I will try to recall the details of what I remember about, "Operation Top Dog," in general and my participation in it.
First of all, I did volunteer, but not quite in the traditional manner. I think it was sometime in April of 1965. I was in my barracks room at McChord AFB, Washington, preparing for midshift duties. Someone knocked on my door and asked if I would like to sign up for a TDY tour in Southeast Asia.
I had never been outside of the United States and McChord was getting boring. so I thought, why not?
Now, you have to realize that in those days, Viet Nam was called, "Viet Nam." It was not normally referred to as Southeast Asia. I said, "sign me up," and went back to my shift preparations. All the while thinking about what Southeast Asia would be like and where exactly it was located. Intrigued at that point, I asked around the barracks if anyone had a world map. Someone did. I found Asia, browsed South, then East. Thatís where Viet Nam is.
Early, the next morning, I visited squadron headquarters to inquire of the status of my volunteering for TDY duty in Southeast Asia. I learned it was a done deal! No change of mind or re-consideration would be allowed. I also learned that there were no other Sentry Dog Handlers from any branch of the military, was currently assigned in Viet Nam. We were to be an experiment!
I later found out, my good friend and fellow dog handler, James T. (Jim) Doss had also volunteered for duty in Sourtheast Asia.
I expected to hear some additional information within a few weeks, but nothing happened. Weeks went by and still no word. I think it must have been around the last week in June, during a midshift, while I was on duty with my dog LUCKY, when two regular Air Policemen approached my post. After the usual challenge and small talk, they said I was being relieved of duty, along with my K-9. That I was to report to Central Security Control immediately. I thought, they caught me smoking in the nuke area.
I was ordered to kennel my K-9 and report to base personnel first thing in the morning, for out-processing, for Viet Nam. The only thing I recall about the out-processing experience, was every personnel clerk along the process, looked at me like I was already dead.
My next stop was Lackland AFB, TX. The trip was from Tacoma, Washington to San Antonio, TX by train. LUCKY rode in a portable kennel in the baggage car. I rode in the club car and really had fine sleeping accommodations. We rode on the train for three days. At each stop, I would get off the train and take LUCKY out for a walk. Even in his kennel at his current age, he managed to keep things stirred up in the baggage car. The train attendant had the worst ride of his life on that trip.
I have to admit, I enjoyed the ride. The train was full of military men and single women and it was a party all the way.
At Lackland, we spent four days in Combat Preparedness School. We did scouting exercises, obstacle courses, and martial arts training. When we werenít doing that, we were on the firing range or following the dogs around with pans trying to get urine samples for the vet. It was amazing how they could plug up, with a pan under their hind quarters.
The martial arts instructor was a guy that kind of looked like death warmed over, named TSGT Shaklford. He was tough as nails and the first thing he did in his instruction course was to challenge any one of us to a fight, in front of the group. One gutsy guy of Spanish-American origin spoke up. No one else would, including myself. Shacklford took him on and while the Spanish-American tried his damndest to hurt Shacklford, he couldnít do it. He finally quit in frustration.
LUCKY was seven years old and I believe, I was his fourth handler. The truth was, he knew how to go through the motions and really didnít care that much any more. Some of the dogs didnít perform well, training on the firing range. As I recall, everyone passed.
I believe the exact number of dog handlers was twenty-seven, nine handlers were each scheduled for Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa and Da Nang. I think our total number was 30, the other three being NCOís. I was originally slated for Bien Hoa, but LUCKY came down with a bad case of heat stroke, within hours of landing at Tan Son Nhut. LUCKY and I were then switched with someone else, so LUCKY could remain at Tan Son Nhut where veternarian services were closer.
We took what would later become, the usual trip for dog handlers, Kelly AFB, TX to Travis AFB, CA, to Hickham Field, Hawaii. From there we flew on to Wake Island and finally to Tan Son Nhut, Air Base, RVN.
Since we were the first dog handlers in country, there were no permanent kennels for the dogs. There was a place beside a fairly busy two lane road, where some ten-man tents had been set up for us to make into a kennel area. We shoveled in a few truckloads of pea gravel and set up two dogs per tent. With a portable kennel at each end. That was as good as the kennels got while I was assigned there.
The first real problem we faced, was our Air Police Squadron leadership. Non-dog handler types, seemed to think we dog handlers were somehow invincible, since we were armed with dogs. We spent the first several nights on our duty posts, armed only with the standard .38 revolver and 18 rounds of ammunition. The same amount as we were issued in the states.
Our reaction, was to loudly protest the order and to round up anything that could be used as weapons to carry on post, to give ourselves any kind of edge we could get. After a few weeks, we won our argument and were issued .30 caliber carbines to carry while on duty.
That may sound strange, but remember, in the Summer of 1965, the M-16 was new and we heard only the Army was getting them. Prior to that time, the .30 caliber Carbine was the standard Air Police issue weapon.
TSGT Neeley looked out for us very well. I think it was him, that got our weapons issue, changed. He also made sure we werenít over worked. We had some days off. I donít recall how they worked that, but he did look out for us.
Nights on post were scary at first, as it was for all new comers. Maybe it was, more so for us because we knew we were in un-tested territory. Truth is, I think at first, the enemy was probably as afraid of us as we were of them. The word was, we were thought of as some kind of supermen to the Viet Cong. They would take their time before testing us. It was also rumored that there was a bounty on us and the dogs, if they could get their hands on us. I think that might have been true for many of the handlers who followed after us.
I recall, on any given night, of the nine handlers, there was maybe six or seven on duty each night. With such a small number, we were selected for very specific sensitive areas. My favorite post was alongside the runway, because of the runway lights. When I had that particular post, I would begin my shift, by setting each of my C-ration cans on top of the runway lights. So by mid-shift, I would have some warm food to eat.
Most night were the same. The thump of mortar fire was always there, sometimes closer than others, but not often alarmly close. Occasionally there would be small arms fire, but again, not often close enough to be cause for alarm.
One night from my assigned post, I could see on the night horizon, a frenzy of activity of artillery fire. The next day, I had heard that Bien Hoa had been attacked. I didnít know we were close enough to Bien Hoa, to have actually seen something like that. I later learned my buddy from McChord, Jim Doss, was off-duty that particular night. Asleep in his bunk when it all started. Jim, later told me, he piled out of his bunk and hid under a truck until it was over with.
Only once, did I release LUCKY while posted on duty. We had a post where every night, a certain Vietnamese man would ride his bike past our K-9 post. The Vietnamese man would be challenged and would keep on going, past our position, ignoring our challenge of halt. We all knew the Vietnamese man was not a danger, but we were all pissed that he kept doing ignoring us. One night, when I had that particular post, I decided he wouldnít get by me.
LUCKY and I hid in the brush and waited. LUCKY alerted and sure enough, he came riding by in the darkness, even with a light on his bike, just peddling on through. I challenged in his language and he didnít stop. After the obligatory three challenges, I released LUCKY and expected a capture.
LUCKY was old and worn out. He charged like he would tear the guy, limb from limb. When the moment of reckoning came, LUCKY barked and nipped, but he released the guy. LUCKY then came back to my location and we spent the rest of my tour, knowing LUCKY was old and I better watch out for myself and him too.
At one point, a news crew visited us and filmed a news feature on us. We posed and moved around with our dogs in daylight, on one of our posts that we worked at night. They filmed and made a big deal of it. When it was over, they were gone and to this day, Iíve never seen what they filmed.
Life at Tan Son Nhut consisted of nightly tensions, punctuated with moments of terror. Thatís how it was. I think that was true for all of us and for all handlers who came later to Viet Nam, wherever they were stationed in-country. It was like that for me all over again, a year later, when I returned to Viet Nam, this time being assigned to Phu Cat, Air Base.
Iíve been honored, by some of my friends on-line, in recent months, as being somehow special because I was with the first group of Dog Men, to serve in Viet Nam. I really appreciate that, but many of you, who followed in our footsteps, saw much more action than we did at Tan Son Nhut, of those men who led the way.
Life for me at Phu Cat was a bit more adventurous than my time at Tan Son Nhut. Tan Son Nhut was only tough during our time, because we simply had no idea what we were getting into and had no one, to tell us what to expect. For those who followed us, we knew and you knew what to expect, by learning from those who came before. Iíve heard activity at Tan Son Nhut became more intense and more dangerous, as time progressed. At least by that time, K-9 was no longer an experiment.
At the end of the Top Dog experiment, we were given a choice of going home and still being eligible for re-assignment, back to Viet Nam. or staying for a one year tour and being done with it all. Nearly all of us had enough of the experiment and were more than happy to leave. I know I was certainly happy to leave.
As far as I know first hand, all Top Dog members returned home safely. Iím pleased to see web sites such as the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association and Charles Penleyís 377th Security Police Squadron web page, because they indicate those who fell in action.  Again, none of the names of Top Dog members show up there.
I regret that so few of us from Top Dog have been found by VDHA, 377th SPS and other web sites. I would certainly enjoy talking to some of my old friends again. Perhaps if any of you know any of them, please send them my email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Keith Scott