Some of the Cat Island dogs enjoy chow time at their hastily constructed kennels.

Some of the Cat Island dogs enjoy chow time at their hastily constructed kennels. (National Park Service)

(Tribune News Service) — Billed as a "secret mission" during World War II, the U.S. military used Japanese-American soldiers as "bait" in a failed attempt to train attack dogs on a Mississippi Gulf Coast island.

At the onset of the war, the U.S. military faced a pressing need to defend the vast coastline from Axis spies and saboteurs. To bolster their efforts, several civilians created Dogs for Defense, calling on Americans to donate large purebred canines to help patrol the coastline.

While over 40,000 dogs were donated by citizens, nearly half were deemed unfit for service. Of the 17,000 that attended an two-to-three month boot camp, about 12,000 ultimately became official military working dogs to be used overseas and at home.

Swiss-born dog trainer William A. Prestre simultaneously proposed a misguided experiment based on the false idea that Japanese soldiers, due to their racial background, had a distinct odor that could be detected by trained dogs. Though lacking evidence, the government authorized the experiment, selecting Cat Island in Mississippi as the testing site due to its remote location and resemblance to Pacific islands.

Unable to use Japanese prisoners of war or civilians, 26 Japanese-American, or Nisei (second-generation) soldiers from Company B, 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), were chosen as "bait." Stationed on Ship Island under the guise of a secret mission, they were ferried to Cat Island each day to conduct the experiment.

The men were released into the swampy interior of the island and hid from the dogs and their handlers. Soldiers, including Raymond Nosaka, would hide in the shrubbery and climb trees in an effort to avoid both dogs and alligators.

Whenever the dogs found an "enemy," the soldiers would play dead and drop a piece of meat next to their neck for the dog to chew on. Some of the soldiers expressed their love for the animals and stated the dogs would quickly eat the meat before turning back to lick their faces.

With the dogs failing to become as aggressive as he was hoping, Prestre ordered the Nisei soldiers to whip or shock them, despite protests from the soldiers.

According to Nosaka, "The trainers didn't say, 'Go get them', they say 'kill.'" While the soldiers wore protective gear and padding, most of the men would later leave the island with scars and stitches.

Further issues began to arise as the dogs proved unable to differentiate between the Nisei and other American soldiers.

It was not always bad for the soldiers, as they only worked three-and-a-half hours each day. They also enjoyed swimming, fishing, exploring Fort Massachusetts and even drank a three-month supply of beer in just a few weeks.

After several months of repeated failures, military dog trainer Master Sergeant John Pierce arrived on the island to assist with the experiment. He disagreed with Prestre's methods, instead arguing that dog and handler teams could be better trained individually to cooperate in detecting enemy infiltrators before ordering the dogs to attack on command.

With Pierce's methods proving more successful at detecting the Nisei, as well as a disastrous demonstration of his experiment to Army leadership, Prestre was fired. He would go on to blame the dogs, exclaiming that he was sent the wrong breeds for the task.

After only four months, the Cat Island Training Center and the experiment were abandoned. A more successful experiment was later conducted on the island which paired dogs and pigeons to be used as messenger teams.

Military working dogs continued to play an important role as sentries, messengers and even attack dogs throughout the rest of the war. Many of the dogs trained on Cat Island, as well as the soldiers used as bait, would travel to Africa and Italy with the fabled 442nd Regimental Combat Team to fight the Axis.

However, the mission of the Nisei on Cat Island remained classified and unknown to the world for decades. Not until 2010 did President Barack Obama award the entire 442nd, including the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion and those at Cat Island, the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.

(c)2023 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)

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