The use of dogs in war has a history reaching back to ancient times. The most famous American war dog was a four-legged hero of World War I named Sgt. Stubby.
Thanks to newspaper stories that had made him famous, Sgt. Stubby returned to America a hero.
Sgt. Stubby was not just famous; he reached a level of celebrity that would make even Lady Gaga, whose online viewing of her music videos recently surpassed the 1 billion mark, an afterthought. His paw shook the hands of three presidents, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. Influential politicians jockeyed to be photographed with him. He led hundreds of parades across the nation and stayed in elite hotels that otherwise banned dogs. Charles Ayer Whipple, the most prominent portrait artist of the day, painted his portrait. General of the Armies John J. Pershing personally decorated him, and he received numerous honors in addition to his wartime awards.
The American Red Cross, the YMCA, and the American Legion all made him a lifetime honorary member, with the YMCA’s membership card stating that it was good for “three bones a day and a place to sleep.” He crowned his career by becoming the official mascot of Georgetown University. Not bad for a stray pit bull mongrel that wandered onto the Yale University campus in the summer of 1917, attracted by the sounds made by recruits from the 102nd Infantry Regiment as they were training.
The pit bull mix soon fell in line with the ranks and participated in some of the drills. He became the unit’s unofficial mascot and, amongst other things, was taught how to salute with his right paw. Stubby (as he was now called) eventually bonded with Pvt. J. Robert Conroy. In early October, as the 102nd, part of the 26th “Yankee” Division, prepared to ship out to France, Conroy tucked Stubby into his overcoat and smuggled him aboard the troopship Minnesota. During the sea voyage one of the machinist mates made Stubby a special set of dog tags. Shortly after the unit disembarked at the French port of St. Nazaire, the commanding officer discovered he had an unauthorized member in his ranks. But an earnest plea from Conroy and a sharp salute from Stubby convinced the officer to let the pit bull remain, this time as the unit’s official mascot.
On one patrol Stubby found something else hidden in some bushes. It was a German spy who had been mapping the American positions. Attracted by canine barking and human cries, the patrol arrived to discover the hapless spy on the ground with Stubby’s jaws clamped onto his backside.
Stubby’s baptism of fire occurred in February 1918, shortly after the division was stationed in the Chemin des Dames sector in northern France. Within days after the troops took up position in the trenches, they were hit by a poison gas artillery barrage. Stubby survived, and from that point on was acutely sensitive to the deadly chemicals. Once, the area where Stubby’s company was deployed received a pre-dawn poison gas barrage. As soon as his nose scented the first whiff of poison gas, Stubby began raising the alarm, running back and forth through the trench, barking and nipping at the slumbering soldiers. The men awoke in time to don their mask (and fit Stubby with his), and fight off the German attack.
Stubby was not content to remain in the trenches, often accompanying raids and patrols into no man’s land, the region between the opposing armies’ trench lines. In April 1918, during a raid on the German-held town of Schieprey, Stubby was wounded by shrapnel from a German grenade.
Stubby became an expert in finding wounded or dead soldiers during patrols. On one patrol Stubby found something else hidden in some bushes. It was a German spy who had been mapping the American positions. Attracted by canine barking and human cries, the patrol arrived to discover the hapless spy on the ground with Stubby’s jaws clamped onto his backside. One of the soldiers confiscated the German’s Iron Cross and gave it to Stubby as a souvenir. The commanding officer of the 102d was reportedly so impressed by the incident that he “promoted” Stubby to sergeant. When the unit was transferred to the town of Château-Thierry, a group of women from the town made a blanket for him that soon became decorated with medals and badges.
Stubby spent eighteen months in Europe, participating in seventeen battles. Thanks to newspaper stories that had made him famous, Sgt. Stubby returned to America a hero. When Conroy enrolled at Georgetown University’s law school, Stubby became a mascot of the university’s football team.
Sgt. Stubby died in 1926. His body was preserved and, wearing his decoration-filled blanket, he is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.