Sea Dogs

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SAILORS HAVE BEEN TAKING DOGS TO SEA SINCE A PAIR OF canines shipped out with Noah. Nevertheless, the picture of the floppy-eared poodle, looking as jaunty and confident as the young submariners who surrounded her, surprised me. What was the dog’s name? I wondered. Why was it on a submarine? A scrawl on the back of the photo revealed only that this was the crew of the USS Whale after its return from its eighth war patrol in the Pacific.

The Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut, where I’m the director, has thousands of books, documents, and photographs about U.S. submarine operations but no file, I realized, about mascots. Were there dogs on board other submarines? If so, could we find enough information about them to perhaps mount an exhibit for the museum? For the next six months the curator, the archivist, and I kept a watch for pictures and stories of what we came to call sea dogs. Our finds were infrequent; once in a while we’d turn up a picture in a folder or a brief reference in a yellowed news clipping.

Then I published an appeal in Polaris , the monthly magazine of the Submarine Veterans of World War II. In poured letters with photographs, ID cards, service records, and newspaper stories. The replies showed that after nearly fifty years the veterans’ feelings for their pets remained strong. One wrote: “She was truly one of our crew, and we all loved her. She was a comfort. . . when we were in silent running and getting a good depth charging.” Another recalled: “Some chief from one of the seven hundred-odd ships in the anchorage (at Ulithi) decided to abscond with our dog, and I interceded and got a broken nose for my efforts. Hope Garbo appreciated it!” A third remembered: “Since I left the boat before Betty did, I cannot tell you of her final fate. May her soul rest in peace.”

From this correspondence I discovered that during World War II many United States submariners carried mascots with them in the Pacific. We did put together an exhibit called “Sea Dogs: Mascots of the Silent Service.” Still on display, it is as popular with the public as the mascots were with their crews and for the same reason: The dogs touched their hearts.

Submariners’ pets were usually small and of mixed breed. Crews acquired them through purchase and gift or in trade for a case or two of beer. One dog even dashed aboard a sub as the boat was getting under way. The dogs cheered and amused the men during their long war patrols. They helped relieve the tension and weariness of hours of silent running or nights of surface attacks. The men doted on their dogs. They fed them steak and bacon; they gave them ID cards and service records; they took them on liberty all over the Pacific, and more than one mascot acquired a taste for beer. Crews made their pets leashes and collars, complete with combat submarine insignia and service stars. Some dogs wore special coats emblazoned with their boat’s war record. At least one miscreant even went to captain’s mast.

Garbo was the perfect submarine mascot. A mongrel puppy so small she could be concealed in a white sailor’s hat, she came aboard the USS Gar (SS 206) in Hawaii about the time of the boat’s tenth war patrol. She and the crew took an immediate liking to each other, and she remained on board for the rest of the Gar ’s fifteen war patrols. The puppy made her home in the forward torpedo room. Whenever the sub got under way, Garbo stationed herself all the way forward on the bullnose and barked. Once each patrol she toured the Gar from stem to stern; as she arrived in each compartment, the crew there would come to attention. “She owned the boat and knew it,” recalled Motor Machinist Mate Second Class Jim Bunn.

Garbo earned the combat submarine insignia that she wore on her collar, along with a star for each successful patrol she made on the Gar . Under the heaviest depthcharge attacks, when the gauges were leaking, light bulbs breaking, and fires breaking out, Garbo remained as playful as ever. Bunn said, “She should have gotten a medal for keeping our spirits and morale up when we needed it most.” Anyone was welcome to pet her, but only the skipper, Lt. Cmdr. George Lautrup, Jr., and the cook, Red Balthorp, could pick her up. The skipper would put her on his shoulder and carry her up the ladder to the bridge at night for fresh air.

One night while the Gar was running on the surface during a war patrol in the Palau Islands, Garbo stepped off the cigarette deck and vanished into the darkness. The C.O. immediately began a dogoverboard search. With the boat making frantic circles in enemy waters, a lookout finally spotted the mascot below the bridge, safe on the main deck.

Between patrols Garbo stayed with the crew at their hotel in Pearl Harbor. She joined in the ship’s parties, and like some of her two-legged shipmates, she didn’t know her limit. After lapping up too much beer, she tended to blunder into furniture.