By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS
Who was Red Lady and why did 81 sailors choose to bury her atop the tallest dune on Padre Island?
Prologue: Summer 1963: Ila Loetscher, yet to be named “The Turtle Lady,” was driving north, along the shores of Padre Island, searching for sea turtle nests when she spotted the edge of an oddly-shaped stone protruding from atop a sand dune. Stopping to investigate, she discovered a rough slab of concrete.
Slowly brushing sand from the stone, Ila began reading a message. “Here lies Red Lady, who died one November day and gently here, is placed to stay…. She left everyone (of 81 men) with an aching heart. Is this the grave of a pirate princess Ila wondered as she continued to sweep aside the sand. She found the answer a moment later as she uncovered the rest of the message. “because with that timid dog we could not part”…the words continued, “our dear little mascot who was so shy deserves a salute from everyone passing by.”
The question of who was buried beneath the slab had been answered, but now Ila was hooked. She knew she would not rest until she found out who the men were that buried Red Lady and when did this event take place?
Lon Seebach, a former member of the little known, beach patrol, that guarded the shores of Padre Island during WWII and who now lived in Indianapolis, contacted Ila and told her the following story about the little dog so many men loved.
At the onset of the war Padre Island was quarantined. The coast guard dispatched beach patrols to detect enemy vessels operating in coastal waters and report landings of enemy forces. Their presence also made it difficult for people on the shore to communicate with the enemy at sea.
Normal foot patrol procedures for these “sand pounders” required men to travel in pairs. Many of the sailors in the newly formed beach patrols, mere boys, fresh off the farm, had never been away from home prior to their enlistments. They missed their friends, families and girlfriends or wives. But most of all, they missed the companionship of their dogs.
One day, while a group of sailors were picking up supplies in nearby Port Isabel, they noticed a little yellow dog watching them. One of the men picked up a stick and tossed it towards the stray.
Let the games begin.
Forty-five minutes and 200 thrown sticks later, the sailors were ready to head back to the Island. But as they drove off, the yellow mutt followed them jumping into the back of the jeep as it slowed down to board the ferry back to Padre Island. No one said anything until the ferry was well out into the bay. Well, after all, they couldn’t put her into the water, they all agreed. No, they couldn’t do that. Instead they would just wait until the next trip to Port Isabel when they would post a notice about the little “black” dog.
With that settled, the little dog had found a new home.
Many names for her were bandied about, Sinbad and Spike were both very popular, as was Apollo, but none seemed to stick to the tail-wagging yellow mutt. She may well have remained “un-named” if it weren’t for Captain Johansen, nicknamed “Old Red-Lead Joe” by his men because of his obsession to protect the exposed surfaces of the unit’s equipment by painting it with red lead.
One day a painting party was busily brushing away when one of the men noticed the nameless yellow dog. Knowing his commander was returning on the next boat the man brushed red lead onto her coat and chased her down the path. Upon seeing her, the captain was quoted as saying; “I see you’ve red-leaded the little lady.” As this was the nearest the men had ever come to receiving praise from their commander they quickly named the dog, Red Lady.
Red Lady was a welcome relief to the boy-sailors, playing ball or sneaking a snack out of the back door of the mess hall. But she loved nothing better than racing alongside and leaping aboard whenever a jeep left camp on beach patrol. There was always a pair of arms to catch her as she leapt.
One day however, racing to hitch a ride, Lady stumbled and fell directly under the jeeps wheels and was crushed by the hard rubber tires. Her death was heart-felt by every member of her Island family.
The little yellow dog was laid to rest high atop a tall sand dune and her grave was marked with a slab of stone that read, “Here lies Red Lady…..”
Her funeral was attended by all, including the gentleman who named her, Captain Johansen.
In 1943 restrictions governing the hours one could visit the Island and Delmar Beach were lifted. With proper identification, the general public could now visit the beach between the hours of sunrise and sunset.
By 1944 the danger from sea borne invasion no longer existed and many of the Sand-Pounders were transferred to the Pacific theater. Canine patrols were greatly reduced until only the West Coast had an active patrol, which amounted to about 800 men. Eventually, the Army returned to many of the West Coast’s beaches, especially in California.
Throughout the remainder of the war, however, Coast Guardsmen continued to man beach lookouts and to carry out some traditional beach patrol activities.
Today, that stone resides with Mary Ann Tous, president of The Turtle Lady Legacy.
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