Gremlin, Dog First Class

Gremlin, Dog First Class

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

Gremlin, Dog First Class

In the spring of 1943, a detachment of seven planes from the VPB-128 U.S. Navy Bombing Squadron was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a German submarine had been sighted. The weather was hot and humid. Most of the pilots and crew were young men, away from home for the first time. Many were homesick; all were afraid. Just a few months earlier, they all had been civilians in different walks of life. Now they were sailors, struggling to survive war.

One day around lunchtime, one of the aircraft crews was seeking shade underneath the wing of their plane when they spotted what appeared to be a half-starved rat trotting in their direction. As the animal neared them, they saw that it was a small dog. The dog was so undernourished that his ribs were clearly visible through his thin brown and white fur.

“Come here, boy,” one of the sailors called.

The dog stopped in his tracks and stared.

Eyeing the protruding ribs, the young sailor was filled with compassion and offered the dog his sandwich. At first the dog seemed reluctant, his brown eyes fearful, but he was so hungry he couldn’t resist. With his head down and tail between his legs, the little dog inched forward, then gobbled down the sandwich. It took several days and a lot of sandwiches before the dog trusted the men enough to follow them into the mess hall where he indulged in military chow: fresh oranges, boiled eggs and Spam.

The dog learned to love the enlisted personnel who gave him their undivided attention. And although he tolerated the officers, the sailors noticed that he had no love for civilians. The dog would study civilians from a distance, but closely monitor them if they approached him. If they got too close, he would bare his teeth and growl. It was assumed that the dog had been so abused by civilians that he could never forget it, and after investigating to make sure he was a stray, the men decided to keep him.

When the detachmentwas ordered back to the squadron, the sailors couldn’t stand leaving the dog behind, so they smuggled him aboard an aircraft.

Shortly after takeoff the dog barked as the men began playing with him. The pilot asked, “What is that noise?”

The radioman replied, “It must be a gremlin, sir.”

According to the dictionary, gremlin means “a mischievous, invisible imp said to ride in airplanes and cause mechanical trouble.”

The dog barked again, and the men had to come clean. They took him into the cockpit where he was enthusiastically welcomed by the rest of the crew.

“This must be our gremlin, sir,” the radioman said, and the name stuck.

Gremlin was indoctrinated into the U.S. Navy when the squadron returned to New York. Induction papers were signed with a paw print, and he was issued an ID card and dog tag. A crew member donated a dress-blue uniform jacket from which a cape was cut and attached to a harness. The uniform bore the insignia “Dog First Class,” and Gremlin seemed very proud to wear his uniform. He was also issued Air Combat Crew wings and eventually earned several campaign ribbons, all attached to the uniform. Gremlin seemed to sense that his uniform was special and would stand at attention during the squadron’s infrequent personnel inspections and would move only when the unit was dismissed.

He usually slept with the enlisted personnel and was completely house- and plane-broken, never relieving himself while in quarters or in flight. However, immediately upon landing, like all crew members, he searched for a place of privacy.

Gremlin soon became the most popular member of the VPB-128 and often flew on noncontact missions with his human counterparts. Gremlin’s navy career took him to five of the world’s seven continents: North America, Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, in that order.

Gremlin had several primary caretakers, some of whom lost their lives during the course of the war. When that happened, another sailor was always ready to take over tending the dog.

While many dogs are enthusiastic automobile riders, Gremlin loved airplanes. At the first turn of the prop of the PV-1 bomber, he would spin in circles, bark loudly, wag his tail furiously and strain against the wind of the prop, his ears and cape flapping in the wind, reminding the men that he wanted to go, too.

Once, Gremlin disappeared during a short stay on the Midway Islands. Rumor had it that one of the submarine crew members had picked up the dog and taken him to their base on a neighboring island. The skipper realized this would be a great loss and morale would no doubt suffer. He sent three squadron aircraft crews over to find him, but the submarine had left—probably with Gremlin aboard. The men kept searching and calling for their beloved friend. Hope dwindledwith each passingmoment.

Then one man saw a small mass huddled under a park bench. It was Gremlin—but he was shaking and wouldn’t come when called. The sailor quickly gathered the dog up and yelled to the rest of the searchers, “I found him!”

The men came running. It seemed too good to be true, but there he was. They stroked the frightened dog and spoke softly to him, and finally Gremlin began wagging his tail. He was back where he belonged—with the VPB-128.

When the squadron was sent to Samar, a hot spot in the war zone, the men had to spend most of their time concentrating on the enemy. Gremlin didn’t seem to mind. It was almost as if he understood their purpose for being there, and he was content so long as he was with the sailors.

It was in Samar that an enlisted man by the name of McKirdy assumed primary care of Gremlin. McKirdy, with his crew, was ordered on a follow-up attack of a Japanese submarine tied up to the dock at Cebu City. McKirdy’s plane was shot down and fell, flaming, into the water. At that time, bombers carried so much gasoline that even a slight crash or hit would cause the plane to burst into flames. Several planes went down that day and many members of the VPB-128 lost their lives.

There was a lot of confusion in the days that followed the loss of McKirdy’s plane, but someone finally noticed that Gremlin hadn’t been seen for a while. They finally realized that Gremlin had been on that plane—the brave and loyal dog had gone out on his last mission.

Gremlin, Dog First Class, rescued from a life of hunger and abuse in the slums of Cuba and brought into a world filled with love, unending attention and adventure, died for his country and the men he loved on March 21, 1944. He accomplished his mission with the highest degree of loyalty, compassion and love.

JaLeen Bultman-Deardurff

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