war hero? What are the personal qualities that transcend an ordinary individual into someone who does something that other people find particularly brave or extraordinary?
In the movies and novels these individuals are pictured as charismatic rebels who overcome all the odds to excel but researchers who have actually studied real life heroes have found the heroes are not all cut from the same cloth. They are not all charismatic macho types. They have found that quiet, reserved types can also fit the mold and become heroes. One of the researchers, Brian Wansink of Cornell University, said of heroes, “We often think of the gung-ho, John Wayne ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ kind of hero driven to combat, but there’s a whole lot these heroes that are much more along the lines of that Captain Miller character Tom Hanks played in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — the reluctant high school English teacher (Ittersum).”
The study cited above used a methodology that included the interviewing several hundred veterans of the Second World War. All of these veterans had one thing in common: they were all men who had served in the military during the war. The study’s findings were interesting and provide valuable insights into what goes into making a hero but the question must be asked whether the study was complete and whether from time to time there are unique, non-human factors that can also create a hero. Take, for example, the story of a World War I hero that does not fit into the various molds suggested by the Cornell University study. This hero, different than all the rest, is Sergeant Stubby, a Staffordshire Terrier, owned by Private J. Robert Conroy who was the only dog ever promoted to sergeant (Lemish).
Private Conroy had already enlisted in the service and busy training to be sent overseas when he came across a young brindled puppy. Conroy took an immediate liking to the young pup and quickly took under his care. Naming him “Stubby” Conroy began taking Stubby with him to his training sessions where the young dog was eventually adopted by Conroy’s unit, the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division, as their mascot. As Conroy’s battle training continued so did the training of Stubby. Displaying a remarkable ability to be trained, Stubby soon learned the unit’s various bugle calls, the drills, and even adapted a modified form of salute in which he placed his right paw on his right eyebrow. Despite regulations banning the presence of dogs on the base, Conroy’s commanding officer made an exception for Stubby and allowed him to remain.
Conroy’s deployment to Europe presented him with a serious problem. Not having anyone to leave Stubby with Conroy made the decision to smuggle Stubby on the convoy ship. Hiding Stubby in a coal bin until the ship was well on its way toward France Stubby once again charmed the soldiers and sailors aboard ship. One soldier actually designed and constructed a set of dog tags for Stubby. On arrival in France Conroy was again faced with a problem: what to do with Stubby now that he was being assigned to a battle unit. Conroy was again successful in convincing his commander to allow Stubby to stay on base and, in fact, was even able to procure special orders that allowed Stubby to made a special member of the 102nd Infantry unit and to accompany Conroy to the front lines with his battle unit.
Stubby quickly adapted to the sounds and fury of the front lines but was to soon suffer his first battle injury when he was exposed to gas. After recovering in a field hospital Stubby returned to the front lines where, having developed sensitivity to gas, he was used to detect gas and was even credited with saving his unit when they came under a gas attack early in the morning when they were asleep. Stubby, recognizing the gas ran through the trenches occupied by his unit awakening everyone. Another unique talent possessed by Stubby was his ability to locate wounded soldiers. Relying upon his sensitive hearing Stubby would wander from trench to trench in the area known as “No man’s land” and listen for the sounds that he recognized as the wounded. This area was considered extremely dangerous as it was situated near the German occupied lines and soldiers left here were susceptible to being spotted and killed. Stubby would listen for the sounds of injured men and then lead the medical personnel back to where the wounded were located. The men in Stubby’s unit recognized his value to their effort and he quickly became widely respected and loved.
One of the more remarkable stories surrounding Stubby was his capture of a German spy. According to the story, Stubby somehow came upon a German soldier busy mapping out the layout of the Allied forces’ trenches. The soldier made the mistake of speaking to Stubby in German which Stubby did not understand. Startled by the unusual sounds, Stubby began to bark and when the German soldier began to run Stubby grabbed the soldier on the leg and held on while the soldier fell. Stubby managed to contain the soldier until help arrived and the German soldier was taken into custody. For this remarkable act of bravery Stubby was commended by his unit’s commanding officer and was approved for a promotion to sergeant. Stubby was the first and only dog to have ever been afforded such honor.
Stubby’s exposure to gas was not his last battle injury. Later in the War he was also injured during a grenade attack. As a result of this attack Stubby suffered serious injuries to his leg and chest and lost a considerable amount of blood. This time Stubby required surgery that could not be performed in the field hospital. He was transferred to a Red Cross hospital where the surgery was performed and he was allowed the opportunity to rehabilitate. During his rehabilitation, Stubby was utilized to entertain the soldiers who were also rehabilitating in effort to lift their spirits. Following his rehabilitation Stubby returned to the front lines where during the course of the War he saw action in 17 different battles.
Following the War Stubby returned home a hero and marched in, and often led, many victory parades throughout the country. He became the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper articles, attended several American Legion conventions, and was awarded with a lifetime membership to the YMCA. The American Red Cross utilized him on several occasions as a mascot and fund raiser as did the Victory Bond organization as well. Stubby even appeared for a brief time with “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford in a vaudeville act. He had occasion to visit not only President Woodrow Wilson while Wilson was in Europe but also visited with Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge at the White House. While visiting President Wilson, Stubby is credited with reportedly displaying his patented salute. For his service Stubby received many medals and honors in recognition of his heroism. One such award was given to him from the Humane Society. Stubby had the distinction of receiving this medal from General John Pershing, the Commanding General of the United States Army.
Throughout the War, Stubby remained in the custody of his master, J. Robert Conroy. Conroy escaped the War uninjured and shortly after the War began studying law at Georgetown University where Stubby again charmed everyone and became the mascot of the University’s sports team. As mascot, Stubby’s primary duty was to nudge the football around the field to the amusement of the Georgetown fans. Stubby died in 1926 with Conroy by his side. An obituary detailing his life and accomplishments was featured in newspapers throughout the country and a children’s book was written by Richard and Sally Glendinning, entitled Stubby: Brave Soldier Dog (Glendinning) in which Stubby’s life was immortalized. His stuffed remains were place on display in the Smithsonian Institute in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit. Stubby was also honored by having a brick placed with his name on it in the Walk of Honor at the United States World War I monument in Kansas City. Today, Stubby appears as part of a web page on the Connecticut Military Department website.
The exploits of regular members of our armed services are well documented. Their accomplishments deserve recognition but the accomplishments of Sergeant Stubby are also remarkable and deserving of recognition. Stubby’s efforts have led the armed services to decide to use dogs for a variety of other purposes that have led to increased safety for military members and as morale boosts for soldiers in the field.
As the Cornell University study detailed heroes come from all walks of life and are not characterized by any particular personality traits. Stubby’s personality type was never considered by the researchers but there is no doubt that he was a true hero.
Glendinning, Richard. Stubby, Brave Soldier Dog. Bel Air, CA: Garrard Publishing Co., 1978.
Lemish, Michael G. War Dogs: A History of Loyalty and Heroism. Herndon, VA: Potomac Books, 1999.
Wansink, Brian and Colin Payne and Koert van Ittersum . “Profiling the Heroic Leader: Empirical Lessons from Combat-Decorated Veterans of World War II.” Leadership Quarterly (2008): 547-555.
Biography of someone who served in WWI
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