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National Archives preserves records of the dogs of war

April 23, 2012

Marine dog Butch poses with his handler. Source: Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, RG 127, National Archives, College Park, MD.

It’s almost cliche to say that when you start to look into history, particularly historical records, you’re bound to find something that grabs your interest and surprises you. Sometimes what you find is chilling, sometimes it’s touching. For an example of the latter, I highly suggest taking a look at this article from the Winter 2012 issue of Prologue Magazine, a publication of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In it, writer M.C. Lang looks through 11 boxes at the National Archives site in College Park, MD, that contain the Dog Record Books of the animals enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, and offers a series of vignettes from their service records. He notes that looking at the actual records offers small details and stories that are lost in grand histories, and “may offer the viewer small realities that can be enlightening, amusing, poignant, and memorable.”

That is certainly the case here. Among the many short anecdotes Lang recounts is this one regarding Rollo (#45):

Rollo (#45) had a career that extended beyond the war. His history states that he not only “participated in the taking and occupation” of various islands from April to July 1945 but subsequently, in 1946, at “Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, Thurmont, MD,” an area that includes what is now called Camp David, “Rollo served as a member of the detachment guarding the President of the United States.” Rollo, it should be noted, was promoted to platoon sergeant effective April 8, 1946, by written order of Col. Donald J. Kendell, commanding officer of the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C.

The piece is an excellent read (and I’m not ashamed to say the ending had me in tears), but more than that, it demonstrates again the value of preserving documents for future access. You could argue that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter that records of World War II’s canine Marines were preserved with care similar to those of their human comrades. But every record tells a human story, and one that’s made more important by virtue of being true.

With the passage of time, documents gain a remarkable ability to instruct us, challenge us, and move us, whether they recount a dog saving lives in war or the minutiae of a person’s worldly possessions. This is the fascination of history, and why  it’s encouraging to see that NARA is expanding its role as document curator for the U.S. government into electronic records and working to digitize the 12 billion pieces of paper in its holdings. As access to documentary records expands, more and more people will be able to go straight to the source, and locate for themselves those pieces of the past that move and fascinate them.

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