I bet you didn’t know that the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a British veterinary charity, awards, on rare occasions, a medal for animal heroism in time of war. The Dickin Medal was first awarded in 1943, suspended in 1949, and then revived in 2000. Between 2000 and today it was given to nine animals, all d**s. But between 1943 and 1949 it was awarded to 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, three horses—and one cat. Who was that cat?
It was Simon, Able Seacat, lauded for his heroism during the “Yangztze incident” in 1948, when Chinese Communist guns fired on the H.M.S. Amethyst cruising up the Yangtze River to replace a “duty ship.” Aboard that ship was a black and white moggie named Simon, the ship’s mascot. He was two years old.
One day Simon, looking in need of a good meal, was found in the dockyard by Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom from the ship. George was a 17-year-old at the time and had joined in the previous November. The cats of Stonecutters Island were well known for becoming ships’ cats, and George decided to smuggle the waif aboard. To avoid the man on watch, he concealed the cat under his tunic and took him to his tiny space — hardly a cabin — which served as his accommodation. George had been appointed ‘captain of the fo’c’sle’, meaning that he had to ensure everything there was kept shipshape and in good order. As such, he was quartered close to the captain’s cabin.
Simon proved adept at catching rats, particularly a large and vicious rat named Mao-Tse-Tsung “that had evaded all human attempts at capture.” But one fateful day Simon was called to duty (read the Purr-and-Furr piece for the whole story; here’s a concise version from Wikipedia):
The crew viewed Simon as a lucky mascot, and when the ship’s commander changed later in 1948, the outgoing Ian Griffiths left the cat for his successor Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner, who took an immediate liking to the friendly animal. However, Skinner’s first mission in command of the Amethyst was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanking to replace the duty ship there, HMS Consort. Halfway up the river the ship became embroiled in the Yangtze incident, when Chinese communist gun batteries opened fire on the frigate. One of the first rounds tore through the captain’s cabin, seriously wounding Simon. Lt Cdr Skinner died of his wounds soon after the attack.
The badly wounded cat crawled on deck, and was rushed to the medical bay, where the ship’s surviving medical staff cleaned his burns, and removed four pieces of shrapnel, but he was not expected to last the night. He did manage to survive however, and after a period of recovery, he returned to his former duties in spite of the indifference he faced from the new ship’s captain, Lt Cdr John Kerans. While anchored in the river, the ship had become overrun with rats, and Simon took on the task of removing them with vigour, as well as raising the morale of the sailors.
Following the ship’s escape from the Yangtze, Simon became an instant celebrity, lauded in British and world news, and presented with the “Animal Victoria Cross”, the Dickin Medal, as well as a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal, and the fanciful rank of “Able Seacat”. Thousands of letters were written to him, so much that one Lt Stuart Hett was appointed “cat officer” to deal with Simon’s post. At every port Amethyst stopped at on its route home, Simon was presented with honour, and a special welcome was made for him at Plymouth in November when the ship returned. Simon was, however, like all animals entering the UK, subject to quarantine regulations, and was immediately sent to an animal centre in Surrey.
Here’s Simon with his collar; the medal (which he received posthumously) is below:
But Simon’s tail has a sad ending:
The [Dickin] medal presentation was set for 11 December, and the PDSA’s founder and instigator of the medal, Maria Dickin, then 79, was to be present, as indeed was the Lord Mayor of London. But it was not to be. Simon became listless, and when a vet was urgently sent for, the cat had a high temperature and acute enteritis. He was given an injection and tablets, and then seemed to sleep. His carer sat with him all night; but by the morning of 28 November he had died. He was still a youngster. The vet felt that he would have recovered from the virus had his heart not been weakened by his war wounds: but it just could not cope. Maybe the fact that he was in a strange place, rather than at sea on ‘his’ ship with his friends, did not help.
I like what one of his biographers wrote:
. . . the spirit of Simon slipped quietly away to sea.
Lt Cdr Kerans and the crew were devastated; and when Simon’s death was announced, cards, letters and flowers began to arrive at the quarantine shelter by the truckload. His photograph and a tribute appeared in the obituary columns of Time magazine. He was buried in the PDSA’s animal cemetery at Ilford, east of London; a specially made casket was fashioned to hold the small body, wrapped in cotton wool, and was draped with the Union flag. Father Henry Ross, rector of St Augustine’s church, held a short ceremony, after which Simon was buried with naval honours. Following the burial, a wooden marker was placed, with the legend:
In honoured memory of Simon, DM
Died November 28, 1949.
Later on a specially designed stone monument was erected instead of the temporary marker, and it remains to this day.
And here is a very short video showing Simon alive.
In the comments, reader smokedpaprika found two more Simon videos that I’ll add:
This is a good one, as it shows Simon lapping milk and describes the auction of his Dicken medal—for 23,000 pounds!
Let us toast this weekend to Simon, Able Seacat, who didn’t live long enough to enjoy his fame.