Scout Dog Handler Jimmy Powrzanas

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The Birmingham News

A patrol dog's heroism in Vietnam recounted as Memorial Day nears German shepherd trained to detect danger lost his life in a hostile land

Saturday, May 26, 2007

News staff writer

Death seemed close enough to touch for 19-year-old Jimmy Powrzanas of Pleasant Grove in the inky black nights of Vietnam almost four decades ago.

Huddled with other soldiers on patrol or trying to sleep in the sweltering heat of Landing Zone Sally, there were no friends beyond the guarded perimeter.

When he walked point for infantry squads of the 101st Airborne, fear lurked, even in daytime. Viet Cong might be hiding behind the thick curtain of jungle foliage, or just the booby traps left behind as they melted deeper into the jungle.

On Memorial Day 2007, the names, faces and the long-ago sound of the voices of his fellow soldiers are still a part of Powrzanas' memory. But one of his most vivid memories is of a canine comrade, Pal, who died in Powrzanas' arms on a hot spring day in 1969.

In 1968 Powrzanas, who now lives in Fultondale, was a member of the newly trained 47th Infantry Platoon Scout Dogs, a unit of soldiers and German shepherds. He had been drafted into the Army but volunteered for the dog unit. The dogs were trained to guide troops through the dense Southeast Asia jungle and to alert them to dangers beyond the senses of human soldiers.

Perilous duty:

The young soldier just a year out of Hueytown High School hadn't realized he was volunteering to lead squads of soldiers into the most dangerous of situations, and to become a primary target.

"The first target of the enemy was the dog," Powrzanas said. "The second target was the dog handler."

Powrzanas trained 16 weeks at Fort Benning, Ga., then he and Pal, a male German shepherd, flew off together to war.

"We had gotten to Vietnam in May," Powrzanas said. "Our base was a landing zone near Hue."

The nights and days of danger seemed nearly constant. One time, in the black Vietnam night, Pal tensed and a growl rumbled deep in his chest. Flares were fired, illuminating three Viet Cong with satchel charges trying to sneak close enough to explode them.

"That was just one of the times Pal saved lives," Powrzanas said.

But the time came when Powrzanas couldn't save Pal.

"We were on patrol, and the heat was terrible," Powrzanas said. "The dogs required much more water than the men, and most of my canteen usually went to my dog. We came to a village, my canteen was empty, and I gave Pal water from a well."

The water had been poisoned by the Viet Cong, hoping the GIs would drink it. Instead, it was Pal who was near death when they got back to base.

"We had a vet tech (veterinary technician) with the unit, but his job was just to give shots," Powrzanas said. "When he looked at Pal we jumped in a jeep to drive the 50 or 60 miles to the nearest veterinarian. I held Pal in my lap as he struggled, and I felt him when he went limp."

Pal was a casualty of war.

Powrzanas was then teamed with Rebel, a dog that was wounded with his previous handler. Rebel was nursed back to health while his first handler returned home for treatment. When Powrzanas' time in Vietnam was up, Rebel was passed on to yet to another handler.

Life after war:

Powrzanas and Nancy moved to Fultondale and raised three sons. In July he will retire from ACIPCO and spend some time in his travel trailer. Next year he hopes to make a month-long trek to Utah for a reunion of the 47th Platoon.

For Powrzanas, Vietnam is now just yellowing newspaper clippings and fading black and white photos, including one of him and Rebel taken by a wire service photographer. It ran in The Birmingham News in'69, and was on the cover of Toni Gardner's book, "Walking Where the Dog Walks." The book includes several tales and photographs of the men of the 47th and their dogs, including Powrzanas with Pal and Rebel.

When the war was over, Powrzanas said, many of the dogs were euthanized, and some simply were turned loose and left.

"I would have brought Rebel with me, but they wouldn't allow it," Powrzanas said. "I came home alone."

More information on the 47th Infantry Platoon Scout Dogs in Vietnam is available on the platoon's Web site, www.47ipsd.us. The book "Walking Where the Dog Walks" by Toni Gardner is available at www.tonigardner.com.

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