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Sea Dogs

June 2024
6min read

They padded aboard submarines and proved themselves steadfast in boredom and in battle. During the worst of war these canine mascots brought their shipmates some of the comfort of home.

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.

Garbo gave birth to two pups while the sub was en route to Ulithi; the father belonged to the USS Tambor (SS 198). The Gar ’s crew traded the pups to other submarines for cases of beer. At the end of the war, when the Gar returned to the States, Chief Motor Machinist Mate Jim Ellis took Garbo home with him.

Skeeter’s second trip to mast came when he mistook a chief petty officer’s leg for a fire hydrant.

Sugie joined the crew of the USS Besugo (SS 321) when he was six weeks old. At the sub’s commissioning party in June 1944, the puppy, wearing a custom-made sailor’s blue jumper, looked on from the arms of the exec.

Sugie made the shakedown cruise and all five war patrols during which the Besugo sank more than forty thousand tons of enemy shipping. He liked beer and whiskey, disdained gilly (a vile beverage distilled from the alcohol in torpedo fuel), and would, in a pinch, drink a pink lady. Submarine food suited him fine, and he especially enjoyed sitting in a chair while the crew spoon-fed him. His appetite didn’t stop there: he chewed gum (and swallowed it), he would eat soap if someone didn’t keep an eye on him, and he liked to chew up socks whenever he could, especially the skipper’s.

Skeeter, mascot of the USS Halibut (SS 232), was a swashbuckler too. The crew acquired him in Lefty’s bar in San Francisco while the sub was undergoing overhaul in 1944. During his tour on the Halibut , Skeeter appeared at captain’s mast twice, perhaps a canine record. He was first charged with disturbing the peace in the forward battery compartment and with being surly and belligerent. Cmdr. I. J. Galantin, the Halibut ’s C.O., dismissed the case with a warning. Skeeter’s second trip to mast came when he mistook a chief petty officer’s leg for a fire hydrant. But the dog eventually received an honorable discharge and was mustered out of the Navy in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in July 1945.

Others were not so fortunate. Potshot survived three war cruises aboard the USS Hoe (SS 258) only to be run over and killed by a torpedo truck during a routine stop at Pearl Harbor. Myrna, the mascot of the USS Sawfish (SS 276), another casualty of war, was one of a litter of six pups born to Luau, the mascot of the USS Spadefish (SS 411). Myrna still wasn’t weaned when her crew smuggled her aboard the Sawfish ; the corpsman fed her a formula of milk, Karo syrup, cod-liver oil, and vitamin pills. At the end of the Sawfish ’s ninth war patrol, the sub went to Camp Dealy on Guam for rest and recreation. Myrna was sleeping under a table on which several sailors were sitting; when another man joined them, the table collapsed, crushing their mascot. The accident left the crew depressed for weeks.

Myrna’s mother, Luau, was a plank owner on the Spadefish , having come aboard in February 1944, lured from the landlubber’s life by a large, tender steak after the crew discovered her in a Vallejo, California, bar. She distinguished herself in the service. When writing up the Spadefish ’s first war patrol, Lt. Cmdr. G. W. Underwood noted that Luau “contributed greatly to the morale with her ready playfulness with all hands. She was a bit perturbed by the depth charges, but soon recovered with only a slight case of depth charge nerves.”

If Hollywood had dreamed up a sea dog, it would have been Betty, a white toy poodle who was the mascot of the USS Whale (SS 239). She came aboard in Honolulu in September 1943, prevailing over the protests of the Whale ’s executive officer by licking the captain’s hand. She was then designated Dog First Class, issued service and medical records, and given the run of the ship. She avoided the noisy engine rooms and hid in the control room during gunnery practice.

The men liked to take their dog on liberty in Pearl Harbor because, as Lt. Emmett Fowler, Jr., recalled, Betty was a “girl getter”; it didn’t take long for the poodle’s escorts to strike up conversations with their mascot’s attractive admirers.

The weather was bad at Midway when the Whale returned from one patrol, and the port captain ordered the sub to remain outside the harbor till conditions improved. Unwilling to linger where his vessel might become a target for Japanese submarines, the C.O. entered port anyway. The irate port captain met the sub at the pier and yelled at the C.O. while the Whale was going alongside, then came aboard and continued to argue. Tiring of the stream of abuse, Betty slashed an eight-inch rip in the port captain’s pants leg. A subsequent admiral’s inquiry in Pearl Harbor exonerated the Whale ’s C.O. Betty had only been defending her crew. The port captain was relieved of his duties.

Victory and the end of the war meant the breaking up of most submarine crews. Garbo, Skeeter, Betty, and other dogs went home with crew members. Porches, lawns, and the occasional cat replaced steel hulls, tile decks, and depth charges. Gabby, mascot of the USS Gabilan (SS 252), proudly represented all submarine sea dogs when he marched with his crew in a welcome-home victory parade in Mobile, Alabama, in October 1945.


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