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. 

140507_HIST_Stubby-Promo

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

1. A Dog Has His Day

On July 6, 1921, a curious gathering took place at the State, War, and Navy Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The occasion was a ceremony honoring veterans of the 102nd Infantry of the American Expeditionary Forces’ 26th “Yankee” Division, who had seen action in France during the Great War. The hall was packed with dozens of members of the 102nd—field clerks, infantrymen, generals—but one soldier in particular commanded the spotlight. The attention seemed to bother him; the New York Times reported that the soldier was “a trifle gun shy, and showed some symptoms of nervous excitement.” When photographers snapped his picture, he flinched.

The ceremony was presided over by Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces in Europe during the war. Pershing made a short speech, noting the soldier’s “heroism of highest caliber” and “bravery under fire.” The general solemnly lifted an engraved solid gold medal from its case and pinned it to the hero’s uniform. In response, the Times reported, the solider “licked his chops and wagged his diminutive tail.” Sergeant Stubby, a short brindle bull terrier mutt, was officially a decorated hero of World War I. The award was not a formal U.S. military commendation, but it symbolically confirmed Stubby, who’d also earned one wound stripe and three service stripes, as the greatest war dog in the nation’s history. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, he was the first dog ever given rank in the U.S. Army. His glory was even hailed in France, which also presented him with a medal.

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Millions of Americans heard tales of Stubby’s courage. He had reportedly comforted wounded warriors on bullet-strafed battlefields. It was said he could sniff out poison gas, barking warnings to doughboys in the trenches. He even captured a German soldier. These exploits made the dog nothing less than a celebrity. He met three sitting presidents, traveled the nation to veterans’ commemorations, and performed in vaudeville shows, earning $62.50 for three days of theatrical appearances, more than twice the weekly salary of the average American. For nearly a decade after the war until his death in 1926, Stubby was the most famous animal in the United States.

Stubby among his buddies leading a Legion Parade.
Sergeant Stubby among his buddies leading a Legion parade.

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

“Stubby’s history overseas,” a Waterbury, Connecticut, newspaper wrote in 1922, “is the story of almost any average doughboy.” But of course Stubby was not a doughboy, and his renown was anything but average. Despite his postwar stardom, Stubby has faded from memory in the century since the war commenced. But his story is worth revisiting, and not just as a cute, curious footnote. Stubby’s tale offers a glimpse of the American Army as it prepared to fight its first modern war—and later, of a bruised nation as it commemorated a victory obtained at unthinkable human costs.

2. A Mutt Goes to Yale

Stubby’s provenance is unknown. According to several news reports, he first enters the historical record in July 1917 as an ownerless stray. The journey to the theater of war has the quality of legend—a scruffy, peculiarly American brand of myth. Stubby was like a character out of Horatio Alger, or a sentimental one-reel silent movie: an orphan who made his way in the world with perseverance and pluck.

The setting for Stubby’s debut was the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University’s football stadium was the site of Camp Yale, where the soldiers of the 102nd Infantry, part of the New England–based 26th “Yankee” Division, were doing basic training prior to their deployment.

Photograph of "Stubby" and J. Robert Conroy. France, March, 1919.

Sergeant Stubby and J. Robert Conroy, March 1919. Courtesy of Division of Armed Forces/Smithsonian National Museum of America History

On a steamy summer morning, news reports would later recount, Stubby wandered onto the massive field, where the soldiers were doing exercises. He was not an impressive sight: short, barrel-shaped, a bit homely, with brown and white brindled stripes. Stubby lingered around Camp Yale after that first appearance. Ann Bausum, author of Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog, writes that J. Robert Conroy, a 25-old private from New Britain, Connecticut, forged the closest bond with the mutt. The two were soon inseparable.*

In September 1917, a few months after Stubby first embedded with the troops at the Yale Bowl, the 102nd prepared to ship out. Conroy faced a problem: What to do about the dog he had adopted and named Stubby? Dogs were forbidden in the U.S. military, but Conroy had managed to keep the stray as a pet throughout his three-month training in Connecticut. Getting Stubby to Europe would be a more daunting challenge.

The troops traveled by rail to Newport News, Virginia, a newly designated port of embarkation for soldiers heading to France. Here the 26th Division was slated to board one of the largest freighters navigating the Atlantic, the SS Minnesota. The New York Times describes how Conroy eluded the ship guards by concealing Stubby in his Army-issue greatcoat. He then spirited the dog down to the hold and hid him in the ship’s coal bin.

At some point during the turbulent Atlantic crossing, Stubby was found out. Here the lore of Stubby, as reported by various newspapers, takes on a suspiciously cutesy cast: The story goes that the dog charmed his way into the good graces of the officers who discovered him by lifting his right paw in a salute. Out of hiding and free to roam the freighter, Stubby proved popular with the crew. A machinist onboard fashioned Stubby his own set of metal “dog tags.” By the time the troops disembarked in the port of Saint-Nazaire on France’s western coast, Stubby was the 102nd Infantry’s unofficial mascot.

3. Dogs in the Trenches

Royal lion hunt
The Royal lion hunt reliefs from the Assyrian palace at Nineveh, about 645-635 B.C., housed at the British Museum.

Photo courtesy Carole Raddato/Flickr Creative Commons

The story of dogs in warfare is an old one, stretching back to antiquity. Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Babylonians all used dogs in battle. Dogs were part of Attila the Hun’s forces in his fifth-century European conquests. In the Middle Ages, knights outfitted dogs with canine armor; Napoleon used trained dogs as sentinels in the French campaign in Egypt.

Many of the countries involved in World War I had war dog training schools in place prior to the conflict. France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Russia all recognized the value of trained dogs on the battlefield. The conventional wisdom favored pedigreed dogs: Jack Russell terriers for chasing rats out of trenches; German shepherds, Chiens de Brie, and Alsatian sheep dogs for sentry duty. Airedale terriers were considered good messenger dogs. Siberian huskies, naturally, were relied on for transport.

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