Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The book Smoky the Brave is another biography about war dogs, by Damien Lewis a British author and film maker who spent over twenty years reporting from conflict zones throughout the world. He has produced about twenty films and more than fifteen books which are now read worldwide. He became an author largely by accident when a British publisher asked him if he’d be willing to turn a TV documentary he was working on into a book. Since then he has written many military books and man-and-dog at war true stories based on what he has researched and seen over the years. His war victim memoirs, Slave and Tears of the Desert, have won many awards and were top international sellers. He has also branched out into writing thrillers as well as creating a computer game.
The storyline for Smoky the Brave, The World’s Smallest Dog, The World’s Biggest Heart, involves the US, 5th Air Force’s 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron and specifically twenty-one year old Corporal William ‘Bill’ Wynne, whose unit was based in Papua New Guinea during 1944. The story follows these men as the allies manage to rout the Japanese and drive them back to Japan. Of course the book is also about the specific role played by a little dog, the breed of which the Americans had never seen before. This information was only discovered well after she had endeared herself to all, and become the mascot for the group.
This scraggy, undernourished, tiny canine was revealed later to be a Yorkshire Terrier, a breed little known outside of the UK. How she came to be found in an abandoned foxhole in the steamy jungle of New Guinea remained a mystery. The bravery and morale-boosting qualities of this small canine, combined with the essential, very dangerous work done by the squadron who adopted her, form the basis of this story.
With the group Smoky travels from one air base to the next, from Nadzab to Biak Island, ‘a war blasted chunk of white coral that roasted under the remorseless tropical sun’ (114) and on to the Philippines, sometimes travelling by air and at other times by boat.
Before being sent to the front line, professional war dogs of the Second World War underwent intense training to accustom them to the noise of explosions and gunfire. Smoky did not have this training but she coped well, often sensing the alarm before it became obvious to the men. Several times she saved Bill’s life. ‘One thing was for sure on Biak Island: If Smoky started yelping her signature bark…it was time to run hell for leather for the shelters’ (117).
Smoky often went on photo recce and air-sea rescues with Bill. Although the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron were often continuously flying then developing photos taken (in October 1944 the squadron ‘executed 122 reconnaissance sorties, shooting 6,776 photos from which 94,707 prints would be made’ (146)), Bill still found time to train his little charge to do tricks. Over the course of their relationship Bill put together a show kit for Smoky which included a slippery slide, tightrope walk, rolling drum and tiny scooter.
In one of her more memorable exploits Smoky ran a cable through a seventy-foot pipe under the airfield, no wider than four inches in places, to enable telephone lines to be taken to the other side. This saved hundreds of ground-crew from being exposed to enemy bombing. She won many awards for her heroics among which was the PDSA’s Certificate for Animal Bravery or Devotion in 2011, a new class of PDSA Award. Bill’s squadron also received special praise for the work that they did. Sometimes the photo lab was singled out for their outstanding work which, the commentator believed, ‘contributed much to the success of the Philippines Campaign and reflects great credit to your organization as a whole’ (232).
Both Smoky and Bill survived being caught in a sea-rescue flying sea-plane inside a tropical storm where ‘after four hours entombed within that terrifying force of nature, the Catalina (in which they were flying) finally shook herself free’ (157). They survived the Battle of the Philippine Sea and kamikaze alley. The Japanese had vowed to attack the Allied invasion forces with kamikaze aircraft and pilots, rocket bombs and fast submarine torpedoes with 1550 kg war heads, from land, sea and air. And they survived a deadly, mysterious plague which unfortunately took the life of Smoky’s surprise pup who was only 6 months old.
Smoky had the ability to make the stressed and traumatized smile when there was little to smile about so she and Bill were often asked to perform for patients in hospitals. On one such visit into Manila, Bill was asked if Smoky could be featured in the Weekly Red Cross radio show which broadcast across the US. Smoky the ‘wonder dog’ was becoming well known far beyond her squadron and servicemen often received letters from home mentioning her.
In August 1945 Smoky and Bill found themselves on a beach in Okinawa, having endured a harrowing trip as part of the convoy. At the same time the US dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the men of the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, the war was over but for one man and his dog many trials and tribulations were only just beginning.
This novel is an interesting story for military buffs, dog lovers or those just wanting a good read. I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through this book so ably told by Damien Lewis who is a strong supporter of the Bravehound and Canine Partners charities.
If readers wish to learn more about the world’s smallest dog, Smoky the Brave, they may like to seek out two other novels: Smoky the War Dog by Nigel Allsopp, 2003 and Yorkie Doodle Dandy by William A Wynne (Smoky War Dog LLC, 1996).
By Damien Lewis