In 1998, shortly after Captain Neal Kusumoto took command of the USS VANDEGRIFT in San Diego, California, the ship headed to Yokosuka, Japan for a new home port. The 225 Sailors aboard (all men at the time) were prepared to be separated from their families for at least a year. “It’s a tough thing,” recalled Kusumoto. “As hard as a deployment is, when you change home ports and your family’s not going to move, you’re going to be separated for even longer.”
During the eight-week journey, some of Kusumoto’s junior officers talked about getting a mascot for the ship. “Some ships have a mascot like a lizard or a goldfish,” he explained. “They used to have dogs, but there hadn’t been a dog on a ship since World War II, so we joked about getting a dog.” A couple months after the VANDEGRIFT had been in port in Yokosuka, the captain and his junior officers visited the dog shelter on base.
“It wasn’t really a shelter, but more of a veterinary office to take care of the pets of Sailors who lived on base,” Neal said. “But when there were strays or abandoned pets, the office became a shelter and took care of these dogs. When we got there, six dogs were tied up outside, enjoying the day. Five of them jumped up and barked at us. Jenna sat there quietly and looked at us. We knew we had found our mascot.”
While no one knew where Jenna had been living before she wound up at the shelter, or exactly how old she was (Neal guessed around two), they did recognize her as a Shiba Inu, an ancient Japanese breed trained to hunt and to guard royal palaces. “We brought her on board and I’m sure she was completely disoriented, suddenly living on a metal ship with hundreds of guys, but she quickly got acclimated and comfortable.”
When the VANDEGRIFT was in port, so many Sailors volunteered to walk her that they had to sign up to take turns. “My young Sailors quickly figured out Jenna was a chick magnet,” Kusumoto said. “They all wanted to take her over to the Exchange because they knew she was like a lure. Jenna got lots of exercise.”
Jenna quickly proved to be a reassuring companion to Sailors who missed their families. “Over the course of my 25 years in the Navy, I did seven deployments of about seven months each. Going away from your family for several months at a time is hard. I wrote Seaman Jenna: A Dog’s Days in the US Navy not only to write about Jenna, but also to share the stories of young Sailors and their families, because most people don’t have any idea what they go through.”
“One of the reasons I love the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society is because of the support the Society provides to families back at home when their active duty Sailor or Marine is gone,” Neal said. “It’s stressful when something happens and your spouse or parent is away, and it’s stressful for the Sailor knowing that they’re not home to help out.” Kusumoto sent many Sailors who served on the three ships he commanded to the Society for assistance.
Kusumoto will donate a portion of the proceeds from sales of Seaman Jenna: A Dog’s Days in the US Navy to the Society to express his gratitude for the work NMCRS does to support service members and their families.
While a publication date has not yet been set, you can check out pictures of Jenna and read about some of her adventures online at https://nealkusumoto.com/book.
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso