You may have heard of military dogs, but cats have also made significant contributions to wartime efforts. Felines have sailed with the navy on military expeditions, kept rats and mice away from soldier and food supplies in the trenches in WWI and were trained in espionage efforts during the Cold War. Cats are valuable in helping veterans deal with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder and are comfortable companions for those who have served their country.
Military cats have traditionally been involved in the navy. Cats and sailors go back a long way because, in medieval times when Europeans suspected cats of involvement with witches and persecuted them, sailors were the one sector of society that valued felines and often had them on board ships. It makes sense, then, that cats would lend their services to the Navy and played a significant role during the First and Second world wars. Their main contribution was in their battles against mice, rats and other vermin that would attack the food supply. One reason sailors value cats is that once rats and mice venture onto a ship, they stay there, breed and afflict the sailors and their food stores. Therefore, cats became not only useful but essential for sailors throughout the centuries.
Some cats went beyond simply catching mice and rats but actually showed courage on the battlefields. One cat was Crimean Tom who in 1854, when the British and the French armies surrounded the port town of Sevastopol in Russia, directed the starving troops to food that was hidden underneath the rubble. The soldiers were so grateful to Tom for saving their lives that he became a mascot for the army.
Black cats are considered by many to be unlucky even to this day when people are no longer hunting for witches and have ditched other ancient superstitions. However, the English were traditionally not entirely upset over the sight of a black cat, but the tradition held that if a black cat approached someone, it was bringing good luck, and if it was walking away, it was taking good fortune along with it. Sailors have never been bothered by black cats, and it is appropriate that a Royal Navy captain had a black cat named Tiddles who was his constant companion. Tiddles was traveled over 30,000 miles on the HMS Victorious during the Second World War.
Tiddles wasn’t the only Royal Navy cat. In 1948 on the HS Amethyst, Able Seacat Simon was the most celebrated ratter in the Royal Navy. He was discovered in the spring of 1948 on a Naval shipyard on Stonecutters Island in Hong Kong. George Hickinbottom who served in the Royal Navy noticed the half- starved trying to make its way around the shipyard. The HMS Amethyst was designed to protect British seamen as a war raged between the Communists Chinese and the Republic of China.
Hickinbottom adopted the cat who was well received by the crew because they were worried about the abundance of mice and rats threatening their food supply. Rats could easily crawl into the ship through the ropes while it was docked and mice burrowed in holes in the walls and spread diseases. Not only were sea cats valued for their ability to eliminate vermin, but sailors have long believed that cats have the ability to detect the weather. Traditionally, sailors have believed that if a cat licks its fur, hail is imminent. Running and jumping around is a harbinger of windy weather and chronic sneezing is a sign of rain.
The foundling cat was named Simon and showed his gratitude for being allowed to join the ship’s crew by leaving small gifts of dead mice and rats for the seamen as they slept. Simon was a black cat with a white front and white paws. While some cats dislike going near water, and a greater degree, ice, Simon entertained the crew by scooping up ice cubes from a glass. Bernard Skinner, who was a lieutenant commander of the ship was so fond of Simon that he kept him in his quarters as a companion during the daytime. Simon also became fast friends with, Peggy, who was the ship’s dog.
Simon was loved by the crew of the HMS Amethyst not only for his services as an efficient ratter but because his pranks and his calming presence relieved the stress and anxiety created by the imminence of a Chinese attack. Once when the HMS Amethyst was making its way up the Yangtze River, the People’s Liberation Army began to fire on the British ship. The attack eased up but it began again and developed into a full three-hour assault. Simon’s beloved Capt. Bernard Skinner was one of the casualties in the attack. Some of the men who controlled the wheel were also shot by the Chinese. The electricity was lost and the ship went out of control. A total of 25 crew members of the HMS Amethyst were killed on that day. Amid the tumult, some crewmen tried to find Simon, but he was nowhere to be found. Some assumed that he had been killed in the attack. Eight days later, Simon emerged with shrapnel wounds on his face with his whiskers and eyebrows burnt off. Simon received some medical attention but he took his recovery into his own paws by managing to remove all the traces of shrapnel by grooming himself for almost a solid week.
When he emerged, Simon’s back legs were soaked in blood and he appeared nervous and dehydrated. When a veterinarian sewed up his wounds, there were many attempts to get Simon to stay in one place and relax, but he decided that his duties had only begun. Because of damage was done to the boilers and the fans during the attack, vermin found a home in the ventilation system. They were also eating the food and invading the crew members’ quarters. Seamen began to dislike and dread the rats even more than the enemy. Simon undertook the awesome effort of ridding the ship of most of its mice and rats. However, there was one big rat that gave the ship substantial problems and seemed indestructible. The crew nicknamed this problematic rat Mao Tse Tung. Simon pounced on Mao Tse Tung and presented the evidence in a man’s boots. It was that incident that Simon earned the nickname Able Seacat Simon.
Even though Simon was unquestionably a hero, he did encounter a crewmember who was a chronic cat hater. John Kerans, who arrived on the ship from Nanking as the Lieutenant Commander. A friendly cat by nature, Simon did not give up trying to win Kerans over and was puzzled that the Lieutenant didn’t even respond with gratitude for the dead mice and rats he left at his door. Kerans fell ill and didn’t resist the cat’s nurturing, but allowed him to cuddle up with him. Simon was able to win over even the most committed cat hater.
Part of Simon’s heroism was his ability to raise the crew’s morale in the darkest situations. The HMS Amethyst was stranded for months after the bombing and the situation seemed hopeless. Kerans managed to repair the ship and make a 104-mile journey to safety. The Amethyst met with a rescue ship that brought it to safety. The long, trying Yangtze Incident was over.
King George VI sent a message that the crew should be honored with a round of drinks and Simon should be given an Amethyst campaign ribbon. The brave cat would receive other rewards. At the ceremony, his bravery was praised as well as and a list of his confirmed kills (of mice and rats) was read. When Simon returned to England, the press competed to get photographs of him. Fans sent him letters and flowers. Like all animals returning from sea voyages, Simon had to spend months in quarantine, but he had visitors every day. Commander Kerens, who had once disliked him, was considering adopting Simon, who was going to be given a Dickin medal. Unfortunately, Simon developed in infection of his intestine while in quarantine and passed away two weeks before the ceremony. Simon the Able Seacat was given the Dickin medal posthumously and was buried with military honors. He was only three years old.
The history of the Dickin Medal for Animal Gallantry, the highest military honor an animal can receive, can be traced back to Maria Dickin who dedicated her life in the early 1900s to the care of London’s animals which were living in terrible conditions. She became determined that the city should provide free healthcare to its most vulnerable creatures. Although her efforts in animal welfare would be lauded today, she was considered mentally unstable and scoffed at even by veterinarians. However, by 1917, Dickin opened her first clinic in her cellar and trained the veterinarians. Her vision became a reality and in the 1940s, the PDSA or the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals became a major force in the care of Britain’s animals.
Inspired by her success the PDSA, Dickin began to raise awareness of the value animals could provide to soldiers in wartime. By 1943, the Dickin medal was awarded to wartime animals for bravery and Able Seacat Simon was the first cat to receive it in 1949. Pigeons have been awarded the medal the most frequently of any animal, but many dogs and a few horses have also received it.
In World War I, hundreds of thousands of cats were sent to the trenches alongside soldiers where they killed rats and mice. It is one story in Susan Bulanda’s Soldiers in Fur and Feathers that depicts the cat saving a man’s life. A Belgian soldier named Lekeux was behind German lines to make a sketch of the work that the Germans were doing. German patrol officers discovered Lekeux and realized it was too late to run away. Lekeux remained very still in a hole, and the German patrol found him. A cat named Pitouchi jumped from the hole where he was crouched with Lekeux to a piece of timber. The Germans fired shots. The cat was not hit and jumped back into the hole. From this behavior, the Germans thought that they had mistaken a cat for in an enemy soldier and went away.
During the Second World War, the United Kingdom braved relentless pounding from the German Air Force during the long and merciless Battle of Britain. There is a famous wartime story about a cat named Faith. Just a day before the bombing began, Faith, who had given birth recently moved her single kitten from the top of St. Augustine church in London to the basement. It was if she was warning everyone about what was going to come next. Faith and her kitten were rescued by father Henry Ross after the church was devastated by the bombings. She was given a medal for bravery for her steadfast courage in the Battle of Britain.
More recently, a cat named Hammer rescued the foods supply of the US forces in Iraq 2004. The area was heavily infested with mice and rats, and the stores of food would surely have perished if Hammer had not bravely fought the enemy forces. To repay the heroic cat, the US Army used the services of Alley Cat Allies and Military Mascots to bring Hammer back home America where it lived in Colorado with staff Sgt. Rick Bousfield.
Cats played a role during the Cold War through Acoustic Kitty which was a $20 million CIA project that used cats to spy on the Kremlin and Soviet embassies. The cat was fitted with a radio transmitter in its skull and had a microphone in its ear. The first cat was hit by a taxi before other attempts were made. The CIA scrapped Acoustic Kitty when they concluded it was too difficult to train cats for the project.
One Russian cat during the Second World War proved that felines could indeed be trained for the military. Mourka was an active participant on the Eastern front in the battle of Stalingrad, in fact, Mouraka was called the battle cat of Stalingrad and assisted the Soviet 124th Rifle Brigade. Mourka delivered crucial messages about the positions of German troops to the Russian army.
The French put a cat in space to rival John Glenn’s orbit around the earth in 1963. Felicette was launched 97 miles from the Earth’s surface and didn’t quite make it into orbit but had the distinction of being the first and only cat to make it into space in a capsule where it spent 15 minutes before returning to earth.
Stories of cats on brave expeditions are not all without tragedy. Mrs. Chippy was a tabby that joined Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial trans-Antarctic expedition, which attempted the first land crossing of Antarctica. The cat belonged to the carpenter Harry McNeish, and the crew would watch Mrs. Chippy with wonder as she navigated the narrow rails even when the water was rough. When the ship had to be destroyed, Shackleton requested that all the dogs and cats on the ship be shot. McNeish was upset with Shackleton for this order and spoke his mind. As a result, McNeish was denied the medals given all of the other crew members. However, McNeish’s dedication to his friend Mrs. Chippy was never forgotten and a bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy was placed on his grave.
You may have heard of the Broadway musical the Unsinkable Molly Brown about a woman who survived the Titanic. Unsinkable Sam managed to survive three sinking ships in World War II, the HMS Bismarck, the HMS Cossack and the HMS Ark Royal. Sam emerged unscathed from the three disasters, lived with the governor of Gibraltar and moved to Northern Ireland after the war.
During World War II, Salty became a mascot of the United States Coast Guard when she accidentally participated in a rescue mission. Salty found a place to hide with her kitten on an amphibian reconnaissance plane right before it was sent to take off and rescue a pilot at sea. The crew fell in love with Salty and her kitten, who became mascots.
After soldiers return from a combat overseas, connecting with comrades in arms is valuable to share memories and provide support. It is not surprising that many military dogs and cats are adopted by soldiers they served with upon their return. Even pets without a military record can bond with veterans. There is increasing awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other problems suffered by those who have undergone combat. Many veterans don’t feel they can talk to their friends and families about what they are going through and want to feel a bond. Pets help provide comfort and companionship to vets and can keep them active and engaged.
The Pets for Vets program was intended to benefit both veterans and animals in shelters who otherwise would not have homes. Studies have shown that having a dog or a cat can help relieve stress and depression. Participants in the program are interviewed to ascertain what kind of pet is right for them and what their needs are. Pets are paired with veterans according to preferences and needs. Animals are trained so they can adjust to life outside of the shelter. If their new owner is wheel-chair bound, dogs are trained to help them.
The program was founded by Clarissa Black, an animal trainer who noticed how helpful pets were in helping veterans. She found they were particularly calming to people who suffered from PTSD and provided a sense of bonding that is difficult for a large number of vets.
Wars often affect civilians and create refugee crises. Homes can be abandoned in panic during bombings and that means that pets are often left behind to fend for themselves. During the first Persian Gulf War in the 1990s, there was an effort in Israel to help cats that had been abandoned by their owners who were fleeing from their homes because of fear of missile strikes. The organization was called the Cat Welfare Society and its symbol was a cat named Phoenix who emerged safely from a direct missile attack on its home. The headquarters were in Even Yehudah, and the Cat Welfare Society undertook efforts to capture injured cats in a humane fashion, give them medical treatment, including spaying and neutering. The organization also took in cats whose owners were killed in terror attacks or in wars. Although the Cat Welfare Society closed its doors, a new non-profit began in its place. It is called haKol CHAI and rescued many cats during Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in 2006.
The role of cats in the military has been mainly on ships to get rid of mice and rats that spread disease and consume the crew’s food supply. Wherever there is a concentration of food and people, there are rats and mice. One reason why cats have been prized throughout the ages (and it is only in periods of fervent superstition that there has been a widespread hostility to cats) is that in eras when there were few other forms of pest control, people valued cats. This was particularly true in the case of farmers and sailors. Rat infestation posed a significant problem for people at sea because there were few ways to get rid of mice and rats in that situation. In fact, rats leaving and getting on ships was blamed for the rapid spread of the bubonic plague. Infected rats would enter ships through the cables when the ship was docked and bring infection.
However, it isn’t just to sailors that military cats have been valuable. There are many World War I era photographs showing soldiers cuddling cats that were put in the trenches for pest control. Cats are not obedient in nature but can be trained to some extent to provide benefit to people under pressure. Cats enhance our lives in peacetime and can bring comfort and morale in times of war.