Vietnam war dog memorial dedicated at S.C. Memorial Park

Veteran and war dog handler Johnny Mayo cleans the new war dog memorial at Columbia's Memorial Park. The monument to war dogs and their handlers will be dedicated during a ceremony on Veteran's Day.
Veteran and war dog handler Johnny Mayo cleans the new war dog memorial at Columbia's Memorial Park. The monument to war dogs and their handlers will be dedicated during a ceremony on Veteran's Day. tglantz@thestate.com

Johnny Mayo of Lexington County will see the fulfillment of a mission Wednesday that began in the jungles of Vietnam on Oct. 16, 1970.

Mayo and his scout dog, Tiger, were leading a foot patrol from Landing Zone English near Bong Son in the central highlands of South Vietnam, searching for snipers or ambushes, anything that could harm the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade following behind them.

Tiger was off leash, 37 feet ahead of Mayo, on their second mission together, when he hit a trip wire while trying to slip under a limb. Tiger died from shrapnel embedded in his abdomen, but he saved Mayo’s life.

Since then, Mayo has worked tirelessly educating people about the war dogs’ service. And for the past four years he has been raising money for a monument to them in the S.C. Memorial Park at Hampton and Gadsden streets in Columbia.

This Veterans Day, that dream will become a reality in a 3 p.m. ceremony to dedicate the $130,000 bronze statue of a handler and his German shepherd. The kneeling soldier is about seven feet tall and weighs 1,400 pounds. The statue of the dog stands four feet tall and weighs 300 pounds.

“I can see the light at the end of tunnel of a journey that started on March 12, 2011,” Mayo said Monday as the statue was carefully removed from a flatbed trailer and erected in a steady rain.

The sculpture was raised just downhill from the S.C. Vietnam War Memorial, which carries the names of all South Carolina troops killed in that conflict.

Tiger was one of 4,000 scout dogs who served in Vietnam. Sadly, in addition to the nearly 800 who died of wounds or disease, 2,000 were euthanized at war’s end.

Today, handlers are allowed to adopt their dogs, but after the end of Vietnam the dogs were considered surplus military equipment and killed.

Dennis Lewis of Goldsboro, N.C., used his vacation time from his job at Air Gas National Welders to volunteer to drive the sculpture the 923 miles from the forge in Oregon, Ill., to Columbia. He said many Vietnam handlers showed up at events along the route, including at the national Vietnam Dog Handler Association reunion in Nashville, Tenn.

“The men are very humbled and upset about what happened to their dogs,” Lewis said. “We want people to know that story.”

At one stop in Smithfield, N.C., one vet, hobbled with age, stood at attention and saluted as the statue rolled away from an event at a community college there.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Lewis said.

Initially, Mayo – still angry the dogs were put down – served on a committee to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C. He was further stunned when the National Park Service in 2005 turned down the committee’s request.

The national memorial eventually was built at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where most war dog handlers go through training.

Mayo later was approached by Columbia’s Memorial Park Commission to install the sculpture there as a tribute to all military working dogs and their South Carolina handlers.

There are similar memorials throughout the country, including: Mobile, Ala.; Bristol Township, Pa.; Holmdel, N.J.; Peoria, Ill.; Hartsdale, N.Y.; Fort Benning, Ga.; March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif.; Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; and Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash.

Artist Renee Bemis of St. Charles, Ill., sculpted the memorial, which features a dog and handler “on point,” on the look out for enemy ambushes in front of infantry patrols.

Bemis, who has created four military memorials during her 28-year career as a sculptor, paid attention to detail on every aspect of the soldier’s uniform, down to the dog’s lead and the five canteens the soldier carries to provide water for both him and his dog.

Mayo provided all of his equipment from the war to use as models.

“Johnny gave me everything,” she said. “Down to the watch and dog tags.”

Among the special features included in the sculpture are:

▪  One of the canteens is a World War II issue modeled on one belonging to Bemis’ father, who was a Naval officer in the Pacific. Mayo said the canteen is authentic because Vietnam soldiers often used equipment that dated to that war.

▪  The names of some of Mayo’s favorite dogs during the war are incorporated into the soldier statue’s helmet.

▪  The soldier’s watch is set to 11:11 – Veteran’s Day.

So far, Mayo has raised $105,000 for the $130,000 statue. Those wanting to donate can do so through the War Dog Memorial Fund at Morgan Stanley Bank, 1320 Main St., Suite 800, Columbia, 29201. Online donations can be made at www.wardogmemorialfund.com.

Bud Ferillo, chairman of the Memorial Park Commission, said Mayo deserves the credit for making the memorial a reality.

“The War Dogs Monument is a great addition to the collection of monuments, now 10 monuments to South Carolinians who have served our country in the 20th and 21st centuries,” he said. “This one is larger than life, very realistic and will be an impressive must-see to visitors to Memorial Park.”

Jeff Wilkinson: 803-771-8495, @wilkinson_jeff

If you go

What: S.C. War Dog Memorial dedication

When: Today at 3 p.m.

Where: S.C. Memorial Park

Cost: Free

What: Veterans Day parade

When: Today at 11 a.m.

Where: Parade begins at the intersection of Sumter and Laurel streets, travels southbound on Sumter Street and ends at Pendleton Street near the State House.