Able Seaman Simon the Cat Wins the “Animal VC” after the Yangtze Incident
Cats on Ships
Cats have been kept on ships for centuries. Ships' cats keep rats under control, preventing them from eating and spoiling food supplies, damaging equipment and spreading disease. Cats also provide companionship and boost morale of sailors on long voyages and are well-adapted to changing circumstances. One such cat, Simon, went above and beyond near the end of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) on board the British ship HMS Amethyst when it was under siege by the Communists during the Yangtze Incident in 1949. For his bravery and service under fire during the three months' siege, Simon was awarded, among other honors, the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor.
Simon Arrives on the Amethyst and Charms the Captain
In 1948, while HMS Amethyst was taking on supplies in Hong Kong, 17-year-old Seaman George Hickinbottom spied a scrawny young black and white cat scrounging for scraps . He thought it might make a decent ship's cat and smuggled it aboard, avoiding any unnecessary questions. He named the stray Simon.
Simon's presence on Amethyst could hardly be kept secret, especially since he would frequently enter the captain's cabin. Fortunately, Captain Ian Griffiths liked cats and they formed a bond. Sometimes Simon would curl up and sleep in Griffith's upturned cap and when Griffith went on his rounds, Simon sometimes accompanied him, to the amusement of the crew, who became very fond of the little guy and lavished him with affection and treats. Many of the crew called him “Blackie”.
Another Captain Charmed
But Simon was a natural ratter and earned his keep. After he came aboard, the rat population began a steady decline. Sometimes he would drop a trophy at the captain's feet, the highest honor a cat can bestow on a non-cat being. Sadly, Griffiths was transferred to another command and replaced by Captain Bernard Skinner, who, as luck would have it, also liked cats. Simon returned the affection, though he wouldn't come when Skinner whistled as he'd done with Griffiths.
Aproximate location of Yangtze Incident.
Amethyst Attacked, Simon Wounded, Captain Killed
Skinner's first mission was to sail up the Yangtze River (also spelled Yangtse) from Shanghai to Nanjing and relieve HMS Consort, which was standing by to evacuate British nationals in case the city fell to the Chinese Communists. On April 20, 1949, about 100 miles up river, Amethyst came under fire from Communist artillery along the north bank of the river. The first rounds hit the bridge and the captain's cabin, mortally wounding Captain Skinner and badly wounding Simon. For two hours the Chinese shelled the ship which had run aground, hitting it over 50 times. Acting commander Lieutenant Weston managed to refloat her and moved Amethyst upriver, out of range of the the Communist guns. Some of the wounded were evacuated to the southern shore under control of the Chinese Nationalists.
Three British ships tried to come to Amethyst's aid, but came under the same intense shelling, sustaining casualties themselves, and couldn't get through to her. This began a three-month stand-off, with the Communists accusing the British of firing the first shot. Negotiations dragged on, but the Communists would not let Amethyst go until the British admitted to starting the incident, which the British refused.
Some days after the shelling, Simon crawled on deck. Since the wounded had been seen to or evacuated to the south shore, he was taken to the surgery where he was tended to. He was dehydrated, his face was burned, he had four shrapnel wounds and he had a weakened heart. Simon wasn't expected to last the night, but he did. Several days later, he painfully started to explore and look for his master. On deck, funeral services were being held for the dead. Twenty-five of the crew, including Captain Skinner, had died. Simon sat and watched the ceremony.
A New Captain to Win Over, Rats to Kill
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander John Kerans had arrived to take command of Amethyst. Kerans was not a cat fancier and when he encountered the recuperating cat curled up in his cap, he made it clear that he was not sharing his cabin with a cat.
The days and weeks dragged on and the rats had taken advantage of Simon's absence. They were eating the food supplies and even invading living quarters. Simon, however, started his rounds as soon as he was able and started to stabilize the population. He laid a dead rat at Captain Kerans' feet and received a pat.
Dickin Medal Citation
'Able Seaman Simon, for distinguished and meritorious service on HMS Amethyst, you are hereby awarded the Distinguished Amethyst Campaign Ribbon.
'Be it known that on April 26, 1949, though recovering from wounds, when HMS Amethyst was standing by off Rose Bay you did single-handedly and unarmed stalk down and destroy 'Mao Tse Tung', a rat guilty of raiding food supplies which were critically short.
'Be it further known that from April 22 to August 4 you did rid HMS Amethyst of pestilence and vermin, with unrelenting faithfulness.'
The Dicken Medal
Simon Defeats Mao Tse Tung, Amethyst Escapes
A particularly large and fierce rat, known as “Mao Tse Tung” plagued the ship. The crew tried to trap the rat themselves because they were afraid that Simon, in his weakened state, might lose in any confrontation. They failed to capture the rat and Simon and Mao Tse Tung finally faced off. Simon sprang and instantly killed the rodent. After that, he was promoted to Able Seacat Simon.
Simon also visited and lay with the sick and wounded sailors, who took comfort at his purring presence. Captain Kerans was also taken ill and Simon visited him in his cabin. From then on, Simon was welcome to sleep anywhere he liked, including the captain's cabin.
After three months of negotiations, which went nowhere, Amethyst's supplies and fuel, which powered everything on the ship from lights to fans, was getting dangerously low. Captain Kerans decided they had to make a run for it. In the dark of night on July 30, 1949, Amethyst stole away and made the 100 mile dash for the sea. Despite further shelling and more damage, they made it to freedom. King George VI sent a congratulatory message and the next day, all members of the crew, including Able Seacat Simon, were awarded the Amethyst campaign ribbon.
The Armed Forces Mascot Club suggested Simon be put up for the Dickin Medal, sometimes referred to as the “Animal VC”. Captain Kerans wrote up the citation and Simon was unanimously confirmed as the 54th animal-- and only cat-- to be awarded the Dickin on August 10, 1949.
Simon's Dickin Medal was posthumously accepted on his behalf by Captain Kerans and held on HMS Amethyst until the ship was scrapped. At some point, a Canadian collector bought it. In 1993, it was up for auction. The Eaton Film Company paid £23,467 (about $35,000) for it.
Simon also received, posthumously, the Blue Cross Medal, but this has disappeared.
Worldwide Fame and Quarantine
The story of the Yangtze Incident spread worldwide and the crew and Simon were hailed as heroes. In every port they stopped, they were greeted with a frenzy of publicity and Simon received the most letters and gifts. In Hong Kong, seeming to shy away from all the interest, Simon trotted down the gangplank and went for a stroll. When he didn't return, Captain Kerans sent the crew out to look for him, but he couldn't be found. A few hours later, however, he nonchalantly returned to his home.
Finally, in November 1949, Amethyst reached Plymouth, England, where a huge home-coming was put on. Simon, though, was not able to go ashore. He was still a cat and animals entering England had to be quarantined for six months in Surrey. No exceptions. While in quarantine, visitors queued up to see him, including regular visits from crew members and Captain Kerans. The Dickin Medal award ceremony was arranged for December 11 and hundreds planned to attend, but Simon fell ill with a viral infection, possibly caused by his war wounds. Despite the best efforts of the veterinarians, Simon died on November 28, 1949. It was believed his war wounds and weak heart combined with the infection were just too much for the young cat.
When news of his death spread, condolences arrived by the truckload from all over the world. Captain Keran and the crew were devastated. Time Magazine published a tribute to Simon in their obituary column. He was laid to rest in a specially made casket and he was wrapped in the Union Flag and buried with naval honors at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in Ilford, Essex. Among the hundreds of mourners were the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. His gravestone reads:
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER
Damaged Amethyst Arrives Hong Kong (Simon not filmed)
© 2012 David Hunt