Tom Morton enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserve to avoid service in Vietnam. At least, that was his plan when he graduated from high school in 1966 in Santa Rosa in northern California. He enlisted at Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco in Sept. 1966 as a security policeman, the Air Force’s equivalent of the military police responsible for protecting air bases.
Seizure of USS Pueblo
He was thrilled to have the opportunity to receive “on the job training” as a dog handler. Everything was going fine, until the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968, in support of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive. As part of our nation’s response, Morton’s unit was activated and moved to South Korea to provide security to Kunsan Air Base.
Morton enjoyed active duty and found service as a security policeman and dog handler challenging and rewarding. In Feb. 1969, he was offered the opportunity to enlist for active duty, and in Aug. 1969, he briefly was ordered to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming — beginning what proved to be a life-long relationship with the state.
Serving in Vietnam
In June 1970, he was sent to the Republic of Vietnam as a dog handler — ending up four years later where he specifically intended to avoid!
He was assigned to the 35th Security Police Squadron, responsible for safeguarding Phan Rang Air Base, approximately 30 miles south of Cam Ranh Bay. The airbase was protected by a South Korean ROK army unit, and contained numerous U.S. Air Force fighters and gunships, U.S. Army helicopters and elements of the Australian Air Force. The airbase was relatively small and had 14 miles of perimeter.
Morton recalled that “I got to know every inch of it in my year there.”
Working with Smokey
Morton and his assigned K-9, Smokey, patrolled every night for the first six months of his tour of duty. Another observer noted, “American guard dogs … through their keen sense of smell, can detect the presence of the Viet Cong long before any electronic device or human being. In turn, the Viet Cong has great respect for these dogs and will not attempt to penetrate an area where these dogs are known to be.”
During 1970, the sentry dogs lived in kennels and their handlers in barracks, and handlers joined their dogs on their patrols, which were mostly conducted at night. The dogs’ incredible sense of smell enabled them to detect Vietnamese at a considerable distance, due to their distinctive diet. In turn, the Viet Cong absolutely feared the dogs. It is significant that not a single perimeter safeguarded by sentry dogs and their handlers were ever successfully penetrated or attacked by the VC.
Promotion and return to U.S.
After six months, now Sergeant Morton was promoted to become Sentry Dog Shift Supervisor of the dogs and handlers assigned to his squadron, and he returned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, as a trainer in June 1971. Morton eventually was afforded the opportunity to attend college, and he was commissioned as an officer in Sept. 1980. He made the Air Force a career, retiring in May 1992 as a captain with 25 years of service. Significantly, his final assignment was again in F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. He then served as a mental health and substance abuse counselor in Cheyenne and Casper until his second retirement in Casper in 2014. He lives today in retirement in Casper.
During the conflict in Indochina, the U.S. Armed Forces employed an estimated 4,000 dogs. Almost none of them returned to the United States, for the U.S. Armed Forces had a strict policy of not returning military working dogs home. Rather, nearly all of them were killed in the line of duty, put to sleep or simply abandoned when the military departed. Smokey, like nearly every military working dog assigned to Vietnam, was abandoned in that country.
“It was very hard. You become accustomed to a dog, and you were with them for a year or two. And back then, they wouldn’t let you keep them like they do now,” Morton said. “Ask any dog handler, they all had the best dog.”
It is among the saddest and most deplorable episodes in our nation’s history in the sad epoch in Vietnam, that all of these animals who served so bravely and faithfully in Vietnam were left behind.
Tom Morton and his fellow dog handlers have never forgotten.