Published March 23, 2023 by Bowdoin Magazine

A Shaggy Dog Story

Meet Thunderbolt, a WW2 bomber pilot’s canine companion.

Payne and Thunderbolt
Payne and Thunderbolt

When he began his internship at the Massachusetts Historical Society last summer, Ian Morrison ’24 wanted to produce a podcast about some aspect of World War II, but had no intention of focusing on a dog. In fact, he had never heard of Thunderbolt.

“Initially, I was drawn to the story of his master, Lieutenant Robert Payne, whose papers are in the MHS collections,” explains the history and Francophone studies double major. Payne was a US bomber pilot flying out of England in 1943.

“I am very interested in the Second World War,” says Morrison, “so I wanted to work with Payne’s papers to learn more about the war through his personal experiences.” As Morrison combed through the archives, he encountered the story of Payne’s dog, Thunderbolt, mentioned in letters, newspaper clippings, and other materials—it was a story that really captured the public imagination at the time, he says.

During the thirty-five-minute podcast, we learn how Lt. Payne befriends this scruffy, eighty-two-pound mongrel that had started hanging around the airbase. Payne names the dog Thunderbolt, in honor of the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter escorts that would accompany bomber crews like Payne’s on their raids over occupied Europe. Thunderbolt and Payne become constant companions, says Morrison. The dog even occasionally joins the crew on practice flights.

In November 1943, when Payne’s aircraft fails to return from his nineteenth mission, Thunderbolt is grief-stricken, waiting for days for his master’s plane to show up and sleeping on Payne’s bed surrounded by his possessions. Thunderbolt’s war is not over yet, however. The animal is eventually adopted by one of Payne’s fellow officers, following him to mainland Europe in 1944, where the dog was reportedly wounded in action.

There is a happy ending, at least for a while, says Morrison. Thunderbolt survived the war, as did Payne, who ended up in a German POW camp after being shot down. The two reunited in 1946, and Thunderbolt lived with Payne and his family in the US for five years, until the dog was hit by a dump truck and died.

Ian Morrison '24

“I now have a greater appreciation for the level of work that goes into making a podcast,” says Morrison. As well as poring through material in the MHS archives, he interviewed two historians about the role of dogs in human history. Morrison also had to learn audio recording techniques.

During his internship, which was funded by Bowdoin’s Office of Career Exploration and Development, Morrison came under the guidance of Bowdoin history graduate Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai ’03, director of research at the MHS. “It was great to connect with a fellow Polar Bear,” says Morrison, who intends to pursue a master’s in library science after Bowdoin.

Bowdoin Magazine Winter 2023


This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.