On April 25th of 1919 in Boston the city turned out some one million strong to honor the Yankee Division, which had just returned from the hell of trench warfare in France during WWI. Leading the color guard of the 102 Infantry Regiment in that parade was a heroic and very young Sergeant whose uniform was festooned with numerous medals along with the proud YD division patch on his shoulders. As the crowd raised their voices in his honor he proudly puffed out his chest, stood up to his full 22 inches … and wagged his tail, little stub of a thing that it was. He had come a long way since his days of being homeless on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut.
There are few living Americans who can remember the years immediately following the First World War, but those few who can would tell you that one of the most famous American “veterans” of WWI during that time walked on four legs, not two. The story of that hero, Stubby the war dog, like so many classic American success stories, starts out with that hero at a low point in his life.
The anonymous and as yet unnamed terrier mix was just another homeless street dog in New Haven when the United States entered WWI in April 1917. He was a sort of brown or tan, brindle color, not tall, but broad across the chest, with a handsome white patch that ran down between his eyes and around his nose. He was of undetermined age and breed, but appeared to have some Boston terrier and pit bull in him. As with most abandoned dogs, there is no way to know what his life up until then had been like. As a stray, his life couldn’t have been easy, but he appeared to be a strong and healthy dog with a winning personality. With our entry into the war, the lives of thousands of young men in America were about to change drastically, and Stubby’s would change along with them.
The 1st and 2nd Connecticut National Guard had merged into the 102 Infantry Regiment. They would eventually become part of the famous 26th (Yankee) Division, and began training in New Haven in midsummer of 1917. Their camp was at the Yale Bowl, which happened to be in Stubby’s “territory.” Stubby began to hang around the soldiers, no doubt getting lots of food from them. He became popular with many of the men. Soon, however, he and James Robert Conroy, a 25 year old Irish-American from New Britain, formed a bond that would last as long as Stubby lived, and even beyond. Perhaps it was because Conroy was also an “orphan,” as his father had died in 1899 and his mother had passed away four years earlier. At this point Stubby got his name, probably based on his little stub of a tail, and he and Conroy became inseparable.
Stubby wasn’t satisfied with just hanging around as a pet, however. He was an energetic and intelligent dog and learned to respond to the various bugle calls that ran the soldier’s day. He would also “march” in formation with them during their training. Conroy also taught him how to sit back on his hind legs and "salute” with his right paw, a talent that would prove vital in continuing his army “career” later. Stubby, like most dogs, enjoyed interacting with humans, but his interacting would eventually include things most dogs never dreamed about.
When the regiment shipped to Newport News, Virginia by train, and then to France by ship in the late summer, Conroy refused to leave the regiment's newest little recruit behind. After smuggling him aboard the train, Conroy was assisted by a member of the USS Minnesota in hiding Stubby away in a coal bin on the ship. When they landed Conroy was able to hide him in a blanket as they disembarked.
Smuggling Stubby into France
Stubby was far too outgoing a boy to remain “under wraps” though, and soon he was discovered by one of Conroy’s commanding officers. The story is that at this point Conroy’s training came to the fore as Stubby sprang into action with a snappy “salute” and charmed the officer into allowing him to stay with the regiment.
When they reached France, Conroy was assigned to the regiment’s headquarters company, where he and Stubby met the regiment’s commander. Col. John “Gatling Gun” Parker had earned his sobriquet, and high praise from Teddy Roosevelt, during the Spanish-American War. Parker was an army legend, and hard as nails, but he was no match for Stubby's charm. Stubby worked his magic on Parker and was soon on his way to becoming the mascot of the regiment.
In February 1918, the Yankee Division was deployed to the front at the Chernin de Dames highway, west of Soissons. When the 102nd got to the trenches, Conroy did not coddle his canine companion. Stubby was allowed to run free around the trenches through the division. Thus, the sociable little pooch endeared himself to the entire division. We know now that many dogs have a certain talent for making humans feel better by their mere presence, and Stubby surely did that for many of the men suffering the horrors of trench warfare. An American dog was a little touch of home for the soldiers, many of whom probably left a dog at home. Still, Stubby remained devoted to Conroy, who called him his “closest comrade.”
What percentage of the tales (or tails?) of Stubby’s combat career are true, and what percentage may be slightly “enhanced” no one can know today, but there is little doubt he spent many days under fire of various sorts. The Yankee Division spent 210 days in combat, fighting in the campaigns at Aisne-Marne, Champagne-Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, and Stubby was there for most of it. The division suffered 1,587 killed in action and 12,077 wounded in action. That’s the official number of wounded, but it should be 12,078, with Stubby added.
Being a terrier, Stubby was well suited to one job that no one had to encourage him to do: “exterminator” of the rats that frequented all the trenches on the Western Front. But he had other jobs as well. With his keen hearing, he was able to detect the sound of incoming artillery sooner than his human comrades and warn them to take cover. And after suffering some effects of a gas attack himself, he also became an expert at “sniffing out” a gas attack before they hit, barking a warning to the soldiers to get their masks on. After he helped rouse Sgt. John Curtin in time to save him from a gas attack, Curtin wrote a poem in Stubby’s praise including the lines:
He always knew when to duck the shells
And buried his nose at the first gas smells
(Pictured, members of the Yankee Division. They have pictures of Stubby on their gas mask pouches.)
During one of the division's early battles near Seicheprey, Stubby was hit in the chest by shrapnel from a German grenade in no man’s land, between the trenches. Conroy didn’t hesitate -- he crawled out under fire to retrieve his little buddy and carried him back. Just as any other soldier of the division would have been, Stubby was rushed to an aid station in an ambulance. As word spread of the wounding of the division mascot, the collective hearts of the men of the 102nd, especially Conroy’s, must have sunk wondering if they had seen the last of him.
Read Part 2: Every Dog Has His Day