Canine military heroes
Sep 2, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
During these difficult times, I’ve been so happy to read about the increase in dog adoptions. Receiving unconditional love from a pup is one of life’s great treasures and I’m thrilled more people are experiencing this. I certainly know that my two pooches help me tremendously each day. Being greeted by a wagging tail and a slobbery kiss helps you keep things in perspective. For generations, dogs have lived up to the nickname of “man’s best friend” and science is just now beginning to understand the depth of this bond. Modern studies have shown that dogs can detect cancer and prevent seizures. For years dogs have provided vital support for the visually impaired and assisted people who use a wheelchair. There are also working dogs who serve valiantly on the front lines – whether that be in police departments, airports, or on the battleground itself. Given that international dog day was August 26th, I thought it only fitting to get to know some vintage canine military heroes. I hope you’re snuggling up with your four-legged friend for this article – I know I will be!
World War One was known as the Great War. The years from 1914 to 1918 saw tragedy on an unprecedented scale. If there was ever a time for a hero, this was it. That takes us to the Summer of 1917, when the 102nd Infantry was training for an overseas mission. The Connecticut crew (numbering over 3,000) was using the Yale University campus as a makeshift home base. One day the men noticed a visitor, not realizing they were in the presence of a future hero! A scrappy bull terrier had decided he should shadow their training, in particular the comings and goings of one Corporal James Robert Conroy. Given the name Stubby, the pup was soon top dog on campus. The drills continued on, with Stubby by their side, until the men received their orders – they were headed to the heart of the conflict in France. By this time Stubby had become a beloved member of the group and no one had the heart to leave their pal behind. The soldiers smuggled this precious cargo onto the ship and set sail across the Atlantic. Stubby was eventually discovered by a commanding officer, but his natural cuteness got him out of that jam. As a member of the Infantry he was ready to step forth into the fray with his humans.
Stubby served in the trenches for a year and a half. He was involved in nearly twenty battles during this period. The winter of 1918 was the most intense stretch of his military service. The deceptively named Chemin des Dames (the ladies’ path) was under a constant barrage of bullets for thirty days and thirty nights. The sounds alone had to be deafening. But Stubby kept his wits about him and was a comfort to his fellow soldiers. A couple months later he was participating in a raid when he was injured by a hand grenade. Stubby would recover from his wounds and reported for another tour of duty on the front line. But this brought new dangers because the Germans had weaponized mustard gas. Although not typically lethal, it was debilitating and scarred anyone it came in contact with. Stubby was not immune from this kind of attack and after suffering injuries from mustard gas, the military fashioned a special gas mask for him. Being the good boy he was, he used this experience to his advantage. Stubby memorized the scent of the gas and would warn his fellow soldiers before an attack was carried out. Stubby also helped after a battle ceased, locating wounded soldiers and participating in rescue missions. His advanced sense of hearing also meant Stubby was first to alert the crew of incoming bullets.
While Stubby’s bravery knew no bounds, my favorite tale of his valor is when he captured a German spy all on his own. Rumor has it he kept the man from running away by biting him in the britches! This act of solitary gallantry was noticed by the top brass who promoted this Connecticut pup to Sergeant (the very first canine to receive a rank). The pride of his unit, a special coat was made for Stubby and soon his growing collection of glistening medals were pinned to the fabric. Stubby would suffer one more injury before the war was over, but he licked his wounds and under the careful eye of his human Corporal Conroy, he was soon being smuggled back to familiar shores. Stubby’s homecoming was quite the affair. He would go on to meet presidents and become the mascot for Georgetown (while Conroy was finishing up his law degree). He passed away in his sleep and was honored by a prominent obituary in the New York Times.
Stubby’s courageous service paved the way for the Dogs for Defense program, an American military initiative started during World War Two. Civilians from coast-to-coast would volunteer their brave pups for service. These dogs were enlisted to patrol borders and keep watch over key military facilities. In New York, the Wren family was prepared to answer the call, signing up their dear Chips for service. Chips showed immediate promise once sentry training commenced. The smart Shepherd/Husky mix sailed through his certification program and, just like his predecessor Stubby, was soon on his way to Europe. Chips served in Italy, France, Germany – even North Africa. His keen sense of smell and hearing made him a natural sentry. In 1943 he even helped guard two towering historic figures: FDR and Churchill during the Casablanca Conference. But his time served in Sicily was perhaps his most heroic. Chips and his fellow soldiers found themselves trapped by enemy machine gun fire. It was an impossible situation and just as it was looking hopeless, Chips sprang to action. He charged the enemy bunker and attacked the four gunners. Later that night, thinking the worst was behind them, Chips once again took his post to stand guard. He heard an ambush coming and, by alerting his humans, they were able to capture all ten soldiers. Chips’ valor is especially incredible when you consider that he sustained injuries from the morning’s bunker attack. Wounds and burns aside, Chips was determined to keep his humans safe and that dedication is inspirational!
The war ended, and like Stubby, Chips came home to New York. It warms my heart that these two very good boys got to come home and enjoy time with their families, away from the front line. But these two boys weren’t alone, there’s one more pint-sized hero to meet: Smoky. Smoky was four pounds of determination. A Yorkshire Terrier, she was discovered in an abandoned fox hole in New Guinea. No one knows for sure how Smoky first arrived at the foxhole (although Bob Hope may play a role!) , but she was soon adopted by Corporal William Wynne. Smoky became his constant companion and served alongside him (usually tucked in his knapsack) during combat missions, photo reconnaissance trips, and air/sea rescues. Smoky even parachuted into locations! She served as a therapy dog and warned the soldiers of incoming shells. But one of Smoky’s bravest acts came by single-pawedly restoring a downed communication system by running wire through a culvert. When the war ended, she was smuggled home in Wynne’s oxygen mask. Smoky continued to bring joy to those around her for many years, proving that incredible things come in small packages. As a dog lover, I believe every pup has a hero inside of him or her and I hope these vintage icons inspire you to give your pupper an extra scratch behind the ears!