Veteran’s Story: The tale of Bill Wynne and ‘Smoky the War Dog’
Veteran: William “Bill” Wynne, age 96
Branch: United States Army Air Force
Service period: January 1943 to November 1945
When Army Air Force veteran Bill Wynne bought a scraggly little puppy from another soldier in Nadzab, New Guinea, in 1943, he never could have imagined the little Yorkie becoming an internationally recognized war dog more than 50 years later.
“Another guy’s Jeep broke down out in the jungle,” the retired newspaper photographer/writer said. “He was under the hood, trying to fix it, when he heard this whimpering in the tall grass. He found this tiny dog trying to climb out of an abandoned fox hole.”
And so began the tale of Bill Wynne and Smoky the War Dog.
Wynne was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, his family moving to the Cleveland area when he was but two-weeks-old.
“I went to West Technical High School, which was the second-largest high school in the country at that time. We had 5,600 kids in one building,” he remarked. “I graduated in 1942, but I got my college education in the streets — I learned how to train dogs, how to see things from a different perspective, so that led into my two careers, photography and training dogs. I never went any higher (in education) than that.”
Enlisting in the military had been on Wynne’s mind after graduation, but his fiancée objected.
“I got a defense job at American Steel and Wire. Margie didn’t want me enlisting, so I went to work for $18 dollars a week, seven days a week.”
Uncle Sam would change that a few months later.
“January came along and I got drafted, so I had to go anyway,” Bill said. “I could have gotten a deferment because I was in a prime (war) industry, but I said ‘No thanks, I’ll take my chances.’”
During the screening process prior to going to basic training, Wynne said the U.S. Army learned he’d had some training in photography. “They said, ‘I see you had some photography in high school. Would you go to photo school in the Air Corps?’ I jumped at the chance.”
Bill’s basic training location was held in, of all places, Miami Beach, Florida.
“We were put up in hotels and drilled (marched) on golf courses,” he chuckled. “They booted all those people out because, when the war started, we had about 350,000 guys in the military. By the end of the war we had over 16 million, so they were training guys everywhere.”
Peterson Field (now Peterson Air Force Base) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was Wynne’s next stop.
“They sent me to Peterson Field, to the 11th Photo Mapping Squadron. About 23 of us took a physical, so we could fly and learn aerial photography, and out of those guys only three of us passed. I went to photo mapping school for a month and learned to do mapping; my missions were from Colorado Springs to Dodge City, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska and Sweetwater, Texas, in B-17s.”
Bill and four classmates were then pulled from training and sent to Seymore-Johnson Field in North Carolina.
“They gave us overseas training,” he said of the new location. “While I was there I got called into the orderly room because my mom got sick. They gave me a 15-day furlough to go home to be with my mom, who had cancer; when I came back all the guys I had been with were all shipped out to Europe. In August of 1943, the mortality rate for air crews (in the European theater) was very high.”
The 15-day furlough would change the trajectory of Wynne’s path in the Army Air Corps.
“They put 400 of us, all with strange MOS, (military occupation specialty) like bomb sight technicians, in-line engine mechanics and such, on planes and shipped us to San Francisco, and from there we went to Australia.”
Brisbane would be the young photographer’s first overseas duty station, but he soon found himself aboard ship en route to Port Moresby, New Guinea.
“The (Japanese) had taken the Dutch East Indies and Borneo, where all the oilfields were. They were going to assign us to office work. Ed Downey and I were the only aerial photographers out of the 400 men, so we complained to the Inspector General and he transferred us. Finally we were assigned to the 91st Photo Recon wing, in the photo development lab, and I eventually went to the 26th (PRW).”
It was while in the 26th Photo Recon Squadron that Bill flew his first mission.
“I had a small aerial camera that I was going to photograph aerial rescues (of downed pilots) with,” he said. “They came and wanted me to fly in a Cub (Piper Cub, a small, two-seat light aircraft used for observation) with the pilot, fly over the (Japanese) lines and photograph where a pilot in a P-38 (Lockheed aircraft, used in a variety of roles) had crashed to see if he’d had a chance to survive.
“So we go up, we’re flying just over the treetops (in New Guinea) and the pilot turns the engine off. I looked down and there was a bunch of (woven-thatch) roofs, about 4-feet-square with bamboo poles at each corner. The pilot asked if I knew what they were and I said ‘no.’ He says ‘those are (Japanese) foxholes down there. You don’t have to worry, though, because we had a bombing mission on them yesterday. We flew over and dropped grenades on them.’ They dropped grenades on them from this little plane we were in,” he laughed.
Wynne and the pilot eventually found the crash site; photo analysts later determined the pilot could not have survived.
It was while in Nadzab, New Guinea, that Bill bought the little Yorkshire terrier from a motor pool sergeant. “Sergeant Dare had chopped the dog’s hair off, explaining that it had been too hot. I offered him two pounds Australian (currency) and I eventually got Smoky.”
Bill worked with the little dog, training it to do tricks and sing. “I started playing my harmonica and she would howl; I’d stop and prompt her to sing and she’d keep howling. She was a big morale-booster and smart as a whip.” Wynne and Smoky became inseparable, even sleeping side-by-side in the two-man tent he called home.
Smoky even flew 12 combat missions with him while Wynne’s unit was stationed on Biak Island with the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron.
“I took her on those missions, all over, to Borneo to cover the bombing of the oilfields. Guys were arguing over who would get Smoky if I got knocked off, so I said, ‘(heck) with you guys, I’ll just take her with me.’”
Wynne came down with a tropical disease, Dengue fever. “I was in a hospital for five nights and Smoky stayed with me the whole time, in the 233rd Field Hospital.” While there, Smoky became a favorite. When Wynne recovered enough to walk the halls, Smoky visited wounded patients. “She was the first therapy dog; all the lines of therapy dogs go back to Smoky. She was a real spirit-lifter, I’ll tell you. She won ‘Best Mascot Dog’ in the Pacific Theater.”
Bill and Smoky served in a variety of postings during the war, places such as Okinawa, Luzon Biak and New Guinea; the duo also visited numerous military hospitals to provide entertainment for wounded soldiers.
One location in particular would cement Smoky’s place in military dog lore, however: the island of Luzon.
The American airfield, while under construction and in use, was prone to attacks by Japanese bombers and ground troops. Because of this, covered revetments for the base’s aircraft were built at one end of the air strip in order to protect them. Communication wires needed to be laid in a ditch that would have to be dug across a 70-foot section of the runway, a job that would expose both men and aircraft to enemy small-arms fire and aerial bombardment.
Near where the intended cables needed to be laid was a covered culvert running under the air strip. A sergeant from the comms company came to Wynne about using Smoky to run the comm lines through the culvert, eliminating exposure of men and aircraft. In a book written by Wynne, “Yankee Doodle Yorkie,” he explained the process:
“With clearance of about 4 inches every 4 feet, (Sgt) Gapp agreed that, if Smoky became stuck, his men would quickly dig her out of the culvert. Kite string was attached to Smokey’s collar and I set her at one end of the culvert, ordering her to ‘sit/stay;’ I went to the far end and started calling, ‘Smoky, come, come!’ It seemed to take forever, but soon I saw her amber eyes glowing inside the culvert about 10 feet away.”
Smoky, dragging the kite string which had then been attached to the comms cable, kept 40 planes and 250 ground crewmen from being exposed to enemy fire and bombs if a trench would have been dug by hand, a task that would have taken three days.
The war ended and Bill Wynne came home with his four-legged companion. Bill and Margie were married in September 1946. Bill worked as a K9 trainer in Hollywood and also traveled with Smoky, putting on shows in various places. He then worked for NASA for seven years before embarking on a long career as a photojournalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
After retiring from the newspaper in September 1984, Wynne worked another four years in part-time capacity for NASA as a photographer in flight-icing research before retiring fully in 1989; which enabled him to chronicle events he experienced in the western Pacific with his furry friend.
Wynne was inducted into the Ohio Press and Journalism Hall of Fame in 2009.
Smoky, the hero war dog, passed away in 1957 at the age of 14 and is entombed in a memorial to her memory in Cleveland’s Metroparks. All told, there are 11 memorials on three continents to the diminutive, 4-pound canine. Smoky is officially the most decorated war dog in the history of the United States Military.
Margaret and Bill were married for 57 years before her passing in 2004. They raised five daughters and four sons in that span. Bill now lives in eastern Richland County with Smoky II.
Who is, of course, a Yorkshire terrier.
Tim Clark, a retired local law enforcement officer, is now a freelance writer and has a blog, Through an Old Cop’s Eyes. Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.