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When Mike Bailey talks about his time with Prince, he can still smell the jungle.
He can see the rusty-red German shepherd’s nose twitch at a whiff of danger. Still hear the footfalls of a hundred North Vietnamese soldiers passing in the dark while he and his dog hid. Still feel the mortar explosions and the blood oozing from a wound in Prince’s head.
So yes — a story in the history blog of The Virginian-Pilot grabbed his attention. Once it found its way to him, anyway.
Bailey doesn’t spend much time online. Now 72, he lives in Blaine, Wash., a small town in the far northwest corner of the country. He prefers a low-key life. A more plugged-in friend sent him the article about Prince.
The words brought it all rushing back.
Prince was one of the few feel-good stories to come out of America’s most unpopular war: a dog from Chesapeake who knew no fear.
He became the first SEAL dog and a media darling — the subject of nearly a dozen headlines from 1967 to ’71 in The Virginian-Pilot and the old Ledger-Star.
Prince saved lives. Had two Purple Hearts hung around his shaggy neck. Did four tours in Vietnam.
But then our celebrity disappeared — tangled in red tape, swallowed in the fog of war. No one could find him.
For decades, that’s where the trail ended.
But now our history article had reached the right eyes. And our phone rang.
As Bailey talked, the story of one dog and a soldier who loved him became the story of many: the thousands of K-9s abandoned in Vietnam, and the handlers who’ve mourned them ever since.
Bailey, as it turns out, has been waiting half of a century to tell Prince’s final chapter.
“I had to call,” he said quietly. “I owe it to Prince.”
Psychedelic rock is invading the radio. One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small …
On the nightly news, the first televised war flickers across living rooms.
The shouts of protestors. Hell no, we won’t go.
The beat of chopper blades. Whup-whup-whup.
A headline appears in the local newspaper: “Dog Wants To Be a Seal.”
Dogs have long been weapons of war, but Prince was a pioneer for the fledgling SEALs. Back then, the Navy’s special commando force consisted of just two newly-formed teams, spawned from frogmen operations in World War II.
In Vietnam, “the SEALs really came into their own,” said Rick Woolard, a retired Navy captain from Virginia Beach who’s credited with driving early SEAL development.
Woolard isn’t sure who came up with the idea for a SEAL dog. Other military branches in Vietnam were using K-9s, mostly for guard duty — or sentry.
Their numbers increased after relentless mortar attacks nearly paralyzed American bases. The dogs made such a difference — detecting infiltrators on the perimeters — that the enemy offered bounties for the cut-off ears of K-9s or the shoulder patches from handler uniforms.
For SEALs threading a sweaty world of ambushes and booby traps, a dog’s keen nose and hearing could save the lives of an entire patrol. The new force was fighting an unconventional war, pursuing guerrilla fighters into the jungles, rice paddies and swamps.
Prince belonged to a family in Chesapeake — a puppy that grew into the kind of dog that can worry parents. Too aggressive. He was only a year old when they gave him to a Virginia Beach police officer named Gene Griffith, who also worked with Norfolk’s K-9 corps.
Lean and muscular at 65 pounds, Prince had his own look — the usual markings of a German shepherd but with hues of dark red. He did well at the Norfolk K-9 academy, mastering voice and hand signals. He was taught to notice strangers with firearms and alert officers by barking ferociously. He was trained to attack on command, fangs blazing.
In the yellowed newspaper clippings of The Pilot’s archives, Griffith described Prince as “one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever seen, with unusual smelling and tracking ability. He’s the only dog I’ve ever seen that could smell a man upwind, 50 to 60 yards away.”
When SEAL Team 2, headquartered at Little Creek, decided to try a patrol dog, a teammate named Bill Bruhmuller was dispatched to make it happen.
Bruhmuller died in 2016 in Florida at age 81 — a veteran with two Purple Hearts. In an interview for a book, “Never Fight Fair: Inside the Legendary U.S. Navy Seals,” Bruhmuller described how Norfolk donated Prince to the cause and he became the dog’s first handler.
Man and dog spent days at the police K-9 academy, molding themselves into a team. At night, Prince went home with him, where Bruhmuller’s wife and five kids treated the K-9 like a family pet.
“He was just one of those dogs that, at the end of the day, he could turn it off,” Bruhmuller said. “And at eight o’clock in the morning, he would go back to work again.”
There was one thing Prince didn’t care for.
“He wasn’t too cool on jumping out of airplanes.”
The technique involved a sturdy harness that was strapped across the handler’s pelvis. About 100 feet before touchdown, the handler would unhook the harness and begin lowering the dog on a line, yanking upwards at the last minute to try to cushion the dog’s landing.
Prince had to be muzzled for the leap, Bruhmuller said, but “he accepted it as part of the job.”
As SEAL Team 2’s commanding officer told the newspaper back then: “To my knowledge this is the first time the Navy has looked into the capabilities of a dog as an offensive weapon.”
Prince was 3 years old when he and Bruhmuller shipped out in early 1967.
It was supposed to be a three-month experiment, a test to help the Navy decide if it should form its own K-9 corps.
As that first story said, Prince was “carrying a heavy burden.”
The three-month trial turned into six months in the Mekong Delta. The conditions were grueling — deep mud, extreme tides. The dog was often mired up to his belly, or exhausting himself trying to stay afloat while the SEALs waded through neck-high water.
Still, in an article written after their return, Bruhmuller said the dog “did just great” considering the terrain.
Prince came home 5 pounds lighter, but he’d earned some stripes.
He was credited with tracking down and helping capture several Viet Cong, including two leaders who were hiding in tunnels.
In another episode, he was let off his leash to take a break in the brush and came back carrying a grenade in his mouth. Bruhmuller said Prince dropped it at his feet like a ball — “scaring the daylights” out of everyone — then led the patrol to a large cache of hidden enemy weapons.
“I might add that he was also a great watch dog,” Bruhmuller told the Ledger-Star. “We didn’t lose a piece of equipment all the time we were over there.”
Prince’s performance was good enough that the SEALs acquired two more German shepherds. They also decided their dogs needed training tailored to the tactics faced in Vietnam. Army patrols were having success with scout dogs. A skilled scout dog will stop in its tracks when it detects the faintest hum of a breeze over a trip-wire.
Bruhmuller was headed for leave. Prince was headed for a three-month course at the Army’s K-9 combat scout school at Fort Benning, Ga.
That’s when Mike Bailey stepped into Prince’s life.
An athletic kid from Iowa, he’d joined the Navy right out of high school in 1965, then worked his way into the SEALs. He got to Virginia in time to volunteer as Bruhmuller’s replacement.
“When I was growing up, we always had dogs,” Bailey said, “so I had a real affection for them.”
Training didn’t start at Fort Benning until fall. Bailey remembers that summer as one of the best of his life. Prince moved in with him, and they were allowed to spend time just getting to know each other.
“Every day, I’d take him to the beach at Little Creek and just play,” Bailey said. “We’d swim and run. We had an absolute ball.”
As their trust grew, Bailey felt confident enough to take Prince to quiet spots on public beaches. “But I had to keep an eye on him. I knew if I wasn’t watching every minute, it could be bad.”
The dog had a jealous streak: “I wasn’t one of those guys who had girls hanging all over them, but one day this gal walked up and started talking to me. I could see Prince over her shoulder, starting to bust a beeline toward us. He skidded to a four-paw stop, lifted his leg and peed on her ankle. And that was pretty much the end of that conversation.”
Prince nearly flunked out at Fort Benning. Most of his classmates had come through Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where screeners were sorting dogs for various military branches and duties. Many of them had been donated by civilians — sold to the war effort for $1. Only those with cautious temperaments were sent to scout school.
Bailey struggled to make his hard-charging dog slow down. Scout dogs were expected to alert by stopping or sitting suddenly and silently, and crouch to the ground during firefights. Trip-wire training consisted of a monofilament line rigged to a dummy grenade that went bang when a dog busted through the line.
“The noise scares the dog and he learns to shy away,” Bailey explained. “But Prince was fearless. I mean, at the police academy, he’d been taught to ignore blanks fired in his face. And he was just the kind of dog who wants a piece of somebody’s ass — bad. Nothing personal. He’d barge right through and keep going. Your career is going to be pretty short if that’s what you do as a scout dog.”
A lack of training gear didn’t help.
The SEALs “had no money back then,” Bailey said. “We were the bastards of the Navy. We had to beg, borrow and steal to get everything we could. I didn’t even have a shock-collar to use on him during the exercises. The only thing I could do to get his attention was karate-chop him across the throat.”
Prince was stubborn but Bailey kept at it. “I was finally told, ‘You’ve got two weeks to square that dog away.’ He came around just in time.”
They landed in ‘Nam in early 1968. The Tet Offensive — one of the enemy’s largest campaigns — was just getting under way.
Bailey was 22, stationed with Prince about 40 miles south of Saigon.
“But as soon as we stepped in country, we started jumping on choppers. There was a lot of need for a scout dog, and I had the only one on the team. I’d walk just behind the point man, with the leash extended so Prince could walk a little ahead of him — so he could get a clean scent. We were the only game in town.”
They tried to work with patrols in higher, drier areas — a lesson learned from Prince’s first tour. But even that could be brutal.
Rick Woolard, one of those original SEALs, remembers being on a patrol with Bailey and Prince where they were beating their way through tall grass.
“It was hot as blazes,” Woolard said. “We ended up carrying the dog out. I’m sure it was Mike who carried him. It was either that, or the dog was going to die.”
Bailey says he hoisted Prince over his shoulder more than once, but mostly for stealth. Dogs splash across creeks and rice paddies. It’s impossible to teach them otherwise.
“But he sure didn’t like being carried,” Bailey said. “He was no lap dog.”
Prince distinguished himself at a place called Qui Nhon.
He and Bailey were scouting with a platoon trying to disrupt arms flowing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Prince was leading a night patrol up a sandy ridge when he “locked up — a hard-scent alert. His nose was going back and forth, testing the air. He stayed stiff, with his ears cocked and moving. I knew he had something, and it was big.”
Bailey and Prince melted behind a sand hill while the others stole back to warn another squad.
“We stayed hunkered down there for what seemed like a long, long time. Then I could hear them — North Vietnamese, around 100 of ’em. They walked right by us. Prince stayed quiet. No whining or nothing. When they got past us, our guys opened up and all hell broke loose.”
It was a tough fight, Bailey said. Plenty of casualties, no real winner. “But it would have been worse if we didn’t have Prince.”
Prince himself was later wounded near the same area, when a small platoon waiting for extraction at daybreak “got shot off the beach. We were working with the South Vietnamese, wading out to sampans when we came under fire. We scrambled for cover, trying to get on board. I hit the deck, and I’m yelling at Prince to get down, but he wouldn’t.”
Mortar rained on the boats. Men were hit to Bailey’s left and right. Prince was hit, too, a fragment to the head.
“We finally got an air strike in there,” Bailey said. “Prince was bleeding, but he didn’t seem to care or even notice.”
When they returned to Virginia, Prince was awarded his first Purple Heart.
Such medals are normally reserved for humans, but Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who’d soon be the chief of naval operations, authorized an exception.
On March 28, 1969, a captain in full dress uniform did the honors.
Bailey chuckled at the memory. “Before that old captain reached down to hang that Purple Heart around Prince’s neck, he learned over and whispered, ‘He’s not going to bite me, is he?'”
Bailey said goodbye to Prince at Little Creek. He was going home to marry a high school girlfriend, who insisted he get out of the military. He and Prince were already being requested back in Vietnam.
“It was hard to leave him,” Bailey said. “I knew he’d have to go back — with another handler. That’s just the way it was.”
Prince stayed out of the headlines until March 27, 1970.
In that day’s Virginian-Pilot: “Dog’s Life Awaits Navy War Veteran.”
The article covered his retirement ceremony and second Purple Heart.
He was 7 at the time, a three-tour Vietnam vet. The story says he was wounded again during that third tour, this time by hand-grenade fragments, but it doesn’t say who his third handler was.
That’s a hole we’ve been unable to plug.
Details get lost over time and memories get fuzzy. Some of the old newspaper accounts don’t square with each other on a few of the finer points, or with people’s recollection.
An example: The article mentioned above said Bailey was coming to pick up Prince to take him to a “well-deserved” retirement on his family’s farm in Iowa.
“The big action is all behind him,” the story said.
Bailey has no idea where that came from. His family didn’t have a farm. And he’d lost track of what was happening with Prince.
“I was off making a weak attempt at college — and marriage,” Bailey said.
Two months later in The Pilot — May 29, 1970 — there was bigger headline:
“U.S. Dog Hero to Be Exiled.”
Pilot researcher Jakon Hays contributed to this report.
SEAL war dog came home a hero, then was banished from his country
Part 2 of 3: It didn’t matter that Prince earned two Purple Hearts. He was military equipment, like the thousands of other dogs serving during Vietnam.
What happened to Prince, a pioneering SEAL war dog? We finally have an answer.
Part 3 of 3: The fate of Prince and other war dogs triggered a backlash. Their legacy: Never again.
Sources for this series
Vietnam Dog Handler Association, U.S. War Dog Association; National Constitution Center, Animal Law Source, National Geographic, History, Virginian-Pilot research ___
This article is written by Joanne Kimberlin from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.