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When a dog from New Haven rescued hundreds of soldiers

February 5, 2019

As the story goes, Robert Conroy was gathered at Yale University with his fellow soldiers in the 102nd infantry when a stray dog wandered onto the green.

It was the summer of 1917 and Conroy was getting ready to head to the front lines, in France, but that didn’t stop him from bundling up the dog and stowing him away on the troop transport ship, in defiance of regulations.

When a superior officer discovered the stowaway, Stubby — as the dog would come to be known — raised his paw to his head in imitation of a salute.

Stubby was deployed to the front lines on Feb. 5, 1918.

The dog would stay in France, and be recognized for saving the lives of hundreds of American soldiers. The stories of Stubby have a mythic quality, but come from no less reputable a source as The New York Times.

“In the Chemin des Dames, Stubby captured a German spy and saved a doughboy from a gas attack. Hearing a sound in the stillness of the night, the dog, who guarded sleeplessly, stole out of the trenches and recognized — a German,” The Times wrote in its three-column obituary of the dog. “Attempts by the German to deceive the dog were futile. Seizing his prisoner by the breeches, Stubby held on until help arrived.”

Yes, Stubby the dog captured a German soldier by biting his butt and not letting go. For real.

After he survived a mustard gas attack, Stubby was able to recognize the smell and warn his fellow soldiers of the danger.

“The noise and strain that shattered the nerves of many of his comrades did not impair Stubby’s spirits,” The Times wrote. “Not because he was unconscious of danger. His angry howl while a battle raged and his mad canter from one part of the lines to another indicated realization. But he seemed to know that the greatest service he could render was comfort and cheerfulness.”

In all, Stubby survived 17 battles, but his greatest contribution may have been when things were calmer: “When he deserted the front lines it was to keep a wounded soldier company in the corner of a dugout or in the deserted section of a trench. If the suffering doughboy fell asleep, Stubby stayed awake to watch.”

He helped medics locate the wounded, and when he was injured by shrapnel became a comfort animal to soldiers at the hospital where he was tended.

After the war, Stubby was honored by three presidents and, in 1921, General John “Blackjack” Pershing, supreme commander of American Forces during the war, personally awarded the dog a medal.

Stubby’s portrait was painted in 1925 by Charles Ayer Whipple. His portrait currently hangs in the regimental museum in New Haven.

He died in 1926, not before becoming the mascot of Yale’s football team.

Stubby has been the subject of animated films and children’s books, and his remains are on display at the Smithsonian.

As Col. Thomas P. Thomas of the National Guard told the Courant in 1996, Stubby’s contributions are well remembered in the military.

“He’s kind of the unofficial grandfather of the war dog,” he said.

Jordan Fenster is digital products editor for Hearst Connecticut Media. jordan.fenster@hearstmediact.com