War Dogs of the Pacific – not to be confused, of course, with Hellcats of the Navy – is the sort of succinct, straightforward and altogether satisfying documentary that leaves you wondering: “Gee, I wonder why no one ever made a movie about this before?”
In this case, the relatively obscure but immediately arresting subject is a real-life phenom no scriptwriter would dare invent: The U.S. Marine Dog Platoons of World War II. No, really. Early during the Pacific Campaign, Marine commanders hit upon the idea of using canines to perform dangerous missions – carrying messages, maintaining lookouts and, most important, sniffing out Japanese soldiers hiding in ambush – during combat operations in Guam, Saipan, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
The dogs – most of them Dobermans, though other breeds also served with distinction – were “volunteered” by their masters, specially trained at U.S. bases (where they were taught, among other things, not to bark at fatally inappropriate times) and shipped off to war alongside human companions. In many cases, War Dogs notes, the bond forged between man and canine was as strong as any that linked human combat buddies. So much so, in fact, that the loss of a dog who was virtually a brother in arms could be as devastating as the death of a fellow Marine.
Director Harris Done includes several interviews with World War II vets who vividly recall the dogs who would alert them to snipers or serve as sentries while they slept in foxholes. But by far the most moving testimony comes from North Carolina native Dale Fetzer, who was assigned to the Dog Corps primarily because of his experience with training horses and who describes how he furiously opened fire on enemy soldiers after one of them shot and killed Skipper, the Black Lab who served with him.
“They should not have killed my dog,” Fetzer says, trying to keep his voice from cracking. “They should not have killed Skipper. That was like taking a piece of me.”
Slated for an 8 p.m. screening Saturday in the Performing Arts Center Theatre on the Houston Community College – Spring Branch campus, War Dogs of the Pacific is the latest offering in the Real Films series presented by The Documentary Alliance, a Houston-based organization of filmmakers and community leaders who are dedicated, as the organization’s Web site proudly proclaims, to the “elimination of the cultural amnesia that robs us of the lessons of history.”
This particular film, says Documentary Alliance chairman Jeffrey Mills, “follows our desire to find little-told stories and films that may not have had much exposure on the air or in the theatres. It also tells its story well, with passion and nuance – something we want to promote in today’s ‘fast food’ media landscape.”
The Saturday screening, Mills adds, with be preceded by a 7 p.m. reception with light refreshments and followed by a Q&A session with filmmaker Done and a four-legged special guest.
Next on tap in the Real Films series: Stop the Presses, a documentary described by Mills as “a very timely exploration of the sad state of print journalism – specifically, newspapers. The film asks the burning questions: Is there a future for this industry? And if so, what form will it take?”
Stop the Presses will be screened March 27 at the Houston Community College – Spring Branch campus, with co-directors Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza expected to be in attendance.