Growing up with World War II veterans as close friends and a Battle of Manila hero as a father, John Dupla had little doubt what he wanted to do when he grew up. It was his turn to give back as a soldier like those who sacrificed so much before him.
Surrounded by a rich military history, Dupla said hearing war stories of the past from friends and family inclined him to volunteer for enlistment in 1966, despite the ongoing Vietnam War.
“I grew up influenced by men who parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne,” Dupla said. “Hearing of their valor, as well as of my dad’s in the Philippines as (military police), really made me feel like it was my turn to serve. They had done their share, and it was just natural for me to do mine.”
Upon graduating initial entry training and the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., as an airborne infantryman, Dupla was immediately deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 9th Cavalry Regiment.
No sooner than Dupla hit the ground, he was given the opportunity to volunteer for a new and upcoming program which was being developed that he knew little about.
“They were looking for jump-qualified air troopers to parachute into the jungle as part of combat tracker teams,” Dupla said. “I volunteered for it because I was always told while growing up to get into the smallest unit possible, as small, tight-knit groups are closer and often take better care of themselves.”
Dupla and his fellow volunteers were then sent under provisional orders to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia, where they were trained as combat trackers by contracted British soldiers alongside New Zealanders and Australians.
“We were broken up into teams which included a team leader, a dog handler, a Labrador retriever, a visual tracker and a cover man to watch the visual tracker’s back,” Dupla said.
“As visual trackers, we were taught to develop a sixth sense utilizing many methods Native American scouts used, such as looking for broken twigs and turned over leaves and rocks; only difference was we were in the jungle.”
After graduating the two-month course, Dupla returned to Vietnam and his tracker team was placed on call for the entire 1st Cavalry Division. He then began executing missions with long range reconnaissance patrol teams.
“When a group of soldiers were ambushed and killed, they’d call us,” Dupla said. “Our job was to track the enemy down and see where they were hiding at, as well as to locate lost or missing friendly personnel. Our Labs were great for this, as they were trained not to bark and alert the enemy, unlike bloodhounds and beagles, so our position was never compromised.”
As the combat tracker program matured, soldiers never parachuted into the jungle as originally planned, and when the contract with the British Jungle Warfare School expired, U.S. soldiers who graduated the course became the teachers for future combat trackers.
Estel Matt, one of the last trackers attached to the 9th Cavalry Regiment with the 62nd Infantry Platoon Combat Trackers, was trained by Dupla’s graduating class and would go on to engage in numerous dangerous missions. He even used the same British black Labrador, Sam, as Dupla had before him.
“It was a very unique situation, as we rotated throughout Vietnam with our small team, and we would see other members of our platoon only a few times during the course of the deployment,” Matt said. “It was pretty intense. We only went in the field to re-establish contact, so every mission was an extremely dangerous situation.”
Matt said the bonds between fellow combat trackers developed while undergoing such extreme situations in Vietnam still exist today, despite the program ending and soldiers living for more than four decades separated from each other.
“We were closer than brothers,” Matt said. “It’s something you can’t describe. We shared such fear and stress together; we’ll always have love for each other.”
Being so close as friends, yet far away in distance now, Vietnam veteran combat trackers pioneered official organizations in the 1990s, including the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association and Combat Tracker Teams of the Vietnam War, whose members meet annually across the U.S. to gather and exchange stories.
“We had our first large-scale gathering in St. Louis in 1999, and have been meeting at a different location every year,” Dupla said. “Our organizations not only help members stay in touch, but they also promote the fact that 54 Labradors contributed to saving multiple lives in Vietnam and were the forefather to today’s more advanced K-9 programs.”
During the war, Dupla said he and his fellow battle buddies didn’t think a lot about what they were doing, but now, looking back, they couldn’t be any more proud of their accomplishments.
“When we were in Vietnam, we took it one day at a time and just kept focused on making it out alive,” Dupla said. “In hindsight, what we did was amazing and really saved lives. There are approximately only 300 combat trackers left, and I hope they all know they’re unsung heroes.”