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Santa Fe's dogs of war

By ANDY STINY | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: July 23, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — In the summer of 1942, as World War II raged, Santa Feans were listening to the big band tunes of Glenn Miller and catching the latest Abbott and Costello movie, Rio Rita, at the Lensic. Those were necessary getaways: New Mexico had already suffered serious losses in the war, particularly in the Bataan Death March.

At about the same time, the surviving member of an eccentric pair of sisters decided to use a kennel at her Garcia Street compound to do her part for the war effort.

She was recruiting dogs.

That’s the scene Nancy Owen Lewis, a scholar in residence at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, painted as she began a recent presentation on how Amelia Elizabeth White helped create a way for canines to help in the national defense.

In a recent talk called “Hounds of El Delirio and Dogs for Defense,” Lewis, who is working on a book on the subject, outlined one of the more interesting facets of the city during the war years.

The sisters, described as party girls, dog lovers and devotees of Southwest art, decamped from New York City to take Santa Fe by storm in the 1920s. The place nicknamed El Delirio, (“madness” in Spanish), became their home and a salon for artists, writers and intellectuals. The sisters bred afghans and Irish wolfhounds at their kennels, and the large dogs were known to mix with the guests. Amelia Elizabeth’s sister, Martha Root White, died of cancer in 1937.

By the early 1940s, the parties of the ’20s had given way to a more ominous time. The war was on, and people throughout the country began looking for a way to help. And people began offering their dogs to help guard key installations throughout the nation. A national organization called Dogs for Defense was created.

A month after Pearl Harbor, a dog kennel owner named Alene Erlanger told the New York Sun newspaper, “The dog must play a game in this thing … Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munition plants, and other places.’” The organization was incorporated on Jan. 23, 1942. At that time, the military had only a few sled dogs for use in Alaska.

“Dogs for Defense was a big deal back then,” said Ron Aiello, president of the New Jersey-based United States War Dogs Association, Inc. “They had no dogs patrolling the beaches, and it wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor that they decided to do something.”

Enter Amelia Elizabeth White. Dogs for Defense was going to recruit and train pets, but with a need for thousands of dogs, the organization became a procurement agency divided into various regions, with White appointed regional director for New Mexico, charged with recruiting dogs in the state.

In the war years 85 New Mexico dogs — 33 from Santa Fe — were screened at El Delirio.

Any breed was good at first, but later every dog had to be purebred. Size quickly became an issue. The Albuquerque Journal reported some dachshunds didn’t pass muster. “ ‘It isn’t prejudice or lack of patriotism that bans the sausage-shaped dachshunds — a fighting dog from stem to stern — from active Army service. His size just hasn’t caught up with his courage,’ ” Lewis said during her talk, quoting the newspaper.

Those sent to Santa Fe had a pretty sweet stay. There were no pens for these pampered pups. “They had rooms, with vigas,” Lewis said.

White’s house had “five rooms for the dogs, with two to a room, plus a puppy and trophy room,” Lewis added.

Elizabeth White partnered with the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Kennel Club to run Dogs for Defense and donated her kennels and the services of her kennel master as trainer and receiving agent for dogs statewide.

She used recruiters from Albuquerque, Las Vegas, N.M., and Las Cruces to obtain the dogs and would send a truck to bring them to Rathmullan, a kennel she named after an Irish castle. That quickly became Dog Central.

Defense dogs had to be between ages 1 and 5; one of 32 breeds; purebred; at least 20 inches tall at the shoulder; more than 50 pounds; and “have a watchdog disposition — i.e. barkers or at least growlers — no stranger sniffers,” said Lewis.

To find suitable candidates, White advertised in newspapers after the Army announced 2,500 trained dogs were needed by the end of 1942.

Soon “Doberman pinschers, Labrador retrievers, airedale terriers and collies arrived from Roswell, Cimarron, Taos, Silver City, Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” said Lewis.

Elizabeth White donated an afghan; Santa Fe Archbishop Rudolph Gerken donated two old English sheepdogs.

Dr. Robert Brown of Santa Fe also donated a sheep dog named Pickles in honor of Gerken, who gave him the dog. Actress Greer Garson, later a New Mexico resident, also donated her pet.

The Aug. 12, 1942 edition of The New Mexican announced “the first group of dogs to be trained for army duty in SF under the Dogs for Defense program will leave Saturday with a military escort.”

A dog named Tor was the beloved pet of John Wirth, 6, whose father Cecil was headmaster of the Los Alamos Ranch School. The family moved and gave Tor to Jerry Pepper, a math teacher at the school. Pepper later worked on the Manhattan Project, and Tor couldn’t roam.

After Tor bit a child who had been teasing him, Lewis said, Pepper sent him to Dogs for Defense.

The dog completed preliminary training in Santa Fe in 1943 and was sent to Nebraska.

“Your dog is progressing rapidly and is being carefully schooled for sentry duty,” an Army lieutenant wrote to Pepper, taking the time to enclose a photo.

“As soon as your dog has completed his training,” the letter continued, “he will be dispatched under sealed orders to his permanent assignment.”

“In other words, it was classified information,” Lewis said.

In 1943, after seeing dogs in action, the Army, cut the breed list from 32 to five. Standard poodles were initially used state-side as sentry dogs guarding harbors and munitions sites but didn’t make the cut; too much grooming was required. Great Danes were too big. Setters were too distracted by birds.

The favored five: German shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, Doberman pinschers, collies (farm type) and giant schnauzers.

The restrictions prompted some uncomfortable correspondence. In 1945 , Lewis said, Elizabeth sent a telegram to Mrs. C.J. Stewart of Gallup that read: “Am returning your dog today express prepaid. His coat is too white for army use.”

Later, Dogs for Defense enabled the owners of dogs classified as “4-F,” to help the war effort by buying Rover a rank in a fundraising effort.

“Ads appeared in The Santa Fe New Mexican: ‘Enlist Your Dog Now in the Rank You can Afford. Your dog will be proud to wear a tag denoting his rank in the War Dog fund,’ ” Lewis said. “`For $1, Fido could be a Private. [For] $100, a general.’”

The war wound down and the dogs came home. Some dogs even served in combat zones. And when the war ended in 1945, Lewis said 8,000 surviving dogs returned, “many to uncertain futures.”

“The military initially regarded them as surplus property,” Lewis said, adding that Dogs for Defense stepped in and placed the dogs in homes.

“Once they put out the word,” she said, “applications poured in by the thousands.”

Even Tor came back. He was given to a local family and lived out the rest of his life on a New Mexico ranch.

After the war, Elizabeth White — a dog lover, through and through — continued showing her pets until the death of her trainer in 1954. She left her estate to the School of Applied Research upon her death at age 96 in 1972.

©2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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