Meet Sergeant Stubby, America’s Original Dog of War

Then, again.
May 7 2014 11:53 PM

Sergeant Stubby

America’s original dog of war fought bravely on the Western Front—then helped the nation forget the Great War’s terrible human toll. 

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5. The Perfect War Hero

After the war, Stubby was ubiquitous. He attended the 1920 Republican National Convention, which culminated in the nomination of Warren G. Harding. Harding officially received Stubby at the White House in 1921; in 1924, the dog passed review for Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, three times. When Conroy went to study law at Georgetown, Stubby became the university’s official mascot, a predecessor to the Hoya bulldog of the present day.

Usually closed doors were flung open for Stubby. In December 1922, the New York Times reported that for the first time, the exclusive Hotel Majestic on Central Park had broken its own rules and allowed the dog to stay overnight. Stubby was made a member of the Red Cross and the American Legion. The YMCA conferred a lifetime membership on the dog, stipulating that he was entitled to “three bones a day and a place to sleep” for as long as he lived.

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Miss Louise Johnson and Sergeant Stubby in a parade, May 1921.

Courtesy of Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

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In the division of armed forces history at the Smithsonian National Museum of America History in Washington, there is a fascinating artifact, a testament to Stubby’s fame and the swath he cut across American popular culture in the immediate postwar years. It is a leather-bound scrapbook, kept by Conroy. The book is crammed with documents and ephemera: fan letters, poems, drawings, an invitation to the White House from President Wilson. And there are newspaper clippings, the closest we have to a comprehensive anthology of the press coverage of Stubby. The accounts collected in Conroy’s scrapbook broadly sketch the narrative of Stubby’s service that became familiar in the immediate postwar years.

The clippings in Conroy’s scrapbook conflict on many particulars of Stubby’s story: Was he wounded in the chest or in the left foreleg in Seicheprey? Was he mostly a Boston bull terrier or a bulldog or a fox terrier? The stories are mostly written in a breathless tabloid tone that suggests the truth was less important to their authors than a good yarn:

Over the top he went with the boys on many occasions, and the sight of the enemy was like a red flag to a bull. On one trip “over” he sank his teeth in the seat of a fleeing Hun’s trousers and did not let go. “Kamerad,” howled the Hun; but Stubby paid no attention, hanging on until the foe laid down and gave up to the Yanks.
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Courtesy of Division of Armed Forces/Smithsonian National Museum of America History

We can feel confident about certain details that emerge from the journalistic record: Stubby served in France, he was the beloved mascot for the 102nd, he was wounded at Seicheprey. There are sepia-toned photographs showing the dog in the French countryside, surrounded by soldiers on a wooden Ford Model T ambulance. Another photo, dated February 1919, captures Stubby in the town of Mandres-aux-Quatre-Tours, in Lorraine in northeastern France. The dog sits in dappled sunlight, in a reflective pose on a wooden chair against a brick wall backdrop. But given the documentation that has survived, it is difficult at times to separate the actions of the real dog from the mythology that sprung up around him upon his triumphant return with the victorious American Army.

But the very fact of Stubby’s celebrity itself enlightens our understanding of the war and its aftermath. Surely some measure of his popularity in the postwar period was due to the novelty of a canine hero. But the dog was also the perfect mascot for a war that had introduced human carnage on a scale never previously seen. While Stubby was hailed with newspaper encomiums and ceremonial pomp, something was being glossed over: the grim details of life in the trenches, poison gas attacks, debilitating war injuries, death.

WWI Veterans
At Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, a soldier who is missing a foot lights a cigarette for a soldier who is missing both arms, circa 1918.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

It is a truism that World War I was the first modern war, but it’s easy to forget what that meant 100 years ago. The scale and nature of World War I was unprecedented, shocking even to Americans who had lived through the Civil War a half-century earlier. Many veterans were haunted by their experiences in the trenches, but American and military culture did not encourage the airing of battlefield traumas. Shellshock was regarded as a mental illness, the result of cowardice, a shameful disease. In this environment, Sergeant Stubby was an ideal World War I hero, because he was ideally stoic. He was the jaunty little creature who could be trotted out for parades, appear with politicians and military brass in photo opportunities, and was guaranteed to stay on message.

"Stubby" at the capitol in Washington, D.C.
J. Robert Conroy and Sergeant Stubby at the capitol in Washington.

Courtesy of Division of Armed Forces/Smithsonian National Museum of America History

It’s impossible to say if Stubby’s celebrity was cultivated by the U.S. government or if it was the result of an organic groundswell. While there is very little written record about Stubby’s keeper, J. Robert Conroy, we do know that from 1913 on, his life was very much intertwined with the U.S. government. After the war, he worked as a bureaucrat, first for the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI) at the Justice Department, then with military intelligence and finally on Capitol Hill as secretary for a Connecticut congressman.

Still, not everyone was captive to Stubby’s charms. The most revealing page in the Stubby scrapbook may be the one in which we find a note, inscribed in Conroy’s handwriting: “Criticism of Stubby which proves he is famous.” It is a single page, but its contents show that Stubby-mania wasn’t embraced by all Army veterans. And much of the criticism illustrates that commemorating Stubby did often mean neglecting the story of human veterans.

The page includes an infuriated letter to the editor by Richard L. Richardson, a Great War veteran from San Angelo, Texas. Richardson writes:

If this Boston bull did so much and the boys didn’t do anything, why not send an army of bull pups the next time and see who is entitled to these honors?  I think the whole thing is nothing but a disgrace to the U.S. Army. I feel that I am insulted … the thousands of real heroes, the red-blooded American boys who left gallons of their blood and maybe an arm or a leg on the battlefields don’t get these honors bestowed on them. They didn’t do anything to receive a medal or the name “a real hero.” But a dog did.

Stubby died in his sleep in Conroy’s arms in 1926. Today, he may be the last decorated World War I veteran that you can still see in the flesh. His taxidermied remains are on view at the Smithsonian, in a crowded display case alongside a mannequin doughboy and another World War I military animal celebrity, the carrier pigeon Cher Ami. Stubby’s ears are pointed up, and he wears a gruff expression. He looks like a ramrod sergeant: tough, unsmiling, no nonsense, with a coat covered in medals.

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Sergeant Stubby at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History via Carl Malamud

Correction, May 8, 2014: This article originally misspelled author Ann Bausum's first name.