His was the bark heard round the world.
In 1917, a century ago this spring, a stray dog with brown and white fur and a thick snout wandered onto the New Haven fields near today’s Yale Bowl, where the 102nd Infantry of the U.S. Army’s 26th Yankee Division camped and trained. Pvt. J. Robert Conroy, a 25-year-old New Britain man, adopted the dog and named him Stubby. The dog went on to serve in the trenches of France during World War I, where he would bark, salute, charm and earn his way into history for a number of heroics that seem ripped from a movie.
During his “service,” Stubby learned how to give members of the Yankee Division advance notice of gas attacks. He searched for wounded soldiers between the trenches in “no man’s land,” where he was able to discern enemy from allied fallen, caught a German soldier who had snuck over to the Allied side, and was even wounded in the conflict but survived to bark another day, meeting three U.S. presidents after the war.
Ann Bausum, author of two books about Stubby, Sergeant Stubby (for adults) and Stubby The War Dog (for children), first came across the legendary Connecticut canine by accident. Bausum, who lives in southern Wisconsin, and is “not a dog person,” says she was doing photo research for another project when she saw an image of Stubby online.
Slowly, the stout dog with wide, dark eyes began to charm Bausum like he had so many U.S. soldiers, but she had her doubts about his wartime record.
“Frankly, the material presented on the internet was so fanciful, I couldn’t believe it was true,” she says.
As she dug into Stubby’s history with a healthy dose of skepticism, she found some misconceptions. For instance, he never received the rank of “sergeant,” as is frequently stated on the internet. But to her surprise, the heart of Stubby’s tale was true, including its most fantastic elements.
After wandering into camp in New Haven, Stubby, whose heritage is uncertain but may have been most closely related to Boston terriers, became the division’s mascot. He marched with the soldiers and even learned to salute high-ranking officers by raising his paw to his forehead.
When the Yankee Division was deployed to France, Conroy smuggled Stubby along with him.
Overseas, Stubby developed his ability to give advance warning of gas attacks, but exactly how he did this is unclear. “My guess is given the acuity of a dog’s hearing, the sound of a gas shell being loaded for launching was different than the sound of an artillery shell and the dog learned to decipher the distinction between that,” Bausum says. “Then, of course, the sense of smell, as well. There could have been smells associated with it, and it’s been well documented that dogs have a sense of smell that’s not only very keen, but covers a wide area.”
Stubby’s warning would give the men of the Yankee Division extra time to strap on their gas masks and evacuate underground rooms in the bunkers, where gas tended to linger. (To protect Stubby, Conroy also had a gas mask made specially for the dog.)
During one gas attack, a sergeant in the division, John J. Curtin, was sleeping below ground in a dugout, and didn’t hear the alarm outside. Stubby woke him, saving him. Curtin composed a poem in tribute to his furry savior. “Listen to me and I will tell of a dog who went all through hell,” goes Curtin’s poem, “He always knew when to duck the shells / And buried his nose at the first gas smells.”
According to Conroy, Stubby also saved the French village of Château-Thierry from a gas attack, a feat Bausum says would explain why Stubby received his famous “army” coat from the women of the town, which he’d often wear in his later public appearances. The coat was adorned with a host of medals many say Stubby earned during the conflict. Bausum believes most of the medals on the coat were won by Conroy, not Stubby, but that the dog did earn one of the most famous medals for capturing a German soldier, a story Bausum at first thought was made up.
“I was like, ‘Yeah right, he captured a German spy?” she says. “The truth is he captured somebody, whether he is a spy or whether he is just lost is not in the record. As best I can tell it happened in the fall of 1918, probably September, during a particularly aggressive military assault when the Americans were capturing a lot of territory and the Germans were in somewhat disarray. So, it could have easily been a deserter or it could have been a spy. Who knows?”
What is not disputed is that when Stubby recognized a German soldier in Allied territory, he started barking. When the soldier ran, Stubby knocked him down and held onto him by the seat of his pants until U.S. soldiers arrived. Stubby likely received the soldier’s German Iron Cross, as it was practice in those days for a soldier to claim the medals of enemies captured.
After the war, Stubby was a celebrity. He appeared at parades, including a homecoming parade in Conroy’s native New Britain, and was profiled in hundreds of newspaper stories. Conroy and Stubby moved to Washington, D.C., where Stubby became the mascot of the Georgetown University football team and became a star of the halftime show (he would chase a football around the field, nudge it with his head when he caught up to it, and then — to the delight of fans — chase it some more). Conroy served a brief stint in the FBI, among other jobs, but always made time to serve as Stubby’s unofficial PR person.
When Stubby died in 1926, while cradled in Conroy’s arm, Conroy preserved his remains by having him stuffed. Today, Stubby’s remains are part of The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington. Closer to home, his memory is honored each year when Connecticut’s First Company Governor’s Foot Guard awards the Stubby Award for Canine Heroism at its annual dog show. Conroy’s grandson, Curt Deane, who is in his late 60s, hopes to have a statue of the dog erected in Hartford. The animated film Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is slated for release next April.
Deane, who lives in Lyme, says his grandfather loved recounting tales of Stubby. “It was one of his central talking points; he worshipped the dog,” he says.
Conroy died in 1987 at the age of 95. In all the decades after Stubby’s death, Conroy never owned another dog. Deane says his grandfather told him this was because “he and Stubby went through so much together and that Stubby was so loyal and comforting that he never believed another dog could take his place.”