This Day in History: Sergeant Stubby, a stray dog turned war hero

On this day in 1926, Sergeant Stubby passes away. Stubby wasn’t just any sergeant—he was a dog! He served with the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division during World War I.

Some even claim that he was the “most decorated dog” in that war.

Stubby was more than just a pet who occasionally cheered soldiers up. He was a member of a team. He saved lives; he assisted the wounded. He provided early alerts of incoming attacks. He even captured a German.

Stubby’s Army career began on an athletic field at Yale University in 1917. A man by the name of J. Robert Conroy had just entered basic training. He found a stray dog . . . or maybe it was the dog who found him? 😉

Conroy named the dog Stubby (because of his short tail) and brought him into the training camp. Stubby was always present for drills and bugle calls. He got practically as much training as the real soldiers! He even learned to salute. More importantly, he worked his way into the soldiers’ hearts. By the time he was deployed, Conroy had no intention of leaving Stubby behind. He smuggled Stubby aboard SS Minnesota.

Stubby was headed to Europe.

The dog was eventually discovered, of course. Legend has it that the commanding officer who finally found him was won over because Stubby saluted him. Either way, Stubby charmed his way into the military, and he was allowed to accompany his men to the front lines.

Once there, Stubby was invaluable. He located wounded men on the battlefield, helping some to safety and finding medics for others. Sometimes, he was simply a comforting friend whose presence kept a soldier from dying alone.

Stubby performed other services, too: He was able to kill disease-carrying rats in the trenches. Moreover, he could identify gas attacks before humans could. On one notable morning, he sensed gas creeping toward his soldiers while they slept. He ran around, barking and nipping at the men until they woke up. He saved many that day.

Stubby was once injured by a grenade and sent to a hospital for medical care. It was a close call, but “like the proverbial cat,” Conroy would write, Stubby “seemed to have many lives.” Stubby was soon up and about, visiting soldiers in the hospital and boosting spirits with his cheerful presence.

One of Stubby’s feats has become the stuff of legend. It’s said that Stubby caught a German spy and earned a promotion to Sergeant in the process. Stubby certainly did capture a German, but most of the details of that event are lost to history. Did he chase the German towards the American lines? Did he bite and hold the German? One way or another, Stubby did capture someone, but it’s doubtful that he actually earned a real promotion to Sergeant as a result.

That title came into use much later. By then, the legend of Stubby was growing.

Both Conroy and Stubby survived the war, but their lives would never be the same. Stubby was a hero! He led parades. He met three Presidents. He received a medal from General John Pershing (albeit not an official military one). Later, when Conroy decided to go to law school at Georgetown, Stubby joined him.

After all, they were friends.

Conroy’s eldest granddaughter later remarked that he wouldn’t talk much about his wartime experiences. He would just get quiet, she noted, and say, “I was with Stubby.” Stubby, she believed, “may have been what got him through the war.”

Primary Sources:

Ann Bausum, Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation (2014)

Isabel George, The Most Decorated Dog in History: Sergeant Stubby (2012)

Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Object record: Stubby

Stubby of A.E.F. enters Valhalla (NY Times; Apr. 4, 1926) (reprinted HERE)