CLAWSON — When retired veteran Phil Weitlauf learned about an abandoned canine graveyard years ago, even he couldn’t have imagined what the western Oakland County property would come to mean to him and service dogs throughout the United States.
“I went to investigate it, and in the middle of the cemetery was a big monument that said, ‘War dogs.’ It had some writing on it, and it was erected in 1946,” he said, adding that he learned it was created in 1936 and abandoned in the mid-1980s.
Weitlauf said the property was in a disastrous state.
“So I decided at that point I would try to form a detail with my veteran friends and canine supporters to start cleaning it up,” he said.
Weitlauf said he and the group began cleaning out the 2-acre property a grid at a time.
“The more we did, the more people and corporations stepped up to help,” he said. “And it developed into what it is today.”
A dog-lover himself and U.S. Army veteran, Weitlauf then began his labor of love as director of the Michigan War Dog Memorial, creating a tribute on the Lyon Township property while researching the contribution of K-9 soldiers to the military since World War I.
Clawson Historical Museum Curator Melodie Nichols said Weitlauf will visit the city with his German Shepherd, Ziva, to share the important role that dogs have played in every American war, and honor them for saving tens of thousands of lives. The Clawson Historical Museum program will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, at Clawson City Hall, 425 N. Main St.
“It was such an important job that these dogs played, and a lot of people really aren’t aware of it,” Nichols said. “And it’s important, I think, that we recognize the service, the risks that these dogs take, the companionship that they provide and how they keep the soldiers safe.”
Weitlauf said attendees can expect to learn quite a bit during his 40-minute presentation.
“We’ll be talking about the history of war dogs,” he said. “I take people back to World War I for what the dogs did, all the way through today and how things have changed.”
According to Weitlauf, dogs in World War I were called “ambulance dogs” and were trained to find wounded soldiers. In World War II, dogs were trained in many disciplines to be scouts, trackers, sentries and messengers.
Weitlauf said that according to military records, war dogs saved 15,000 lives during WWII.
He said dogs were deployed in Korea and in Vietnam, where they were trained to detect explosives and booby traps, and it is estimated they saved 10,000 lives during Vietnam. Weitlauf said canines have served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where their main function was detecting improvised explosive devices.
Currently, Weitlauf said, there are 2,800 teams scattered throughout the world fighting the war on terror.
Weitlauf said the Michigan War Dog Memorial serves many purposes in acknowledging these animals’ contributions.
The organization pays for military, service and police dog interments, along with a complete ceremony for the handler.
The site also serves as home to the Vietnam K9 Memorial Wall, which was officially dedicated in June.
Weitlauf said the wall — made of black granite 22 feet long and 5 feet tall — lists the more than 4,000 names and tattoo numbers of all of the dogs left behind.
“We wanted to recognize these dogs, so we gave them their own wall,” he said.
Weitlauf said the dedication ceremony was an emotional day, with more than 40 Vietnam dog handlers in attendance.
“At the end of the ceremony, I kind of gave them the command, ‘Handlers, go find your dog,’” he said. “And they all ran over to the wall, ran their finger down and there was a lot of tears.”
Weitlauf said the mission of the Michigan War Dogs Memorial is to educate the public as to what these dogs have done and the lives that they have saved, and why we should honor and respect them for what they did.
U.S. Marine dog Cena will be interred during a grand ceremony at noon Aug. 26 following a fight with terminal bone cancer. Cena served three tours in Afghanistan before retiring in 2014.
Nichols said she anticipates a large crowd for Weitlauf’s presentation, which is why the program is being hosted across the street from the museum at City Hall.
“Who doesn’t love a good dog story?” she said. “And especially one that has so much meaning to it. We’re really excited about it. We think it is going to be something that will touch a lot of people.”
Following the program, the community is invited to attend an old-fashioned ice cream social on the grounds of the Clawson Historical Museum at 41 Fisher Ct.
The annual ice cream social event will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. and will include old-fashioned kids games and museum tours at 2:15 and 3 p.m on a first-come, first-served basis.
Nichols said she is excited to offer a vegan ice cream option this year from Treat Dreams in Ferndale.
Both events are free and open to the public.
“I think it is going to be an all-around really wonderful day to spend in Clawson,” Nichols said.
For more information, call (248) 588-9169.