Able Sea Cat Simon
JANE FROM LARNE asked me a while ago about medals being awarded to animals during times of war. I knew about a ships cat called Simon being awarded a Dickins Medal – the animal VC – on board HMS Amethyst for its bravery despite wounds during the Yangtze incident in 1949, but not much more. However, a bit of detective work has resulted in more information.
Simon the ships cat was first found hungry and wandering around on Hong Kong’s Stonecutters Island by Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner of a Royal Navey frigate, HMS Amethyst. The friendly cat won over Skinner and was adopted and taken on board the frigate. Skinner named him Simon. He soon became a favourite of the ship’s crew, with his most impressive trick 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 Tse-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 HMS Consort was running low on fuel, HMS Amethyst was ordered to proceed up the wide Yangtze River to replace her.
The Communists promised the Royal Navey freedom to navigate on Chinese waters but did not stick to their word. They opened artillery fire on the Amethyst, killing Lt. Commander Skinner. The ship had lost 17 men, including Skinner. Many others suffered serious injury.
Simon was asleep in the Captain’s cabin when it took a direct hit from a shell. 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. The seamen who picked him up were sure that Simon would not survive the night but he did. Simon’s amazing survival revived the spirits of the demoralised and despairing crew.
The grounded Amethyst was soon invaded by hoards of rats, and they raided the ship’s dwindling food supplies, and even the sleeping quarters of the crew. Simon took on the rats during the three months that the ship was stranded catching at least one a day including an especially bold one nicknamed Mao Tse- Tung. For this Simon was promoted to the rank of Able Sea Cat.
When he was not hunting vermin, he, along with Peggy the ship’s terrier dog, played with and comforted their weary shipmates. When the ship finally arrived back in England, the captain of the ship Lt. Commander John Simon Kerans contacted the PDSA and recommended Able Sea Cat Simon for the Dickin Medal.
Commander Kerans, in his recommendation wrote: “The large number of rats on board the ship represented a real menace to the health of the ships 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 deciding 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. The Amethyst had to appoint a Cat Officer to cope with the letters for Simon. 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 Dikin war medal. Simon was buried in the PDSA Pet Cemetery with full Naval honours and his coffin was draped with the Union Jack.