By Paul Johnson
The Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. doesn’t normally keep bodies after their death, but three of them are memorialized in the National Museum of American History because Arlington Cemetery is not a dog-friendly environment, not even for war heroes.
In October 2016, Arlington Cemetery banned all dogs (and bicyclists) from the grounds with the exception of service or military working dogs. Dogs (and other animals) that served in the United States military are not even allowed on the grounds to visit their human compatriots, much less have the chance to be buried alongside the men and women they bravely served with in battle.
Since World War I, more than 100,000 dogs have served in the United States military. None of them have been more famous than Sergeant Stubby, a brindle-colored, mixed-breed American Staffordshire Terrier (pit bull). Sgt. Stubby can be found in The Price of Freedom exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History alongside two other animal heroes: Cher Ami, a registered Black Check cock carrier pigeon wounded in World War I, and General Sheridan’s horse Winchester, a hero of the Civil War.
On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed by Congress which required all men between 21 and 30 years of age to enlist for military service.
By July, Yale University opened its football and other athletic fields for use by the government to train local draftees. Among the men was a 25-year-old volunteer from New Britain, Connecticut. James Robert Conroy had served for a year in the Connecticut National Guard after graduating from high school. He wasted no time volunteering for the military, registering just three days after the law was ratified. A soldier who studied law after the end of World War I, Conroy was an average-sized man who had an unspectacular military career with the exception of becoming friends with the youngest individual in the camp who became one of the most popular participants in the war.
Estimated to be 1 or 2 years old when he wandered into the military camps erected on the Yale campus, Stubby was a mixed breed with physical traits common with pit bulls. Sandy brown in color with streaks of darker color and white spots on his chest and face, Stubby stood 2 feet tall and was approximately 2 feet long.
Nobody knows where Stubby came from and with nobody reporting a missing dog, it has been assumed he was simply a local stray who found a welcome home with the soldiers. After all, with thousands of men to feed there were bound to be endless food scraps for a friendly stray.
Though Stubby was known to wander the camp, he soon became Conroy’s constant companion. Stubby adapted to military life quickly, learning the meaning of different bugle calls, marching in line with the soldiers, and even developing a valuable trick: saluting officers. It was this last talent, which Conroy ingeniously taught Stubby to do, that endeared the young dog to supervising officers. When given the proper signal, Stubby would sit back on his hind legs and rear up, raising his right paw to his head and staring at this counterpart with a serious gaze until the salute was returned by the human. Able to do this on command, Stubby quickly earned respect from superiors in the camp who allowed the canine to stay with Conroy’s unit as a mascot during training.
Mission One: Stowaway
Conroy was one of 3,700 soldiers assigned to the 102nd Infantry Regiment, one of four divisions that constituted the 26th Division, that was known as the YD. The 26th Division was filled with so many men from New England that the division was known as the “Yankee” Division, which was shortened to YD.
The YD achieved one early distinction by becoming the first newly-formed regiment to reach France. The only American fighters to reach France prior to the 28,000-man division was the famous First Division that was better known worldwide as the Big Red One because of their insignia.
Stubby was part of the YD that landed on French soil, but it wasn’t easy getting there.
Conroy had to sneak Stubby on the train that took the 102nd Infantry Regiment to Newport News, Virginia. In order to transport the massive number of men to France at the same time soldiers departed the east coast from one of three cities: Hoboken, New Jersey; Montreal, Quebec; and Newport News, Virginia. To get Stubby on the train to Virginia, Conroy managed to hide the dog in the large crowd of marching soldiers. Nobody gave Conroy any problems about Stubby, in large part, because getting a dog on a train is one thing, but getting him on a vessel crossing the Atlantic Ocean would be a major accomplishment.
Once in Newport News, Conroy realized his simple approach would not work again. Instead, he enlisted the help of a sympathetic crew member working aboard the ship that was going to carry Conroy and his colleagues. The accomplice stowed Stubby in the coal bin of the engine room when the Minnesota left port. After a couple of days, when the vessel was far enough from land, Stubby came out of hiding and was reunited with Conroy.
During the month-long voyage, seasickness was common for the humans. But not for Stubby, who became even more popular with the soldiers. By the time the Minnesota reach Europe, Stubby was wearing his own personal set of dog tags just like his brave colleagues. Stubby’s dog tags read simply:
In a ring around that was Conroy’s name and service number: “J.R. Conroy 63254.”
Disembarking the Minnesota and stepping onto European soil was the easiest part of the stowaway. Conroy simply carried Stubby under his coat and the two blended in with the massive crowds.
Stubby was now in the European theatre of war.
War action: gas attack
Soon after arriving in France, Stubby’s presence became known to Conroy’s superiors. Reports claim that when Conroy and Stubby were called into to discuss the situation, Stubby gave the supervising officers his trademark salute. Impressed and won over by Stubby’s behavior, the officers allowed the dog to stay.
Stubby accompanied Conroy on his duties. When Conroy was on watch, Stubby stood and marched silently at his side. When Conroy was required to deliver messages on horseback to other outposts, Stubby ran alongside.
By early 1918, Conroy and Stubby were stationed near the front lines in France. Working with their French counterparts in the XI Corps of the French Army, the 102nd Regiment was given reconnaissance missions that required Conroy and his compatriots to work within the trenches and tunnels of the front line delivering messages.Stubby’s popularity only grew with each new mission that allowed other soldiers to meet their four-legged colleague.
On March 17, 1918, Stubby and the rest of the YD experienced their first poison gas attack. Germans used a mixture of three gases in their attacks – chlorine, mustard, and phosgene – that rained down on the YD for hours. Stubby, thanks to Conroy, was ready for such an attack. With the help of a sympathetic French soldier, Conroy was able to have a custom gas mask made for Stubby, who learned to retreat to the bunker during a gas attack.
To the rescue
As casualties increased throughout 1918, Stubby learned a new skill and became an even more important part of the division. Stubby learned how to become a rescue dog, running across the battlefield to find injured Allied soldiers and either keep them company until help arrived or he would go and get help and lead medics to the wounded. Stubby was able to differentiate between German and Allied soldiers and would bypass dying enemy soldiers to help the American and French wounded.
Stubby was not able to only identify German soldiers from their different language, smells, and uniforms, he reportedly despised them and would have to be restrained when prisoners of war were brought into camp.
“Woe to the German who would step out of line,” one witness said about Stubby’s assistance in processing the German prisoners of war. “It was found necessary to tie him up when batches of prisoners were being brought back, for fear that trouserless Germans would reach the prison pens.”
Hero in the field
One of the turning moments in the war occurred on September 12, 1918, when more than a half million Allied soldiers and Sgt. Stubby liberated the town of St. Mihiel. General John Pershing and other Allied leaders were so proud of the mission that they sent a message two days later bragging that the victory took just “27 hours.”
The victory at St. Mihiel was only prelude to what would be Stubby’s greatest moment: the capture of an enemy soldier. The details of what happened on September 26, 1918, have been debated for generations, but what can never be doubted is that Stubby acted in such valor that he earned both his famous nickname – Sergeant Stubby – and one of the war’s most coveted trophies: a German Iron Cross. Tradition held that Allied soldiers who captured German soldiers wearing a German Iron Cross were allowed to keep their prisoner’s medal as a trophy. Following that tradition, Stubby was given the German Iron Cross that his prisoner wore when he was captured by the canine.
As the 102nd set out to capture Marcheville on September 26, the number of prisoners of war Allies captured increased with every mile they marched. None of those details have ever been in doubt, but what happened to Stubby that afternoon has been retold in so many different ways that it’s impossible to know the exact truth of what happened.
There is no way to know for sure if the German soldier with the German Iron Cross on his chest was trying to surrender or evade capture (versions of the story claim both), either way, Stubby became aware of the soldier and alerted his human colleagues. Some reports claimed Stubby chased the soldier, knocked him down and held him in place with his teeth until help arrived. Others claim the German soldier was on a reconnaissance mission and that without Stubby’s ability to sniff out Germans, the spy would not have been discovered. Other stories claim the German was merely separated from his German regiment and lost.
While the details are unclear, what is factual is that the capture of the German soldier on September 26, 1918, was attributed to Stubby and for his bravery he was given the prisoner’s German Iron Cross. Conroy proudly placed the Iron Cross on Stubby’s leather jacket, itself a gift from grateful French citizens who Stubby helped liberate.
Conroy purposefully affixed the medal at the back of the jacket where it dangled above Stubby’s tail, a comical touch that earned Conroy and Stubby even more popularity.
Second gas attack
Less than two weeks before the official end of the war, Conroy and Stubby suffered their second gas attack by the Germans. On November 2, the two had to be hospitalized after their exposure. They quickly recuperated and were on the battlefield at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, when the war officially ended. Within minutes of the artillery going silent, hundreds of people surrounded Stubby, who they credited, jokingly, with the ceasefire, Conroy reported later. While Stubby had nothing to do with the end of the war, his role on the battlefield became a popular story in newspapers across the country. The Washington Post, New York Times and Hartford Courant ran stories about Stubby in the immediate aftermath of the wars and for years to come.
Journalists weren’t the only ones who wrote about Stubby. Sgt. John J. Curtin, a soldier in the Yankee Division whose life was saved by Stubby when the dog helped lead him to safety during a gas attack, wrote an ode to his rescuer:
North of Verdun were our hardest battles,
And many brave men gave death rattles,
But Stubby came through hell O.K.
And is ready to go back to the U.S.A.
It took until March 1919 for the YD to get shipped back home. During the intervening months, Conroy and Stubby, along with the rest of the 102nd, were visited by President Woodrow Wilson and other military leaders, such as General Pershing.
Before the two left Europe, Conroy and Stubby posed for a portrait in March 1919. In the photo, Stubby’s jacket is decorated with a variety of medals that were earned in combat. The medals have led to some confusion about Stubby’s official status in the military. Aside from the German Iron Cross and Joanne d’Arc medallion, all the medals were officially awarded to Conroy, not Stubby.
Over the years rumors grew that Stubby was awarded the medals by dignitaries and governments, but in reality, the medals were mostly earned by Conroy, who allowed Stubby to wear them. Officially, Stubby was a mascot, not recognized soldier. On the cover the scrapbook that Conroy saved for his companion, he had embossed in gold letters: “STUBBY A.E.F. MASCOT.” (American Expeditionary Forces)
On April 26, 1919, Conroy was officially discharged. But Stubby’s public life was far from over. In the week prior to being discharged, Stubby, Conroy and the rest of the 102nd Infantry Regiment marched in front of a million spectators in a Boston parade. Other parades in other towns followed and soon there were requests for Stubby to make appearances on stage, in hospitals and as part of various public campaigns.
After the YMCA gave Stubby a War Service Membership that promised “three bones a day” and “a place to sleep” the honors began to multiply. And so did the stories. The Red Cross, Victory Loan drives, and other organizations made Stubby an icon. Stories appeared in the Kansas City Star, Denver Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and countless more across the country.
On June 8, 1921, Stubby was invited to the White House where he met President Warren Harding and the First Lady. A month later, on July 6, Stubby met Gen. Pershing, who personally pinned a medal to the dog’s jacket in a ceremony in the general’s office.
In the fall of 1921, Conroy began attending Georgetown University and Stubby became the school’s mascot. Wearing a grey uniform with large, blue G on it, Stubby performed at halftime of football games. In the 1923 Georgetown University yearbook, Stubby was given a full page and designated as “B.S., M.A., Ph.D. Official G.U. Mascot.”
Conroy eventually worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Justice Department before earning his law degree from National University Law School.
On March 16, 1926, Stubby died in Conroy’s apartment. Though he rarely talked about Stubby after his dog’s death, Conroy issued a statement about his friend’s death so that people around the world would know what happened to the popular mascot.
“His passing on was a peaceful end to an adventurous life, and it seemed as though his last message was one of gratitude to all who had loved, and been kind to him,” Conroy said.
Dogs are not allowed to be buried in Arlington Cemetery. In fact, dogs aren’t even allowed on the grounds.
Undeterred, Conroy was determined to preserve Stubby for generations of dog-loving patriots. He contacted officials with the Smithsonian Institute shortly after Stubby’s death and expert taxidermists spared no detail in Stubby’s mounting. Stubby’s remains were cremated, sealed in an airtight container, and embedded within a plaster cast that gives form to the furry exterior.
In 1927, Stubby was given a home in the American Red Cross Museum in Washington, D.C. Decades later, after space grew tight with the Red Cross Museum, Stubby was moved into the Smithsonian’s collection for permanent housing on May 22, 1956.
Conroy died at age 95 on April 25, 1987. Though he outlived Stubby by six decades and was married twice, Conroy could never bring himself to get another dog again after saying goodbye to one of the nation’s first canine war heroes.
In 2004, the Smithsonian Institution gave Stubby a new life as part of a new exhibit about World War I called “The Price of Freedom.” Experts removed the medal-coated jacket from Stubby, fearing the weight would eventually tear the leather. Stubby’s original jacket is preserved in a custom-built storage container.
Ann Bausum, Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2014).
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