The Dogs of Cat Island

January 12, 2009 at 6:13 am 7 comments

Cat Island is an unusual T-shaped barrier island created by currents at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. Remains of a unique WWII training camp can still be seen on the island, which is now part of a national wildlife refuge.

In October 1942, a group of 25 soldiers from Company B of the 100th Infantry Battalion Separate (“separate” because its members were of Japanese descent) were selected for a secret training mission on Cat Island, Mississippi.   Transported to adjacent Ship Island under cover of darkness, they were told nothing about their mission.

After spending two weeks on barren, brackish Ship Island the men were finally informed that they’d be taking part in top secret dog training operations.  What they weren’t told was that their role in the operation was to act as… bait.

Today the Biloxi-Gulfport SunHerald reported:

Cat Island was turned over to the dogs in World War II. A year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the barrier island 10 miles off the Mississippi Coast was occupied by about 25 dog trainers and an equal number of dogs, many of them giant breeds such as Irish Wolf Hounds and Great Danes.

The war dogs and the military trainers were on a top secret mission. The temperate, sandy, sometimes marshy Gulf of Mexico island was picked because of its similarity to Pacific islands, and that’s a hint at the secrecy. The dogs were to become weapons against the Japanese.

According to the SunHerald:

The new four-legged residents moving onto Cat Island were pets patriotically donated for the war cause. Unknown to their previous owners, they were to be trained to recognize Japanese by sight and smell and to viciously attack them in packs.

The failed experiment lasted less than four months and resulted in government investigations, unforgettable stories and misinformation that continue today.

The Hawai’i Nisei Story website has a detailed interview with Roy Nosaka of Company B including graphic descriptions of the training activities.  The men were first told to encourage the dogs to track and chase them.  Then, if the dogs approached them in friendly way, to beat them until they attacked.  Nosaka confesses the guilt he felt about being forced to do this work.  He speaks about having to deal with alligators and swarms of mosquitos in the island’s swamps, and about the loneliness of the place.  He mentions the numerous dog bites he sustained in a matter of fact way that makes it clear he held no grudge for the dogs who, much like him, were forced to do difficult and unpleasant work. 

Philly.com reports:

The Nisei were picked because they were loyal U.S. soldiers but Japanese in appearance and, so the theory went, in smell. After the experiment failed and was closed down in five months, an intelligence investigation followed.

The 400 island dogs continued to be trained as sentries, scouts, suicide dogs and to locate wounded soldiers. Americans had donated 18,000 pets to be trained in the country’s four war canine centers.

Amazingly, the vicious attacks did not change Nosaka’s lifelong love of dogs.

After just a few months the project was deemed too controversial to continue. And… it wasn’t the idea that training packs of dogs to attack men solely based on their race that incited the controversy.  It was the military’s concern that the pet owners who had donated their dogs to the war effort would be infuriated when they found out that their pets had been trained to attack men and to act as — suicide bombers. 

Though these more controversial operations were halted, the island continued to be used as a training base for some time.  According to the SunHerald:

Although the Japanese experiment had disbanded, Cat Island continued to be used for secret dog training operations, but now they focused on more sensible tasks. One of the experiments was with the 828th Signal Pigeon Replacement Company, which teamed messenger pigeons with dogs for communication. As historian Lemish put it, “They found the dogs’ true calling, to be able to silently alert when enemy is near, for communication, sentry and to detect explosives.”

The story of Cat Island will be featured in an upcoming episode of PBS’s History Detectives due to air in June of 2009.

Entry filed under: dog training, dogs. Tags: , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  January 12, 2009 at 7:19 am

    I’ve got a near-contemporary account (History of Dogs For Defense) at home that differs significantly in its spin on this chapter. I’ll dig it up in a couple weeks.

    The PR snow job in that book is as creepy as the real story.

    FWIW, training dogs to track and attack based on race goes back a LOONG time. War dogs are the ultimate xenophobes.

    And it works. There are some differences in scent profile between ethnic groups, and these get exacerbated when diets differ significantly. Dogs have no trouble distinguishing between groups if trained to do so.

    It’s pronounced enough that we ensure that our SAR dogs get exposed to people of many races and ethnicities — as well as ages, health status, disability, etc.

    We don’t want too much specificity in the dog’s olfactory search image. A SAR dog who believes it is his job to find young, healthy caucasian adults is not so useful — fact is, we don’t have to search for too many of those

  • 2. Fred  |  January 12, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    That’s a fascinating story and I’m glad that Great Danes didn’t end up with some horrible reputation as a result of it. Although, come to think of it, the whole thing probably failed because they used Great Danes. If they were anything like mine, they wouldn’t have wanted to get up in the morning, they would’ve been constantly complaining about the heat, and they wouldn’t have wanted to expend the energy to attack anyone unless there was a treat involved.

  • 3. Caveat  |  January 12, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Great Danes had their chance at being ‘devil dogs’ a long time ago. So did Collies, as a matter of fact.

    Very interesting story, Smartie.

  • 4. Jill  |  January 12, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Several months ago I was surfing channels and set down the remote when I looked at the screen and a Belgian malinois looked back. The movie was called ‘The Breed’ and the plot (such as it was) placed some wayward young adults — who got lost on their own three-hour cruise — on an island long-abandoned. As the story would have it, the dogs on the island had been trained like the dogs on Cat island, and they’d been selectively bred to enhance their capabilities to search, find and destroy.

    Info and a trailer on IMDB. Belgians are de baddest of dem all.

  • 5. anonymous 8th-grade student  |  April 22, 2009 at 1:55 am

    Graham Salisbury wrote a book called “Eyes of the Emperor”, an accurate-as-possible account of what one of these 25 soldiers would have gone through during the top-secret training on Cat Island. Check it out!

  • 6. David  |  April 17, 2010 at 7:21 am

    I read a book called Eyes of the emperor, and it descibes what happened in cat island.

  • 7. Stan Stark  |  November 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I occasionally kayak to Cat island and have visited the remnants of the WW II military facility where the dog experiments were conducted. In spite of hurricane Katrina, enough remains to see how the camp was laid out and visualize the conditions the soldiers had to deal with. I suspect the originator of this hair brained scheme was presented with the idiot of the year award.

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