Johnny Johnson and his scout dog Princess were part of the largest deployment of military working dogs in United States Military history.
It’s estimated that almost 5,000 working dogs were deployed in the Vietnam War along with 10,000 handlers.
Johnson was born and raised in Waco. He remembers finding out that he had been drafted. At the time he had only been married to his wife for six months.
“He said ‘Well, I’m coming back. I’m coming home,'” Johnson’s wife, Della Johnson, remembers. “He said, ‘I promise you—I’m coming home.'”
That promise would prove hard to keep. Johnson and Princess were assigned to walk point. This meant they walked in front of the patrol in search of booby traps and trip lines.
“It was just … ‘Am I going to stay alive today? Am I going to make it until dark?” said Johnson.
But Johnson had a big advantage — Princess was good at her job. As a scout dog, she was trained to sniff out traps. If she smelled something suspicious she would stop and lay down on all fours.
Princess could also tell Johnson how many enemy shooters there were and where. Johnson said she would point to each of them with her nose.
“She’d tell you where they were because you could look right between her ears. Just follow her nose and that’s where they were. If there was more than one person she’d sniff — then she’d do it again. So that’s how she’d tell you how many people were out there.”
During a firefight, Princess was trained to charge the gunman directly. If Johnson told her “no” she would stop and start digging holes. First, she’d dig one for Johnson to hide in then she’d dig one for herself.
Johnson estimates that in the hundreds of scouting missions he went on with Princess, she helped save between 50 to 100 soldiers’ lives.
He remembers a scouting mission when he had to walk point during a monsoon. Johnson could barely see six feet in front of him. Suddenly Princess laid down on the ground. Johnson told the patrol to stop and when he looked closer — he found a tripwire tied to two grenades.
“They said ‘Man that dog is good. She picked that up? How’d she do that?’ It’s pouring down rain you couldn’t hardly see,” said Johnson. “She picked it up because the raindrops were vibrating off the wire.”
When Johnson considers all the ambushes he was in with Princess, he estimates that she helped save his life 40 to 50 times.
“She’s like a family member,” said Johnson. “If it weren’t for her I couldn’t have kept that promise I made to my wife.”
In 1970, almost a year after being deployed, Johnson returned to Waco. It was a small town miracle. Johnson, his father, and his three older brothers had all fought in American wars. They had all returned home safe.
“I told [my wife], ‘Well, I’m home. I made it, and I told you I was coming back,’” said Johnson.
But Johnson says one new family member was missing. Three weeks after his homecoming, Johnson received news that Princess had died in the line of duty.
She was with her new handler when they were ambushed by three shooters. Princess charged the shooters, killing two and injuring the third before she was shot. Johnson says Princess saved her new handler’s life.
“It was really hard. It felt like a family member. I hated it, but I was glad she went out fighting — because that was her nature.”
In 2000 Congress passed Robby’s law to prevent this from happening again. The law allows military dogs to be adopted by certain people and organizations that are specially trained to care for them.
Princess’ sacrifice is still remembered by many. At Fort Benning, her name is inscribed on a war memorial for dogs killed in action. At VFW Post 2148 in Waco, her picture hangs in the hallway next to other men and women who served.
Her memory also lives on through Johnny Johnson. He has a scrapbook filled with pictures of Princess that he flips through to remember. He remembers the promise he made to his wife and the dog who helped him keep it.
“I said I’m coming back. I kissed her goodbye and I said I’ll be back,” said Johnson. “And fortunately I did make it back. With Princess’ help — I made it back.”
Written by Breanna Molloy