Sergeant Stubby was one of the most famous World War I military dogs. His valiant service on the battlefields of France proved that war heroes can come in many shapes and sizes. Here’s his story—and how to start exploring the stories of WWI military heroes (albeit mostly human) in your own family history.
A Stray Becomes a World War I Military Dog
Sergeant Stubby was a stray bull terrier mix who, in 1917, wandered onto a military training lot in New Haven, Connecticut. There he met Private J. Robert Conroy, a young man in whose company he would travel the world, save lives, and become famous.
Stubby, as the little dog was dubbed, quickly joined the daily routines of Private Conroy’s unit, the 26th Yankee Division of the U.S. Army’s 102nd Infantry. He entertained the soldiers with antics that included a modified salute with his paw. However, a canine couldn’t officially join their ranks. So when the Yankee Division shipped out one night, Stubby quietly hopped on the train along with them, and then, with Private Conroy’s help, stowed away on the troop transport ship.
Stubby on the Battlefield
Once the unit reached France, Stubby charmed commanding officers into letting him stay with the Yankee Division all the way to the front lines. He soon began to prove his worth on the battlefields. Distinguishing friend from foe by their familiar language and smells, Stubby alerted medics to the cries of wounded soldiers—or stayed with them until they died so they would not be left alone. He led disoriented soldiers back to the trenches. Once, Stubby himself got lost, but French troops found and returned him. When German prisoners marched through Stubby’s camp, the fierce little dog had to be restrained so he wouldn’t attack them.
With all the dangers at the front, injury was perhaps inevitable for this canine soldier. During an attack, Stubby inhaled mustard gas, which required medical treatment. Later, Stubby recognized danger during another gas attack. He roused soldiers from sleep and likely saved many lives.
His keen nose for gas paid off again when he reportedly averted an attack on a French village. Afterward, some women from the village sewed him a little chamois coat. It was hand-stitched with Stubby’s name and decorated with Allied flags. He wore it throughout the war and for the rest of his life.
Perhaps Stubby’s most distinguished act was catching a German spy by harassing and biting him until his fellow soldiers arrived and captured him. For this feat, Stubby was promoted to the honorary rank of sergeant, becoming the first dog to receive a rank in the U.S. armed forces.
One day, during a grenade attack at Chateau-Thierry, Stubby took shrapnel in his chest and in one leg. Private Conroy carried his canine companion to a field hospital. Stubby needed surgery and a month’s recovery. But even during his convalescence, he lifted the spirits of the wounded. And then he returned to the Yankee Division, to the joy of both men and dog.
Stubby Receives a Hero’s Welcome
After 18 months of service, Stubby completed his tour of duty. During a victory parade in France, he saluted President Woodrow Wilson. Back home, he received a Humane Society medal from General John J. Pershing, the commanding general of the United States Armies. The famous dog visited the White House and eventually met both Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He marched in more parades, became a lifetime member of the American Legion, and even joined famed actress Mary Pickford in a vaudeville act.
Eventually, post-war life moved on for Conroy and Stubby. Conroy enrolled in law school at Georgetown University. Stubby came along and became one of the school’s first mascots.
In 1926, Stubby died of old age in Conroy’s arms. He had become perhaps the most famous of World War I military dogs. His obituary ran in several newspapers. Sergeant Stubby was not buried but instead rests at the Price of Freedom exhibit in the National Museum of American History where he and his story is on display. The soldiers with whom he served—especially Conroy—remembered him with love and gratitude for the rest of their lives.
Learn about More World War I Military Heroes
Who were the World War I servicemen in your family? Discover your ancestors in FamilySearch World War I records. Do you have World War I (or any other) stories, photos or documents to share? Share them on the always-free-for-everyone FamilySearch Memories.
“Object: Stubby” in “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” online exhibition catalog, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, accessed 13 April 2018.
Bausum, Ann, 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 Books, 2015.
Golden, Kathleen, “Stubby: Dog, Hoya mascot and war hero,” O Say Can You See: Stories from the [Smitshsonian] National Museum of American History, 23 May, 2011. Accessed 13 April 2018.
Kelly, C. Brian and Ingrid Smyer, “Sgt. Stubby,” The American Legion, 19 Feb 2015, accessed 14 April 2018.
About the Author
Sunny Morton is an internationally-known, award-winning writer, editor and speaker for the multibillion-dollar genealogy industry. Her voice is heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast, which has more than 2.5 million downloads worldwide. She is a contributing editor at Family Tree Magazine and the NGS-award-winning coeditor of Ohio Genealogy News. She has been a popular speaker at events across the country, including RootsTech. Sunny is especially known for expertise in tracing U.S. ancestors; unique comparisons of the industry’s leading websites; and inspiring presentations on how to reconstruct meaningful stories from genealogy records.