“Sergeant Stubby,” by Ann Bausum. National Geographic. $24.
While this may be regarded by some as the definitive history of this onetime stray’s exploits during World War I and after, the author discovers through relentless digging a paucity of letters and memoirs from Stubby’s owner and protector Private J. Robert “Bob” Conroy.
Packed with detail – some superfluous – the volume follows the brindle Boston terrier mix from the Connecticut National Guard camp at Yale University, through European battlefields and back home to New England and plenty of media attention following the WWI.
Throughout, Stubby is a favorite of all – from the media to Conroy’s military superiors – whether he is performing his signature salute (he would sit down, rear up on his back legs, raise his right paw to the right side of his face until his gesture of respect has been answered) or surviving four offensive campaigns with the 26th Yankee Division, being wounded by shrapnel and gassed, capturing a German soldier, performing rescues or being decorated and feted at home after the Great War.
One reporter writes: “Stubby’s history overseas is the story of almost any average doughboy.”
As the war progresses, Stubby assumes the role of rescue dog, explains the author. “How much training he underwent is unknown, but in short order the seasoned mascot proved adept at finding and comforting wounded men. He, as with other rescue dogs, learned to bypass German soldiers in favor of Allied ones.”
Late in the war when Allied troops began taking large numbers of prisoners of war, Bausum says, “He acquired such a dislike of Germans – identifying them, reportedly, through a combination of smell and recognition of their foreign uniforms and speech – that eventually ‘it was found necessary to tie him up when batches of prisoners were being brought back (from the front), for fear that trouserless Germans would reach the prison pens.’ “
While Bausum notes that this vagabond dog’s historical record is full of contradicting ‘facts,’ with many embellishments and incorrect information coming in mainstream media, which the public devoured.
His fame at home is as grandiose as his versatility on the warfront. The celebrated owner and dog appear together at several theater events in the Northeast; Stubby becomes the unofficial mascot of the Carry on Club in Washington, D.C., and later the Georgetown University football team (where Conroy was studying law); and a regular in parades.
Stubby eventually succumbs in early 1926, nine years into his partnership with Conroy. His obituary appears in major newspapers nationwide. Because of both his and the nation’s affection for Stubby, Conroy contacts the Smithsonian Institution about having his remains mounted in a classic pose – “with his head cocked toward the right, glassy brown eyes focused on the horizon, supported by ‘the four paws which carried him over the heartlands of France.’ “
In the museum’s World War I section “The Price of Freedom” gallery is the mounted mascot, his scrapbook, harness, studded collar and medal-laden jacket – a testimonial to a man and his special dog.
Earthy, entertaining and well researched, “Stubby” stumbles occasionally with an overload of descriptive detail on the warfront, with Conroy and the dog a bit removed. The big picture, however, is a celebration of life that isn’t saccharine but simplistic.