AMHERST — William “Bill” Wynne grew up on the streets of Cleveland, finding his way through the Great Depression with his unique eye and a fondness for dogs.
Living for a time in an orphanage because his mother couldn’t afford him, abandoned by his father, and running the streets, Wynne bonded with stray dogs.
Little did he know he would meet his most loyal four-legged friend on the other side of the world in a story that still is being told more than 70 years later.
Wynne, an energetic 95, will tell the story of Smoky at 2 p.m. Sunday at Amherst Public Library. Found in a foxhole on a jungle island, Smoky became one of the most famous dogs of World War II, was awarded several military citations, is featured in television shows, books and stacks of articles and has monuments around the world in her honor.
Wynne was fresh out of high school, working in a steel mill and taking the “$5 mutt” his girlfriend bought him to a dog obedience training class when America came calling. He was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in the waning days of WWII, shipped off to the South Pacific when the German front was crumbling, but the Japanese were resolute.
His developing knack for photography made him an aerial surveyor, helping bombers map out terrains before raids. He was stationed on the island of New Guinea in March 1944 when a GI buddy showed up with a “dizzy little poodle.”
His buddy’s Jeep had broken down in the jungle when he heard yapping and spotted a disheveled, tiny mess of fur trying to hop out of an abandoned foxhole. He rescued it and brought it to camp, offering to it to Wynne for three Australian pounds. Wynne countered with two “since I didn’t know if it was going to live,” but the buddy passed, selling it to the motor pool sergeant. The sergeant then sold it to Wynne for “poker game” ante money, about $6.11.
“It” turned out to be a 4-pound Yorkshire terrier that Wynne named Smoky.
“She was about the length and the height of my shoe, and she looked terrible because he had trimmed her hair when he was three sheets to the wind,” he said.
In his down time, Wynne taught Smoky tricks. Teaching her to sit and stay quickly gave way to strapping her with a homemade money belt, harness and parachute, and dropping her out of trees into a waiting blanket. She climbed ladders, went down slides, walked tightropes blindfolded and could pick her name out of alphabet blocks.
Then Wynne contracted dengue fever and spent time in a military hospital. Smoky was so popular she was allowed to visit Wynne — and eventually escorted doctors and nurses on rounds and visited wounded soldiers. She became the first documented therapy dog in history, according to researchers at the cable channel Animal Planet, which featured Smoky in a segment about therapy animals.
Wynne entered her in a contest run by Yank magazine, looking for the best companion animal in war zones. Smoky won the Southwest Pacific theater zone, and her renown began to grow.
Her trust in Wynne grew, too. She became much more than a companion and a comfort when she became the Army’s tiniest secret weapon.
In January 1945, U.S. soldiers were preparing for the invasion of the Philippine island of Luzon through the Lingayen Gulf. The only way to secure their position was by calling in air support from American bombers hidden a mile away under tree cover. Ground troops were working to provide a landing strip but couldn’t lay the telephone lines under it to call in airstrikes against the Japanese fighters lying in wait for soldiers to expose their positions.
“The guy in operations came to my tent and asked me, ‘Do you think Smoky can carry this cable through a
70-foot pipe about 8 inches wide?’” Wynne recalls. “I knew she could do it, but I only agreed to do it on one condition. I said ‘If she gets caught in that pipe, you’ll dig her out, right?’”
The deal was made. The telephone lines were tied to Smoky’s chest and Wynne gave her commands, coaxing her through the long, dark pipe underground.
“You can’t get a dog in 10,000 to go into a dark tunnel they’ve never seen before. That’s how amazing she was,” Wynne said. “She climbed through and she was letting out the string and about two minutes later I saw amber eyes coming through and she ran to me.”
The men knew at the time how significant her contribution was but didn’t learn until three years ago how devastating the Japanese attacks had been all around them. Without that airstrip, their post would have been overrun, too.
In communications from field command to headquarters that was discovered years later, Smoky’s face is on the cover of the report of the incident, stamped “SECRET.”
They re-enacted the scene at the request of magazines.
“If I knew she was going to be this famous, I would’ve taken a lot more pictures,” Wynne said. “We were in the jungle; we had no idea what was going on.”
The month before, Smoky was with Wynne on board a ship in a convoy of 2,300 ships heading to Luzon when a kamikaze blitz decimated part of the fleet.
“Smoky led me over to a Jeep as they were coming down. I laid down next to it and put my hands over her ears. The whole deck was bouncing, you wouldn’t believe the noise,” he said. They got up when they heard cheering and found that the pilots had hit an armored stack, just missing a gunner and several men, including Wynne, by inches. More than 150 men were killed on the ship behind them.
She flew combat missions with Wynne, mainly “to keep the men from fighting over who got Smoky if Wynne got knocked off.”
“I said ‘To heck with you guys, I’ll take the dog with me. Poor little Smoky. She went on a 22-hour-long bombing mission with me over the fields of Borneo. We’d fly in little wooden and canvas planes so low they were throwing grenades down on the Japanese, skimming across treetops. I thought we were going to get shot in the seat of the pants,” he said.
She once turned up pregnant, after getting loose while some buddies were watching her.
“She lost her Good Conduct Medal for a year,” Wynne said.
Soldiers named a pup Topper after the Cary Grant movie of the time. It later died.
The pair survived Typhoon Louise, which hit Okinawa in October, just after the end of the war. Hundreds of men were killed on the island and lost at sea.
Because Smoky was never an official military canine, she wasn’t eligible for food or medical care. She ate highly salted, dehydrated food rations like the rest of the men — a diet that veterinarians have told Wynne would kill a modern Yorkie.
She continued visiting military hospitals for 12 years after the war. Wynne returned home and married his wartime sweetheart, Margie, started a family and became a dog trainer in Hollywood.
The Wynnes eventually had nine kids and ended up on Cleveland’s west side, where Wynne started working with the agency that became NASA. He later became a staff photographer with The Plain Dealer, retiring after 31 years.
Smoky died in 1957, found lying on her side at home.
He secretly buried her in Cuyahoga County Metroparks’ Rocky River Reservation, beneath a tree where he and Margie had carved their initials in a heart in 1940.
Wynne self-published “Yorkie Doodle Dandy” in 1996. A Vietnam vet who read it decided Smoky deserved a monument at her burial place. First, Smoky was “exhumed” — bits of bone and teeth were found, which Wynne placed in a .30-caliber ammunition box and carried in his trunk for a year. When the concrete footer was installed for Smoky’s monument in the park, he buried the box in it. It was dedicated in 2004 to Smoky and all war dogs. A sculpture of Smoky inside an Army helmet rests on top.
It is the only monument of Smoky to include her remains. There are at least a dozen monuments to her worldwide, including three in Australia — where researchers discovered she was from — and one in Germany. French officials had asked him to lay a wreath at an international monument to war animals this summer, but he regretfully declined because of his age. A monument is being constructed in San Diego this year, and he hopes to make it to an event in New Jersey at the end of this month.
“That will be my last hurrah,” he said.
Margie passed away in 2004, said his grandson, Andy Tabar. The couple has 27 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren and a possible feature film is being explored.
“He amazes me that he is so energetic. He’s an inspiration,” Tabar said.
Wynne, who lives in Mifflin near Mansfield, still has two Yorkies but they are not Smoky.
“She and I were meant to be together,” Wynne said. “In anyone else’s hands, she would have been just a dog.”
Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or email@example.com.