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Helenans Who Served: WWII veteran who trained Army sled dogs turns 100
Helenans Who Served

Helenans Who Served: WWII veteran who trained Army sled dogs turns 100

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Dave Armstrong

Dave Armstrong holds his birthday cake and "100" balloon on his 100th birthday recently.

World War II veteran Dave Armstrong turned 100 years old last Monday, and the local living legend was treated with a Zoom birthday party with several of his closest friends to celebrate the occasion.

Armstrong helped train sled dogs at Camp Rimini during the war, and as a co-founder of the “Race to the Sky” sled dog race he was a two-time recipient of the Race to the Sky Sportsmanship Award, in 1990 and 1995.

The Montana Military Museum published a new calendar featuring Armstrong, and his friends at the facility at Fort Harrison have also designated 2021 as “The Year of Dave Armstrong.”

While in high school, Armstrong received a puppy, and his affection and caring for that young dog led to summer jobs at the Chinook Kennels in New Hampshire, where dogs were trained for Admiral Richard Byrd's 1939 Antarctic expedition.

Armstrong applied for the bird expedition, but was denied due to his age. Instead, he attended the World's Fair in New York City, where he took care of Byrd's dogs at Penguin Island.

In September of 1942, the 21-year-old Armstrong was drafted into WWII, and began serving in the Army Air Corps in Atlantic City. After becoming ill and while convalescing in the hospital, he was transferred into the Army Quartermaster Corps.

On Feb. 3, 1943, Armstrong arrived at Montana's Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Center.

At Camp Rimini, Armstrong led the Army's training of 850 sled dogs and 100 pack dogs, as well as the GIs as mushers and handlers. The unit was scheduled to join the First Special Services Force (later known as the Devil's Brigade) for a mission in Norway, although those orders were canceled.

Armstrong then spent the next two years performing search and rescue using sled dogs in Newfoundland for the Air Force.

After the war, his career took him to places like New York, Georgia, Virginia and Massachusetts, before returning with his family to Helena. Armstrong retired as the Administrator of Veteran's Affairs for the State of Montana.

In 1966, his wife, Alice, bought him the first of a long line of sled dogs. That was the beginning of Armstrong's Chukchi Kennels. Chukchi is the name of the Eskimos on the eastern edge of Siberia who originally raised the Siberian Huskies that Armstrong so dearly loved for sled dog racing.

Armstrong competed in his first sled dog race in 1971, which was held at Big Sky. He was elected treasurer of the Montana Mountain Mushers Group, a post he held for the next 33 years until 2004.

Armstrong was instrumental with evaluating racing in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In 1986, he helped found the Governor's Cup 500, and the following year he and his dog were pictured on the first official poster advertising the Governor's Cup.

The event's title changed to the Race to the Sky, and he participated in every race until ill health forced his retirement in his '80s.

Armstrong served as a Grand Marshal for the 2006 races, and the next year he provided one-mile rides for "celebrities" near Lincoln prior to the Race to the Sky.

He then created the Camp Rimini Sled Dog exhibit for Fort Harrison's Montana Military Museum. In 2006 he was a recipient of the Lewis & Clark Historic Preservation commission's Preservation Award for the preservation of military dog mushing heritage.

Armstrong, who was inducted into the Helena Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, continued to promote his love and dedication to sled dog racing into his 90s, giving talks at schools and adult programs, passing along his knowledge to others, and helping with animal races.

During last week's virtual meeting on his 100th birthday in his home on Country Club Avenue, Armstrong took part in some “back and forth questions and answers about his personal history” with brief answers, according to a source involved with the ceremony.

Armstrong was also “very pleased” with the Zoom party, “and thanked the Flicker's coffee klatch” that he has been a part of for many years.

Carolyn Miller contributed to this story. Curt Synness can be reached at 406-594-2878 or curt52synness@gmail.com. He's also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR

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