While the image of a cat on a ship during wartime may seem slightly anachronistic, keeping cats on board with a Navy crew was actually fairly common back in the day. Even going as far back as Egyptian times, bringing a cat on your voyage was considered a no brainer. After all, old wooden ships were easily accessible for rats and mice, and an infestation could lead to chewed-up rope, depleted supplies and the spreading of diseases. Who better to take care of this potentially life threatening problem than a loveable cat? During World War I alone, over 500,000 brave felines were dispatched with troops to snuff out rodents, detect gas, and function as the good luck charms and de facto mascots of the given ship they belonged to. Mascot status put most of these brave little furballs front and center for photo opportunities (posing them in the barrel of a cannon seems like it was a popular choice), and many Ship’s Cats (as they came to be known) would cultivate colorful backstories and reputations in the process. Here are some classic photos of Ship’s Cats as well as another wartime feline in action.
As the cat mascot for the HMS Dreadnought, Togo was a torchbearer of the Navy cat tradition of posing around heavy artillery. These ships were the first of their kind, with massive gun turrets on all sides. We can’t imagine anything more fearsome than a war-tested kitty sitting in a gun barrel.
Some consider Sam to be a myth. There are conflicting images attributed to the cat, who is also identified as Oskar, information regarding his legend is decidedly lacking. But what a story — also known as Unsinkable Sam by some, he allegedly survived the torpedoing of one German vessel and two British vessels in 1941 (Oskar was his name on the German battleship Bismark, before he was rechristened Sam on the similarly doomed H.M.S. Cossack.)
They don’t much more patriotic than Pooli. Born on the 4th of July, 1944, in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard and set out to sail on the USS Fremont that very same day. While the Fremont would see plenty of action up until the end of World War II, Pooli would often make her way to the ship’s mailroom to snuggle inside an empty mail bag. Such an instinct for self-preservation shouldn’t be frowned upon, however — it cannot be easy getting drafted on the first day of your life.
As the first and only cat to receive the PDSA Dickin Medal (it’s the animal’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross), Simon was a bona fide hero. The mascot of the HMS Amethyst, Simon was the captain’s cat, frequently taking naps in the captain’s cabin, oftentimes inside the captain’s hat. In April 1949, the ship had been making its way to Hong Kong to guard the British Embassy when it was attacked by Chinese Communist forces. Simon was seriously injured, but he continued killing rodents on the ship — something that was essential for the crew and the food supply, as they negotiated their passage down the river. He also boosted morale with his antics, such as pawing ice out of a water jug for the crew’s amusement, during this difficult stretch of time.
Born in the trenches and left to fend for himself after his mother was killed, Pitouchi was adopted and nursed to health by Belgian army Lieutenant Lekeux during World War I. Ever loyal to his human, Pitouchi would follow the Lieutenant around wherever he went, even saving his life on one occasion. Hiding in a shell hole and drawing a sketch of a new German trench he had discovered, Lekeux failed to notice enemy soldiers approaching. When the German soldiers identified movement in the hole, Pitouchi jumped out—dodging a few startling bullets in the process. The soldiers assumed that it was just a cat hiding in the hole, and Lekeux remained safe. If only we all had a friend as brave as Pitouchi.
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