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How the cat Simon earned a military medal.

7 min read

For centuries, a close relationship of mutual esteem and affection has linked a category of rough men and accustomed to every danger, the sailors, to a small pet that today tends to associate with photographs on social networks and quiet family life, the cat. Cats are intelligent predators with a strong natural instinct for hunting and eliminating rodents. Because of this, they have been used on numerous ships across the world as killers of rats, mice, and various other disease-ridden animals. The rats climb on board using the peaks that moor the ships at the port cleats as bridges, they enter the galley and, in addition to eating the food stowed there, they contaminate it with their droppings, spreading infections of all kinds. In addition, if you are sick or injured on board, they can attack and bite, causing injuries that easily become infected. The “ship’s cat” has been around since ancient times: aside from being an efficient exterminators, cats have also been known to provide stress relief and a companionship to sailors far away from home. An unwritten rule of the navy of the world is that a ship without cats on board is destined to become a ship persecuted by bad luck.

Simon, the cheeky black-and-white cat who served aboard the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst, was destined to become the little hero of a singular war episode in the Cold War years, and became one of the most famous ship’s cats in history after being wounded during the Yangtze Incident. In the late 1940s, the Amethyst was stationed in China, and in March of 1948 a 17-year-old crewman, George Hickinbottom found a malnourished cat on the docks of Hong Kong. He named the cat Simon and smuggled him on the frigate. Even if some of the crew were initially skeptical of Simon’s presence on the vessel, the one year old cat soon proved its worth as a capable rat exterminator on the lower decks. Already in October 1948, when the commander of the Amethyst, Ian Griffiths, was replaced by a new commander, Lieutenant-Commander Bernard Skinner, Simon had acquired a reputation as the ship’s furry mascot. The new commander liked Simon so much that he granted him a few additional privileges, like unrestricted access to most areas of the ship and the permission to sleep in the commander’s bed. In a short time, the cat became a lovable and irreplaceable companion to the sailors, and occasionally brought them creepy gift as a dead rats on their pillow.

Unfortunately, Simon’s carefree life aboard the Amethyst didn’t last very long. The times were those that were, in a geographic area subject to continuous civil wars and revolutions. At the time, China was disputed between two factions, that of the communists led by Mao Tze-tung and that of the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek (at the end, the communists would have won, while the nationalists would have withdrawn on the island of Taiwan). In Nanjing, the site of fierce fighting, the British consulate seemed in great danger and the Admiralty had decided to keep a military ship stationed on the Yangtze River to quickly evacuate all staff if needed. In April 1949 the vessel was tasked with traveling up the Yangtze River to the port of Nanjing to replace the destroyer Consort, who had preceded it. It seemed a relatively safe journey, because a treaty of 1858 allowed the British to navigate safely in the great river, of which the north bank was in the hands of the communists and the south bank in the hands of the nationalists. However, halfway up the river, the Amethyst unexpectedly found herself under artillery fire by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. One of the first fires that hit the ship destroyed the captain’s cabin, killed Lieutenant-Commander Skinner, and gravely injured the unwitting Simon. The captain, to keep him safe, had locked him in his cabin. The cat was found during the removal of the rubble, more dead than alive, burned, wounded and full of splinters.

The accident will be remembered as that of the “Blue River”.
When the ship was quickly surrounded by Chinese troops, it became evident that an escape attempt was impossible. For the next four months, the crew were blocked in unknow waters, unable to back to the open sea, and had to treat their wounded with limited medical supplies. Despite this, the medical officer, after dealing with the wounded, managed to extract the four pieces of shrapnel from Simon’s back, but he was convinced that he would not spend the night. However, the cat recovered himself and soon roaming around the ship as usual. The first officer Geoffrey Weston took the Amethyst to the center of the river, out of the reach of the batteries. The consulate was activated so as to get the most seriously injured to the ground and from there, by train, to Shanghai, and sent an officer in charge of taking command, the Captain John Kerans. In the next hard months, Kerans tried to start negotiations with the communists, who in the meantime had launched an offensive and forced the nationalists to retreat, but the situation proved immediately complicated. The Chinese battery commander, Major Kung, demanded that the British admit they fired first, because he feared a serious diplomatic incident. But the British, even if they had responded to the fire, had not fired at first. Since Kerans did not lend themselves to their game, the Chinese kept the Amethyst stuck there in the middle of the river, with the crew segregated on board, very few supplies of food and none of fuel.

It was at this time that Simon showed his value. In a time of uncertainty and grave danger, he boosted the crew’s humor and prevented them from losing hope. Initially, even before recovering from injuries, he defended the sailors in the infirmary from the attacks of the rats, who tried to climb on their camp beds. The doctor recorded that only the presence of the cat in the infirmary was enough to reassure all the wounded. Then he went on to defend the galley. He brought to Kerans at least one dead rat a day, and, as the commander was always happy for this, at a certain point, he brought the dead rats also into his bed. With the passing of time and the reduction of food supplies, the rats were angry and at one point attacked the galley in a group, led by a huge specimen that the sailors had ironically baptized Mao Tze-tung: the rats, in fact, they are very intelligent social animals and are organized. Simon, however, did not get scared by the rats trying to surround him, threw himself against Mao Tze-tung and slapped him with a precise paw, between the exultation of the sailors who witnessed the scene. The surviving rats dispersed and no longer attempted to attack the galley in groups.

In July, Kerans managed to get a small supply of fuel from the Chinese to keep the pumps and fans going, as tropical summer made the ship as hot as an oven. The repairs were now over and the captain had a plan in mind to run away. With the winches hidden by a dark tarp and the chains of the anchors wrapped in thick blankets to make no noise, on the evening of July 30, he waited for the passage of a large merchant ship to hide the Amethyst from the shore and set off at full speed. Finally the vessel managed to escape also with the help of bad weather and limited visibility. On the way back to the United Kingdom, the vessel stopped at many ports and the story of the cat who brought hope and tranquility to the sailors spread across the world.

Upon back to Plymouth in November, the cat was presented with a Blue Cross medal for animal bravery and heroism, and the Dickin Medal, the animal version of the Victoria Cross, the highest award of the British honor system. Until today, Simon is the only cat to have been awarded this particular medal. Like all animals entering in the United Kingdom at the time, Simon had to spend some time in quarantine. Unfortunately, during his second week of quarantine, he developed a severe infection which was a result of the wounds he sustained during the Yangtze Incident. He died some days later, in the night between 28 and 29 November, at the age of two. Over a thousand people, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst, attended his militar funeral. The inscription on his gravestone at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery states, says: “Throughout the Yangtze Incident his behavior was of the highest order.

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