originally published July 10, 2012
I was never cut out to be in the army. I’m not good at following orders, I hate running in formation, and khaki makes my calves look fat. Also, I’m too easily intimidated by unbesmirchable heroes of other species. I’m talking about heroes like Sergeant Stubby.
Stubby was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. No one knows where he came from – the purest soldiers hold a shadowy past, I suppose. One morning in 1917 he simply appeared at Yale Field in New Haven, Connecticut where a group of soldiers were training, getting ready to ship out to Europe. One of the soldiers took to the dog right away, and a connection was formed. A bond. They exchanged the kind of long, slow (but still somewhat macho) look that would fit perfectly overtop an Ennio Morricone score. That young soldier was Corporal Robert Conroy. I couldn’t find a good photo of Cpl. Conroy, but I’m pretty sure he looked kind of like this:
Conroy could sense there was some fight in this dog, so he smuggled Stubby on his troop ship bound for France. Conroy wasn’t a paper-pusher; he was a combat soldier. By extension, so was Stubby. The two of them were stationed with the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division. For eighteen months they fought in the trenches.
Stubby inhaled a snoutful of mustard gas, and quickly learned to identify the stench. He was able to warn his unit of gas attacks because he could smell them before anybody else. And with his uncanny canine ability to hear high-pitched whistles, Stubby was able to know when to go batshit wild and warn his battalion of incoming artillery shells. The number of lives he saved with those skills alone is probably impressive.
But Stubby wasn’t done. He joined Cpl. Conroy in the field for seventeen battles along the Western Front. When soldiers were wounded in no man’s land, the medics hoisted Stubby out of the trench and sent him into that greyest fog of war, following him as he tracked down wounded soldier after wounded soldier.
He spent almost the entire month of February, 1918 under constant fire at Chemin des Dames. A couple months later, a German grenade found its way to the ground near him and Stubby caught a piece of shrapnel in the leg. He was separated from his unit while he recovered far from the front, comforting his fellow heroes in the hospital. This puppy was like Rambo, Captain America, and Max Klinger all in one package.
Cpl. Conroy is still a part of this story. After Stubby’s wounds had healed, the pup was shipped back to the front, back into the trench where Conroy was fighting. The stories continued to add up.
After the 102nd took Château-Thierry back from German control, the grateful women of the town made Stubby a chamois coat. This was handy, because Stubby was fast becoming the most decorated soldier in his unit, and he had even been promoted to Sergeant, the first time a dog has ever been promoted through combat duty. Rumor has it, Stubby saved a young girl in Paris from being run over by a car. There’s even a legend of Stubby capturing a German spy single-handedly (or single-pawedly) by biting onto the soldier’s pants and hanging on. I don’t know the details of this one, but it sounds just kooky enough to be true.
The war ended, and Stubby emerged intact. Loyal to the end, Conroy smuggled him back across the ocean, and they were both welcomed home as heroes. Stubby was the one who became a celebrity.
He was front-page news all over the country, and was introduced to Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding. He was the featured hero of numerous parades. He settled down and lived with the man who had paved the path for his heroism.
Starting in 1921 Stubby attended Georgetown University Law Center, where he and Conroy both achieved degrees in criminal law. Actually, Stubby didn’t bother with the degree; he was the football team’s mascot. He became a lifetime member of the American Legion, the Red Cross, the YMCA, and probably any other organization he wanted to join. How could anyone turn down a hero like this?
The sad closer to this tale is that Stubby was unable to achieve immortality. He died peacefully in Conroy’s arms on April 4, 1926, the most decorated combat dog in history. Because of Stubby, the US Army developed the K-9 Corps for WWII. He was a pioneer. A visionary. Now he’s practically a Muppet.
That’s Sergeant Stubby today. He’s been stuffed and mounted in the Smithsonian Institution’s Americans At War: The Price of Freedom exhibit. A little bit creepy, sure, but his is a legend that deserves not to be forgotten.
In the Smithsonian display you’ll find Stubby alongside this guy:
That’s Cher Ami, a hero pigeon from the same war. Technically he was a Black Check Cock homing pigeon, but that sounds dirty so we’ll just call him a pigeon. Here’s Cher Ami’s story:
About a month before the end of the war, 500 or so men were trapped behind enemy lines with no food or ammo. They had to worry about friendly fire as well as German bullets since no one knew where they were. After one day, their numbers were down to about 200. They had three homing pigeons.
One was sent with a plea for help for the wounded – it was shot down. Another was sent with a request for support – also shot down. Then Cher Ami was dispatched with their coordinates. The Germans saw him and opened fire. Cher Ami was shot down, but somehow regained flight. He arrived at division headquarters having been shot through his white meat, blinded in one eye, and with one leg almost completely blasted off. 194 men were saved because this little bird didn’t know how to give up.
Medics worked to keep the bird alive. They even made him a wooden leg to replace the one they couldn’t save. Cher Ami hung on long enough to receive a bunch of accolades he probably didn’t understand, then passed away in June of 1919.
Two heroes, neither of them human, both more of a mensch than myself. Can I live with that? Sure, why not. This world needs heroes, and it needs people to write about those heroes (and also Jedis and bacon). As long as I fit in someplace. I’ll never be a war hero myself, but maybe someday I can live vicariously through my dog.