Salt In His Bones
As an acting mascot that saw action in World War II, Sinbad is the saltiest dog you’ve never heard of.
As a writer, I trade in tales. Stories are my currency, and hidden gems can be found in the strangest of places. So you can imagine my surprise and excitement when the story of Sinbad—an outsized, four-legged character hovering on the edge of obscurity—came across my desk. Sinbad wasn’t the hero of an epic poem—heck, he wasn’t even human. Sinbad was a misbegotten hound, though his exploits are legend. Dog years aside, he packed more experiences into his 13 years than most people who live six times as long. I don’t think it’s a longshot to call him the saltiest dog of all time. And the saltiest dog of all time was, until now, in danger of being forgotten.
In 1951, Sinbad was laid to rest at the Coast Guard’s Barnegat Light station in New Jersey. While the lighthouse was eventually decommissioned, a granite monument at the base of the station’s flagpole remains, commemorating the decorated mutt, whom the Boston Daily Globe described as “rough, tough and rowdy,” a combination of “liberty-rum-chow hound, with a bit of bulldog, Doberman pinscher and whatnot—mostly whatnot.” I grew up 100 miles away, but had never heard of him or his seaborne adventures. How was that possible? It turns out a book, Sinbad of the Coast Guard, was written by the Chief of the Coast Guard’s press bureau, George R. Foley Jr., in 1946. And if you Google “Sinbad,” you’ll find he has his own Wikipedia page, which comes close to the truth but flat-out misses it in some respects.
My sleuthing led me to Mike Walling, an author and historian who wrote the introduction to the newest edition of Sinbad of the Coast Guard in 2005. Like Sinbad, Walling was a fellow Coastie, serving six years as a commissioned officer and chief petty officer. I told Walling I was suspicious: The stories I’d came across on the web seemed a little too surreal to be believed. Not only was this dog a commissioned sailor, but he would go on shore leave unsupervised. And when he did, he frequented the bars and left inebriated with the saltiest of his kind. Fat chance, right?
In Boston “he had a bowl at every bar in Scollay’s Square,” said Walling. “He liked boilermakers, and he knew the bus routes to get to the beer gardens. He was a bloody alcoholic!” My interest thoroughly piqued, I had to know more. By any chance, did he have the contact info of any of the sailors that served with this booze hound? A couple days later, Walling wrote back: “To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t anyone alive who has info about Sinbad. As you found, the online material is inconsistent and mostly wrong.”
Walling knows this because he was acquaintances with some of the guys who served with Sinbad, including one who helped smuggle him aboard a 327-foot cutter named in honor of George Washington Campbell. As the story goes, on a winter night in 1937, Ed Maillard and his friend “Blackie” Rother returned from shore leave to the Campbell docked in Staten Island, New York. In their possession was a small gym bag. Quietly, the two men made their way down to the berthing area, trying not to attract any unwanted attention, because inside was a furry stowaway. Originally, Blackie had intended for the puppy to be a gift for his girlfriend, but after learning her apartment complex forbid pets, he was in a bind. The next morning, barking alerted the crew to their new shipmate, whom they named after a character from a Middle Eastern folk tale.
Whether a byproduct of nature, nurture or luck—or a combination of all three—Sinbad the Sailor didn’t take long to acclimate to this new life at sea. His favorite trick was balancing a metal washer on his nose then flipping it in the air and catching it in his mouth. He could raise up on his hind legs, standing at attention like the rest of the enlisted men. Perhaps most improbable of all, he would go up and down the Campbell’s ladders with ease. But he was still a dog. Though unable to bury things while at sea, he would satisfy his preservation instinct by hiding items in obscure places on the ship. And the crew loved him. Sinbad was given full merits of a Campbell crew member, including his own service number, medical history, uniforms, battle station and bunk. Sinbad had also found his way into one of the most important roles on the ship: mascot.
“Like all mascots, Sinbad has helped to lighten the strain of life at sea,” wrote Coast Guard Admiral Russell R. Waesche. Nowadays, we may scoff at the idea of therapy dogs, after seeing one too many Pomeranians parked on their own seat in first class. But the scrappy Sinbad earned the title. As such, he should be considered one of the first true therapy dogs: an invaluable presence in terms of the morale boost he provided. “Throughout the centuries, many ships have had mascots—cats, dogs, monkeys, parrots—and during World War II there were a profusion of them,” wrote Walling. “Many were adopted as part of the ship’s crew, but none ever achieved the stature of Sinbad.” His antics and personality were remembered fondly by the Campbell crew, a wartime complement of 16 officers, five warrant officers, 202 enlisted men and one very good boy.
In one notable skirmish, the Campbell, as part of a convoy, came under fire from a wolfpack of German U-boats. It turned into a 12-hour duel, culminating in the Campbell ramming one of the subs. The offensive maneuver would prove to be the sub’s undoing, but it also created a gaping hole in the ship’s bow. As the Campbell was being towed back to port, a majority of the crew was transferred to another ship to lighten the load. Only a skeleton crew, overseen by Commander Jimmy Hirshfield, remained. After watching Sinbad on deck throughout the surprise attack, undeterred by the gunfire and barking passionately at their oppressors, Hirshfield was thoroughly impressed. He decided to keep him on board as an ‘essential’ member because he believed, like the rest of the men, that nothing bad could happen as long as Sinbad was there. And they were right. The Campbell made it safely back to port. Afterward, newspapers ran stories with headlines like: “HERO DOG BRINGS BACK CUTTER,” “MASCOT MUTT HELPS LICK SEA WOLF PACK,” “CUTTER SKIPPER PRAISES HIS MASCOT.” With their four-legged talisman aboard, the Campbell survived countless attacks and fierce storms during the prolonged Battle of the Atlantic, which has been called the “longest, largest and most complex” naval battle in history.
While he served aboard the Campbell during World War II, Sinbad’s fame grew. Every time the ship was docked in Northern Ireland, invariably a notice would appear in the society columns of local papers. Life magazine profiled him. Although he was an honorable addition to the crew, Sinbad did flout the rules on occasion, which landed him in trouble with the top brass. He caused an “international incident” in Greenland by terrorizing the sheep of indigenous farmers, and was forever banned from setting paw on the country’s soil again. (Legend has it that none other than President Roosevelt gave the order.) There was a kerfuffle over a soiled rug in Casablanca. There was also the time, in the midst of escorting another convoy, when a massive explosion rocked the Campbell. All hands appeared on deck. There, the crew found a sheepish Sinbad. His attitude betrayed the truth: The bored pup had grabbed a lanyard with his teeth, firing off a depth charge!
“Sinbad was a salty sailor, but he’s not a good sailor. He’ll never rate gold hashmarks nor good conduct medals. He’s been on report several times, and he’s raised hell in a number of ports. On a few occasions, he has embarrassed the United States government by creating disturbances in foreign zones,” wrote Eddie Lloyd, editor of the old Coast Guard magazine. “Perhaps that’s why Coast Guardsmen love Sinbad—he’s as bad as the worst and as good as the best of us.”
Though he was busted in rank a few times for insubordination, Sinbad was an integral part of the Campbell. So much so that when the famed historian Samuel Eliot Morison had a coat of arms designed for the ship, Sinbad was placed on top as a crest. It’s there that he remained, even in his old age, after retiring from the Coast Guard on September 21, 1948. As opposed to his wartime acts of service, retired life was easy on this old sea dog; he lived at the Barnegat Coast Guard Station in New Jersey until his death on December 30, 1951. After his passing, he was honored with a full military funeral and was placed to rest at the foot of the flag pole, his grave marked by a bronze plaque. He had earned the rank of Chief Dog and amassed a slew of medals, friends and fans who would line up around the block to buy a book stamped with his paw print. He was beloved by an international cohort of high-ranking officers and thousands of sailors, bartenders and waterfront characters he met at his favorite watering holes.
Until his dying day, Sinbad would take a short walk from the station to a nearby bar in Barnegat, where he would furiously scratch at the door until let in. Once inside, he’d jump up on his favorite barstool and enjoy his signature drink, a boilermaker—one part beer, one part whiskey. The bartender never kept a tab. “He drank coffee. He ate ice cream. He lived 13 years and had a lifestyle that would’ve killed most people,” said Walling. Though I don’t recommend that diet for anyone’s dog, Sinbad was a sailor through and through. The Campbell was decommissioned in 1982, but his memory lives on aboard a newly built vessel with the same name. It’s there, on the mess deck of the new Campbell, where the original crew placed a statue of Sinbad, and where it remains to this day—surely arousing bemused expressions from the uninitiated.
But not you. In his introduction, Walling said it best: “Now, my new friend, you are part of the crew whose duty it is to help keep Sinbad’s memory alive forever.” That’s a statement normally reserved for our fallen heroes. But I hope you’ll agree, the saltiest dog of all time is worthy of remembrance. He inspired the best of us, even if he walked on four legs instead of two.