Chips: A Mixed Breed Dog with Pure Grit

The sulfuric odor of spent gunpowder hung in the air filling his nasal cavities with a dozen distinct smells, and there was still a ringing in his ears. The weary medic patched him up as much as possible to ward off infection. He cleaned and treated the powder burns and a scalp wound from a pistol fired at much-too-close a range.  Still, getting shot at and mostly missed was a badass way to start the day.

On the morning of July 10, 1943, in the pre-dawn hours, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division found itself ready for Operation Husky, the first and largest Allied invasion of Europe during WWII. As part of the beach assault on the rock-strewn beaches near Licata, Sicily stood Chips, a mixed breed dog gifted by his family back home in New York to the American military. How did Chips get from home at Pleasantville to the Italian beachhead?

photo of Chips in front of a tent
Photo of Chips in front of a tent.  Credit: National Archives

Part-German shepherd, part husky, with a pinch of collie, Chips had a penchant for causing trouble at home. He chased chickens and had bitten a garbage collector, not altogether unusual behavior for a free-ranging, adolescent male dog. Around the age of two, his owners donated Chips when the call came out for patriotic Americans to contribute their young, healthy pets to the war effort. The idea of creating war dogs, the brainchild of a newly-formed organization, Dogs for Defense, remained untested.  In 1942 Chips moved to Front Royal, Virginia, for military training and partnered with Pvt. John P. Rowell. With his herding and guarding tendencies, Chips now had a job, a purpose, that matched his skills.

Chips and Private Rowell were attached to the 30th Infantry Regiment as part of the 3rd Military Police Platoon. Their initial entry into Africa, the starting point of a larger plan to claw into southern Italy, had been relatively easy during the first battle. From ships in the Atlantic, the U.S. Army invaded the Moroccan seaport of Fedala around 4:00 AM on November 8, 1942.  Operation Torch, The American and British invasion of French North Africa intended to divide Axis forces by enticing troops from the Eastern Front, relieving pressure on the hard-pressed Soviet Union forces.  It only took two days for the Americans to sweep a few miles south and, after a fierce naval engagement, the Vichy-aligned French defenders in Casablanca surrendered.

In January of 1943, Chips and a few other dog teams stood sentry over the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in Casablanca.  During this meeting, an agreement arose to stop at nothing less than unconditional surrender from the Axis powers.   The Allies set a mighty goal, given that no American or English units had yet stepped into continental Europe. 

The first notation of Chips’ heroism was an alert to his handler of a pending ambush shortly after arriving in theater.  During the fray, he galloped back to the home base with a phone cable attached to his collar, dodging small arms fire, allowing his platoon to communicate a call for help.  Many more heroic deeds were in store. The 3rd Infantry Division fought valiantly across the north of Africa but, the French in Tunisia battled back.  After a five-month slugfest, the Allied Forces celebrated a May victory.  Early days! Challenging days lay ahead; they still weren’t into Europe.

Posed at the edge of Sicily in July of 1943,  the 3rd Infantry Division (The Rock of the Marne) found itself readying for the European invasion. The assault units remained staged off-shore aboard gale-tossed boats in the darkness of a morning-not-yet-dawned. It’s easy to understand there would have been nerves and apprehension among the infantrymen.  What Chips might have thought is speculative.

While executing their raid on Sicily, as he made his way inland, Pvt. Rowell’s platoon came under intense machine gunfire. Rounds blasting and people screaming punctuated the bitter skirmish. During the melee, Chips either broke free, or his handler dropped his leash.  Chips bolted, snarling and angry, into the heart of the machine gun nest.  Sounds of fighting and shrieks of fear came from the pillbox.  And then a single gunshot.  Pvt. Rowell remembered, “Then there was an awful lot of noise, and the firing stopped.” We can only imagine that his heart must have been in his throat, eyes wide and trembling, afraid of Chips’ fate.

Moments later, Rowell continued that he “saw one Italian soldier come out with Chips on his throat.  I called him off before he could kill the man.”  Three others followed, holding their hands above their heads. 

The four Italians became prisoners while Chips visited the medic for a check-up.  During the battle, one Italian had shot him at point-blank range and missed.  The corpsman patched up the powder burns and the scalp damage, and Chips returned to his unit later; he and Pvt. Rowell walked post that same night.

As he was a sentry dog, Chips’ training heightened  his hereditary instincts for guarding his flock. In his ancestors, this trait kept sheep alive; it kept soldiers safe in his lifetime.  He walked by Pvt. Rowell’s side on the perimeter alerting in advance of any sight, smell, or sound that hinted at something wicked.

That night, Chips proved himself a guardian again by alerting on an attempted breach by ten Italian soldiers. His handler and squad captured all ten and took them prisoner, with no damage done to the troops he guarded.

Chips’ reputation and supporters grew.  Awarded the Purple Heart and a Silver Star, his platoon commander also recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminated a dangerous machine-gun nest and causing the surrender of its crew.”

The 3rd Army Division, with Chips, battled the Nazis on every front, fighting from North Africa to Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Rome, and into Southern France before ending the war in Germany.  During its impressive crusade against the Axis powers, thirty-five 3rd Division members were awarded the Medal of Honor, including Audie Murphy. 

Most people hearing about Chips’ exploits were astonished and impressed.  As heroic as the actions of the 3rd Division proved, some people back home vehemently expressed their displeasure with the awarding of honors to a dog.  In particular, the Commander of the Order of the Purple Heart took offense.  After a months-long debate, the powers-that-be in D.C. decided that Chips’ medals would be rescinded and that there would be no further authorization of official military awards for animals.  This debate also allowed animals to become classified as equipment, resulting in horrific outcomes for so many Vietnam-era dogs.

For Chips, one of 10,425 dogs serving n the U.S. military during WWII, his fame continued regardless of a medal count.  His unit awarded him a theatre ribbon, an assault landing arrowhead, and a total of eight battle stars, one for each campaign in which he served.  In 1945, Chips met a great, visiting admirer, the Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, and promptly chomped down on Eisenhower’s hand when he tried to pet the heroic K9.

In December of that year, Chips retired and returned to the Wren family in Pleasantville, NY, where he died a few months later.   A hero then, a hero now, we honor his memory.