An historical cat receives a Dickin Medal, the highest British honor awarded for animal displays of bravery in battle. As of 2018, only one cat has ever earned the prestigious prize. His name was simple: Simon.
Simon was discovered in March 1948 poking around the docks of Stonecutters Island in Hong Kong. Thought to be about a year old, the scrawny black and white tomcat was scrounging for food when a British sailor spotted him.
Seventeen-year-old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom decided a cat was just what the ship needed to get rid of its rats. The rodent infestation posed risks to onboard foodstuffs—and to the crew’s overall health. So George tucked Simon inside his jacket, smuggled him aboard the Amethyst, and hid the tomcat in his cabin.
Simon’s war injury
A Chinese shell blasted a huge hole in the nearby bulkhead, and four shards of shrapnel hit the defenseless cat in the back and legs as he bolted or was thrown by the force of the explosion. Simon’s face was also burned, and his whiskers and eyebrows singed. The stunned cat apparently crawled into a corner, out of the way, and passed out.
Simon was missing for several days before he staggered on deck and was discovered by Petty Officer George Griffiths, who gingerly picked the cat up and took him to sick bay.
Medical officer Michael Fearnley removed the shrapnel in four places and stitched Simon up before tending to his burned face. There was concern that the cat’s hearing might have been damaged by being so close to the deafening blast. Besides all that, Simon’s heart was also weak. Fearnley gave Simon only a fair chance of survival at best.
Dr. Fearnley suggested that Simon hang out in sick bay to help shore up morale among the remaining young crewmen, many traumatized by the attack, the loss of their crewmates, and the grief of having to witness twenty burials at sea. Because Simon had also endured the horrific attack and its aftermath, he was considered one of them.
Even so, conditions aboard the Amethyst began to seriously deteriorate. Because of dwindling food and water supplies, rations were cut in half.
Journey to Hon Kong
News traveled fast as the Amethyst made its way to Hong Kong. Word of the ship’s exploits spread, and the entire crew were hailed as heroes—including Simon. The tomcat became an international celebrity overnight, thanks to heavy coverage by the press and movie newsreels. An army of cameras and reporters recorded the ship’s arrival in Hong Kong Harbor, and Simon posed for pictures with his shipmates during the celebration.
The captain replied to a request from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, which awards the Dickin Medal, asking for confirmation of Simon’s heroic deeds. His testimonial letter reads, in part:
For many days Simon felt very sorry for himself, nor could he be located. His whiskers, even now, show signs of the explosion.
Rats, which began to breed rapidly in the damaged portions of the ship, presented a real menace to the health of the ship’s company, but Simon nobly rose to the occasion and after two months the rats were much diminished.
Throughout the incident Simon’s behaviour was of the highest order. One would not have expected a small cat to survive the blast from an explosion capable of making a hole over a foot in diameter in a steel plate.
Yet after a few days Simon was as friendly as ever. His presence on the ship, together with Peggy, the dog, was a decided factor in maintaining the high level of morale of the ship’s company.
On August 5, the Associated Press broke the news of the PDSA’s decision. One newspaper headline over the AP story told the tale: “Amethyst’s Cat Gets Dickin Medal for Catching Rats.” The PDSA’s decision had been unanimous.
Simon passes away
Not only was Simon the only feline ever to receive a Dickin, he was also the only Royal Navy animal to earn the Dickin distinction.
He was placed in routine quarantine for six months, like other returning war animals, and the formal Dickin Medal presentation was set for December 11.
But it was not meant to be. Two weeks before the presentation, Simon fell ill with a virus. He received treatment, including injections for a high fever and acute enteritis. But his war wounds had seriously weakened Simon’s heart.
Simon passed away on Nov. 28, having crammed a lot of living into his two short years. As one tribute put it, “the spirit of Simon slipped quietly away to sea.” Some said he died of a broken heart, that he missed his life aboard ship and the men he loved so much.
The crew were heartbroken. Cards and letters arrived at the quarantine shelter “by the truckload.” On its obituary page, TIME magazine featured Simon’s picture beneath a simple headline: “In Honored Memory.”
Cats have been clawing their way into wartime history for a long time.
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