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Gunner – The dog hero who could distinguish the noise of Japanese planes from Allied ones

Tijana Radeska
Gunner

Japanese bombs started raining down on the capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory, Darwin, around 10 am on February 19, 1942 – just over two months after the Japanese bombing of America’s Pearl Harbor.

After the initial attack, which sunk eight ships and badly damaged 37 others, soldiers went looking for the injured among the rubble.

The explosion of an oil storage tank during the bombing of Darwin, 1942.

The explosion of an oil storage tank during the bombing of Darwin, 1942. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Under a destroyed mess hall, they found the smallest survivor of them all, a six-month-old male stray kelpie (an Australian sheep dog). He had a broken leg and was whimpering. Eventually, the injured pup ended up in the hands of Leading Aircraftman Percy Westcott.

He made it his duty to get this dog help. Westcott took the dog to the doctor, who said he couldn’t treat any “man” who didn’t have a name or serial number. So, Westcott named the kelpie “Gunner” and gave him the number 0000. Satisfied, the doctor put a cast on Gunner’s leg and set them on their way.

Black and white image of the dog Gunner and his handler Percy Leslie Westcott.Taken after the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. By Creator unknown, but credit line is donor P L Westcott. - This image is available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: 044608.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Wikipedia:Image copyright tags for more information.The AWM's website has guidance on the duration of copyright for images in its database which should be consulted before uploading images., https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31560455

Black and white image of the dog Gunner and his handler Percy Leslie Westcott.Taken after the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. Creator unknown, but credit line is donor P. L Westcott 

From that point forward, Gunner and Westcott were inseparable. At first, the dog was badly shaken after the bombing, but being only six months old he quickly responded to the men’s attention.

About a week later, Gunner first demonstrated his remarkable hearing skills. While the men were working on the airfield, Gunner became agitated and started to whine and jump.

Not long afterward, the sound of approaching airplane engines was heard by the airmen. A few minutes, later a wave of Japanese raiders appeared in the skies above Darwin and began bombing and strafing the town.

Remains of the Darwin Post Office after the first Japanese raid in 1942

Remains of the Darwin Post Office after the first Japanese raid in 1942. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Two days later, Gunner began whimpering and jumping again and not long afterwards came another air attack. This set the pattern for the months that followed. Long before the sirens sounded, Gunner would get agitated and head for shelter.

Gunner’s hearing was so acute he was able to warn air force personnel of approaching Japanese aircraft up to 20 minutes before they arrived and before they showed up on the radar. Gunner never performed when he heard the allied planes taking off or landing; only when he heard enemy aircraft, as he could differentiate between the sounds of allied from enemy aircraft.

Gunner was so reliable that Wing Commander McFarlane gave approval for Westcott to sound a portable air raid siren whenever Gunner’s whining or jumping alerted him. Before long, there were a number of stray dogs roaming the base. McFarlane gave the order that all dogs be shot, with the exception of Gunner.

Gunner became such an important part of the air force that he slept under Westcott’s bunk, showered with the men in the shower block, sat with the men at the outdoor movie pictures, and went up with the pilots during practice take-off and landings. When Westcott was posted to Melbourne 18 months later, Gunner stayed in Darwin, looked after by the RAAF butcher. Gunner’s fate is undocumented.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News