

Mayo through the years has raised $30,000 on his own. But now, Camden attorney John Rainey, who has backed many efforts to memorialize South Carolina’s military history, is stepping in to help.

The Callie and John Rainey Foundation, named for Rainey’s parents, has offered a challenge grant, which will pay $1 for every $2 donated up to $40,000. If the full amount is raised, that would give the project $90,000 – enough to have the statue cast. Another $30,000 would be needed to prepare the site and buy the base and other aspects of the memorial.

“He’s one of the most dedicated men I’ve ever met,” said Rainey, a Vietnam infantry officer. “We’re going to dig it into the hill in front of the Vietnam memorial and its going to be spectacular.”

Initially, Mayo served on a committee to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C., but was stunned when the National Park Service in 2005 turned down the committee’s request.

The national memorial eventually was built at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where most war dog handlers go through training.

Mayo later was approached by the Memorial Park Commission to install the sculpture there as a tribute to all military working dogs and their South Carolina handlers. There are similar memorials throughout the country, including Mobile, Ala.; Bristol Township, Pa.; Holmdel, N.J.; Peoria, Ill.; Hartsdale, N.Y.; Fort Benning, Ga.; March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif.; Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; and Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash.

Sculptor Renee Bemis of St. Charles, Ill., has done a clay miniature for the South Carolina memorial. But the sculpture itself will be much larger. The finished bronze statue will be about eight feet tall, and will feature a handler kneeling beside a German shepherd.

The project also is being assisted by Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance, and also a Vietnam infantry officer. He often led patrols during his tour of duty in 1971 that included scout dogs.

The dogs “were great soldiers and deserve to be recognized,” he said. “I used them in Vietnam, and I was glad to have them.”

Dawson called the dogs “force multipliers” who would give the patrol an edge over their enemy by their sense of smell.

“The trick in the jungle is to know where the bad guy is before the bad guy knows where you are,” he said.

It is estimated that by alerting patrols to ambushes and booby traps, the dogs saved 10,000 American lives in Vietnam.

“I have heard thousands of dog stories through the years,” Mayo said, “from chopper pilots to combat medics.”

Mayo said he can’t wait “to recognize, through a beautiful bronze sculpture, the service, the loyalty, the bravery of the military working dog, past and present.”

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