During the Second World War, all the warring countries were looking for an edge in their war effort, be it through machinery and science, new methods of personnel training or, unfortunately, even experimental drug-use. While most military research and development funding went to the tried and true necessities, such as weaponry, tanks, airplanes and ships, the war-torn countries of the world were also open to investigating more abnormal methods of warfare. Looking for any and every way to win the war, some countries invested their resources into turning mankind’s furry, four-legged best friends into trained man-killers.
Dogs have long been used by militaries during war. They were often deployed as scouts, messengers and rescuers, accompanying ground forces. Yet, during WWII, dogs were increasingly trained in some countries not to support, but to kill. Most notable (or notorious) was the Soviet Union, which may have fielded around 40,000 suicide-bomber dogs, which were specifically trained to detonate explosives underneath enemy tanks. The soviet scheme, introduced in 1941, was far from perfect. The dogs could easily become scared and confused, causing some of the poor animals to run back to their Russian handlers. This, far too often, resulted in the dogs blowing their own troops to pieces. Even though the Russian dog-bomb strategy was not considered very successful, the United States, too, wanted to try its own hand at a killer canine program.
Shortly after the Japanese bombed the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U. S. military was approached by a Swiss man named William A. Prestre, who, at the time, was living in New Mexico. Prestre pitched to the military a novel idea—he claimed he could train dogs to become autonomous killing machines who would be able to hunt down and eliminate Japanese soldiers without the help of handlers. The United States, heeding its venture-capitalist spirit, decided to give the man funding and personnel for a three-month trial period.
With U. S. military approval, William Prestre quickly went about gathering the resources he would need to train the perfect killer dogs. For a location that would somewhat mirror conditions in the Japanese Empire, he found an island in the Gulf of Mexico, ironically named Cat Island, situated just off the coast of Mississippi. Next, he needed bait that would teach his dogs how to single out Japanese targets—this is where the story gets a lot more scandalous.
In 1942, during the month of November, twenty-five Japanese-American soldiers from Company B of the 100th Infantry Battalion were sent to Cat Island with the impression that they would be aiding in the military’s dog training program. Little did they know what their role in the “training” really meant.
William A. Prestre founded his whole theory of autonomous killer dogs from a false premise—he thought the Japanese, as an ethnic people, all had a specific smell that he could train his dogs to attack. Consequently, the twenty-five Japanese-American soldiers on Cat Island were not handlers, or even trainers; they were bait.
Prestre instructed the trainers and the soldiers to beat the dogs, so as to make the animals more vicious. In-between the beatings, which sometimes drew blood, the dogs were commanded to hunt down and attack the twenty-five Japanese-American servicemen. Thankfully, the soldiers were wearing bite-resistant padding, but almost all of them received wounds during their stay on Cat Island.
From the start, William Prestre’s program was noticeably unsuccessful, especially when compared to other military dog training programs. Prestre’s allotted three months of time was up in January 1943. In his exhibition to the military on January 12, 1943, Prestre could not produce any dogs that could hunt down and kill Japanese soldiers without the help of military handlers. Even worse, his dogs seemed less effective than other military attack dogs. After witnessing the poor exhibition, the military pulled its support from the project at Cat Island, and William A. Prestre was off the payroll by early February.
Prestre, however, took his failure poorly. He truly believed in his program and proclaimed his former military overseers to be incompetent. Some say he even threatened to release damaging information about the military and the president of the United States, possibly resulting in him being put under FBI surveillance. Nevertheless, the fate of the peculiar Swiss dog trainer, just like his Cat Island program, remains a somewhat vague grey-area of history.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Sentry dog alerts to movement outside the perimeter of Phan Rang Air Base. (U.S. Air Force photo), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil)