In the summer of 1917, a few months after the United States entered World War I, the men of Connecticut’s 102nd Infantry Regiment, 26th division, were training on Yale Field in New Haven. During the drills and exercises, a dock-tailed puppy wandered onto the field and took a liking to one soldier in particular, Robert Conroy of New Britain.
Conroy named his newfound friend Stubby, after the pup’s stubby tail. Conroy became so attached to Stubby that when the 102nd shipped out to Europe a few weeks later, he smuggled the pup onto the troop ship, concealing him in a long field coat and hiding him in the coal hold. Thus, a legend was born.
On April 13, a movie opens nationwide about Conroy and his pet. “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” an animated adventure, tells the story of the plucky mixed-breed who became the most decorated dog in American military history. Logan Lerman voices Conroy and Helena Bonham-Carter narrates the story in the voice of Conroy’s sister, Margaret O’Brien.
On April 8, from 3 to 6 p.m., a street fair will be held in Stubby’s honor on Temple Street between Crown and George streets in New Haven. The fair will feature a World War I-era ambulance, a 1916 Model T Ford, a 1914 French Renault tank, historical re-enactors, National Guard working dogs doing demonstrations and modern military equipment.
The Connecticut State Library worked with the filmmakers for about a year to do research on Stubby’s life. “We showed them photos and documentation to help them with the animation,” says Christine Pittsley, the project director of all World War I commemorations for the library who is organizing the street fair.
The plot is fictionalized but is based on real incidents in Stubby’s military career. The most prominent embellishment is Stubby’s rank; the real Stubby was never made a sergeant. The three lead characters — Stubby, Conroy and O’Brien — are real. The first 20 minutes of the movie takes place in New Haven and the rest on the ship and the battlefields and camps. There’s also a flash of a front page of The Hartford Courant.
Curt Deane of Lyme is the grandson of Robert Conroy. He said he has known all his life that his grandfather’s dog, who died in 1926, was special. “In 1963 one day he took me to the Smithsonian to see Stubby. He was not on display. He was back in the storeroom,” says Deane.
Deane was referring to the remains of Stubby, which were preserved in an odd way: Stubby’s body was cast in plaster and his real fur was fitted around the cast, which held the dog’s cremated remains.
“My grandfather was so attached to [the remains]. He had a little wheeled cart to take it around,” Deane says.
Deane says Conroy violated rules by bringing Stubby to France, but he was forgiven.
“My grandfather taught him how to salute. He was found out by a senior officer, but he got out of [trouble] by saluting,” Deane says. “Also, he was a puppy, so he was lovable. My grandfather didn’t know what he was getting into, so it was great having him on board.”
In 18 months on the battlefields, Stubby’s keen canine hearing helped the soldiers. He could hear missile shells coming before the men could and he could differentiate among the voices of Americans, Germans and Frenchmen. “He bit a German solider in the fanny and held on until American forces could take him away,” Deane says.
He also helped on battlefields after the shooting stopped, by finding surviving soldiers and standing by them until medics could arrive. When Conroy himself was injured, Stubby came with him to the field hospital. “He was the original therapy dog,” Deane says. Stubby killed rats in the trenches as well.
Stubby was injured in a gas attack, like many soldiers. But he took from it the knowledge of what gas smelled like.
“He knew gas was bad. When he smelled gas he would run up and down warning about gas,” Deane says. Stubby even had his own little gas mask.
The women of the town of Chateau-Thierry sewed Stubby a little jacket, which was filled with medals.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of those medals are medals my grandfather won,” Deane says. “But he was very self-effacing. He never talked about himself. He always talked about Stubby.”
In Stubby’s Footsteps
The day after the film is released, Pittsley will travel to France with a plush doll of Stubby, to follow in the footsteps of the 102nd and take photos of “Stubby” at various places on the route. She will post the photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Among the places Pittsley plans to visit are Seicheprey, where 81 Connecticut men died, 400 were injured and 150 were captured on April 20, 1918; and Saint Mihiel Cemetery, where some Connecticut men are buried.
Pittsley is doing the tour to draw attention to Connecticut’s role in the war and to shine a light on a campaign to pay for a statue of Stubby. The statue will be unveiled May 26 at Veterans Memorial Park in Middletown. The U.S. War Dog Association has promised a $30,000 matching grant if $30,000 is independently raised, Deane says.
A memorial to Stubby also stands on the Connecticut National Guard training grounds in Newtown.