On July 6, 1921, a curious gathering took place at the State, War, and Navy Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The occasion was a ceremony honoring veterans of the 102nd Infantry of the American Expeditionary Forces’ 26th “Yankee” Division, who had seen action in France during the Great War. The hall was packed with dozens of members of the 102nd — field clerks, infantrymen, generals — but one soldier in particular commanded the spotlight. The attention seemed to bother him; The New York Times reported that the soldier was “a trifle gun shy, and showed some symptoms of nervous excitement.” When photographers snapped his picture, he flinched.
The ceremony was presided over by Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces in Europe during the war. Pershing made a short speech, noting the soldier’s “heroism of highest caliber” and “bravery under fire.” The general solemnly lifted an engraved solid gold medal from its case and pinned it to the hero’s uniform. In response, the Times reported, the solider “licked his chops and wagged his diminutive tail.”
Sergeant Stubby, a short brindle bull terrier mutt, was officially a decorated hero of World War I. The award was not a formal U.S. military commendation, but it symbolically confirmed Stubby, who’d also earned one wound stripe and three service stripes, as the greatest war dog in the nation’s history. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, he was the first dog ever given rank in the U.S. Army. His glory was even hailed in France, which also presented him with a medal.
Millions of Americans heard tales of Stubby’s courage. He had reportedly comforted wounded warriors on bullet-strafed battlefields. It was said he could sniff out poison gas, barking warnings to doughboys in the trenches. He even captured a German soldier. These exploits made the dog nothing less than a celebrity. He met three sitting presidents, traveled the nation to veterans’ commemorations, and performed in vaudeville shows, earning $62.50 for three days of theatrical appearances, more than twice the weekly salary of the average American. For nearly a decade after the war until his death in 1926, Stubby was the most famous animal in the United States.