Dan Byrd lived an idyllic life growing up as a kid on Longboat Key off Sarasota, Fla. half a century ago. In those days, he hunted rabbits on the key with his .22-caliber rifle while his mom and dad ran the bait shop and hamburger stand on the south end of the New Pass Bridge connecting the key with City Island.
“I loved the water. I used to see those guys in the Florida Marine Patrol patrolling around in their boats. I thought that was the greatest job in the world,” said the 58-year-old retired Charlotte County Marine Patrol officer.
He graduated from Sarasota High School in 1964 and joined the Army. His plan was to become a military policeman and eventually go in the Marine Patrol after he got out of the service.
“While in MP school in Fort Gordon, Ga., I got recruited to be a dog handler. I was sent to Sentry Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base (Texas),” he said. “Sentry dogs are a one-dog, one-man team. The dog was trained to attack anybody except his handler. The closest you could get to me, if I had my dog, was 6 feet plus my arm’s length.”
Byrd teamed up with a 70-pound German shepherd named “Prince.” He was mostly white with a black saddle.
The dog he got was green — he had just come in. He and his shepherd were put through an intensive 10-week training course. It began with a week of classroom work on how to care for his dog. Prince was checked to make sure he wasn’t gun shy and the dog could handle the obstacle course.
For Byrd and Prince, the first order of business was obedience training. The shepherd learned how to sit, heel and walk on a leash. Then they worked on hand signals. On duty, Prince would be controlled entirely by hand signals if he was unleashed to check out an intruder.
Then they had to make Prince mean if he was going to become a good guard dog.
“We would put the dog on a leather collar and tie his leash to a tree,” Byrd said. “I’d kneel next to him and hold his head while the instructor switched his back legs. The dog would try and jump out of the way. When he couldn’t he would get aggressive and try and bite the person switching him. I would encourage Prince to bite the person with the switch.
“Then the instructor would swing at him with both fists. I’d be right down there next to Prince yelling, ‘Get him boy! Get him!’ The dog would get so crazy trying to bite the instructor he would bite me. I’ve got scars from being bitten by my own dog and other dogs during ‘mean training.’
“Every once and a while, a collar would break or a leash would break during mean training. When that happened, someone would yell: ‘Loose dog — freeze!’ If you were running, you’d better stop because these dogs were trained to attack moving objects. If you stopped, you might not get bit, but normally you got bit because the dogs were in such an aggressive mood.”
A German shepherd has a 600- to 800-pound-per-square-inch bite. The dog’s hearing, sight and smell are much keener than a man’s. Sentry dogs were only used at night as guard dogs.
“I never saw a person elude a dog. The only way a person could get away from these dogs was to climb up on something the dogs couldn’t climb. Even then, they had the person treed,” Byrd said.
On their initial posting, Byrd and Prince were sent to guard an Air Force Nike missile battery in Jeffersonville County, Ga., south of Macon. Their job was to walk the blacktop road at night between the outer perimeter cyclone fence and the inner one, protecting the missiles. It was pretty routine stuff.
“The Air Force would bring in ‘infiltrators’ to see if they could break through our defenses. They never made it — the dogs always caught them,” Byrd said. “When Prince spotted something, he alerted differently if it was a man or an animal. He would crouch down low if he alerted on a person. He wouldn’t crouch as low if it was an animal.”
After that, Byrd and his dog was sent to a Nike missile base being built in the Everglades near Homestead, Fla. When they arrived, the ground-to-air missiles weren’t even in place, but they guarded the installation with their dogs anyway.
“One day they called us back to Homestead Air Force Base and told us they needed volunteers to go to Vietnam,” Byrd said. “I’d been in the Army for a year and I decided that wasn’t where I wanted to go.
“The next day they called us back in and said, ‘Everybody’s volunteering.’ They gave us 15 days’ leave and airline tickets to fly to San Francisco.”
They flew into Saigon with their dogs aboard a C-130 transport in early 1965. After a while, they wound up in Vong Tu on the South China Sea at the mouth of the Saigon River, about 50 miles out of the capital. As the war dragged on, this area became a prime recreation area for American forces.
But when Byrd arrived with Prince at Vong Tu in August 1965 as a member of the 212th Military Police Co., K-9 Sentry Dogs, it had the largest ammunition dump in South Vietnam. Ships from around the world unloaded pallets of ammo onto the beach. It would be stockpiled at the dump before it was shipped to American units all over the country.
“Where the ammo dump stopped, there was a no-man’s land surrounded by three rows of razor wire. That’s all that was between us and the jungle,” he said. “I’ve seen Vietnamese who were able to walk through razor wire and never touch it. I’ve seen ’em do it. The perimeter was mined to keep the enemy out. There were also guard towers with M-60 machine guns.
Byrd and Prince patrolled the area inside the razor wire between the guard towers. Along the way were sandbag bunkers he and his dog could duck into if someone tried to attack. The bunkers had a phone to call the towers, additional ammo and water for the guard dogs.
Only if they caught an intruder inside the perimeter fence could they release their guard dogs.
“I only did this one time when I saw this shadowy figure in dark clothing,” Byrd said. “You had no idea what you were dealing with. It turned out to be an old man who snuck in there to steal the wood from the crates the ammunition was shipped in.
“Before we let the dogs loose we had to holler three times in Vietnamese, ‘Halt!’
“Prince bit him, but I hollered for my dog to stop. He did. They came and got the old man and patched him up. I never heard any more about it.”
Night after night, Byrd walked with Prince as the shepherd weaved left and right, picking up the wind for scent. If he pulled toward the outside perimeter fence, it could mean a Viet Cong guerrilla was trying to enter the enclosure or it could be just another old man or woman was trying to steal wooden boxes. His job was to intercept the intruder and pass the word on so he or she could be stopped.
“One night, my dog gave this strange alert … this high alert which indicated it wasn’t a person. I shined my light on the ground, and right in front of him was a viper. We left it alone and the snake slithered off. If Prince hadn’t alerted, the viper would have probably killed one of us.
“That night, I knew Prince saved my life. It didn’t make much difference if he alerted on a VC or a snake. Either way, you could be just as dead.”
“The bond that develops between a soldier and his sentry dog is something most people can’t understand,” Byrd said. “When you have to kiss your dog goodbye (and leave for home), it’s a very emotional thing. You live with the animal day and night. He’s become your whole world. You depend on each other.
“You’re just like two police officers who ride in a car together. He knows what you’re gonna do and you know exactly what he’s gonna do. These dogs are so used to having so much affection put on them by their handler that when the handler leaves, it’s like pulling the rug out from under them.
“They have to put the dog in an isolation kennel away from the other dogs. Then they bring in a new handler to work with the dog. The new handler goes very slowly. He begins by mixing his food so the dog can get his scent. After a while, the new dog handler takes over.”
When his tour in Vietnam ended in 1967, Byrd came back to the States. For a brief time, he went to work up North with a municipal police department. When the temperature dropped to 19 degrees below zero and he was walking a beat, Byrd decided sunny Florida was the place he wanted to be.
He joined the Florida Marine Patrol and served for 30 years. He finished up as a Charlotte County Marine Patrol officer from 1984 until his retirement.
A scrapbook of pictures Byrd kept of his Vietnam War experience contain many pictures of him and his guard dog.
“I’m very emotional about Prince after all these years,” he said. “I haven’t seen my dog since 1966, but I still get misty-eyed looking at his picture. That dog saved my life a couple of times.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, June 22, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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