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Cat of war

SANTHINI GOVINDAN

From wandering in the alley, Simon worked his way up to become the most celebrated feline in history.


After a war, there are usually stories about brave soldiers and heroic acts. But have you ever heard of a cat that won an award for his bravery during a military conflict? This honour belongs to a tomcat called Simon.

Simon's story begins in May 1948, when, as a stray cat, he was found hungry and wandering around on Hong Kong's Stonecutters Island by Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner, who was the commander of a British Naval frigate ship, the HMS Amethyst. The cat charmed Skinner with his friendly ways, and was adopted and taken on board the ship. Skinner named him sea cat Simon. Simon adapted to his life as a sailor with ease. He soon became a favourite of the ship's crew. He entertained them with the many tricks he knew, the most impressive being the ability to fish ice-cubes out of a jug of water.

In 1949, a civil war broke out in China between the Communist-led Mao Tze-Tung, and the Nationalist-led Chiang Kai Shek. The British government, fearing that its citizens would be in danger, ordered one of their ships, a destroyer HMS Consort, to stand by to evacuate their people. As the HMS Consort was running low on fuel, the HMS Amethyst was ordered to proceed up the Yangtze River to replace her.

Although the Chinese Communist government had promised the British Royal navy freedom to navigate on Chinese waters, they did not stick to their word. They opened artillery fire on the unsuspecting Amethyst. As the shells bombarded the ship, pandemonium reigned and Lt. Commander Skinner, and several officers were hit and several men died on the spot.

Simon was fast asleep in the Captain's cabin when it took a direct hit from a shell. The little cat was hurled into the air and he landed motionless on a debris-strewn gangway. His whiskers and eyebrows had been burnt off, his fur was badly singed, splinters and metal shards had caused severe gashes on his back and legs, and his lungs were punctured. Later when the seamen picked him up and carried him to the ship's hold, they were sure that Simon would not survive the night. But miraculously, he did and a few days later, he limped slowly up to the deck of the badly damaged ship. Simon's amazing survival revived the spirits of the demoralised and despairing crew. The Amethyst had lost 17 men, including captain Skinner.

The grounded Amethyst was soon invaded by hordes of rats, and they raided the ship's dwindling food supplies, and even invaded the sleeping quarters of the sailors and nibbled on their toes. Simon immediately took charge of the situation and displayed incredible skills, as he waged war on the rats and hunted down as many as he could. The crew were impressed by Simon's devotion to duty and was an inspiration to the crew of the Amethyst.

The ship was stranded for three months and during this time Simon continued his rat-catching activities with vigour and enthusiasm. When he was not hunting vermin, he, along with Peggy the ship's terrier dog, played with and comforted their weary shipmates. The little cat's cheerfulness did much to improve the morale of the seamen.

When the ship finally arrived back in England, the captain of the ship Lt. Commander John Simon Kerans lost no time in contacting the PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) and recommending that Able Sea Cat Simon be awarded the Dickin medal for Acts of Bravery by Animals Serving with the Armed Forces. Maria Dickin, founder of the PDSA, instituted the Dickin medal during World War II.

Commander Kerans, in his recommendation wrote: "The large number of rats on board the ship represented a real menace to the health of the ship's company. Simon rose nobly to the occasion and after two months the number of rats had diminished greatly. Throughout the incident Simon's behaviour was of the highest order. One would not have expected him to survive the shell that had made a hole over a foot wide in diameter in a steel plate. Yet, he did and after a few days, Simon was as friendly as ever. His presence on the ship was a decided factor in maintaining the morale of the ship's company."

The PDSA confirmed Simon's award and when the Amethyst returned to England in November 1949, word of Simon's deeds had made him a great celebrity. He received thousands of gifts, and the Amethyst had to appoint a Cat Officer to cope with the letters for Simon, who got much more mail than the Commander himself.

Simon was put into quarantine but he was weakened by his ordeal and he died three weeks later. Lt. Commander Kerans received Simon's posthumous Dickin war medal. Simon was buried in the PDSA Pet Cemetery with full Naval honours and his coffin was draped with the Union Jack.

Simon's story has been widely written about. It is still possible to buy memorabilia of Simon at Naval souvenir shops in England. In 1950 the American author Paul Gallico dedicated his novel Jennie, which was about a cat, to "To the late Simon, of the Amethyst". It was a fitting tribute to the only cat in history to win a military medal.

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