Public Domain
Public Domain

8 War Heroes That Were Real Animals

Public Domain
Public Domain

War heroes comes in all shapes and sizes—and species. You know dogs and horses have served in the military since antiquity, but there are also other species that rose to the occasion with training, loyalty, and bravery. Here are the stories of just a few animal war heroes who represent their species well.

1. Sgt. Bill // Canadian Hero of World War I

A train full of Canadian soldiers bought a goat as a mascot while they were passing through Broadview, Saskatchewan. They managed to avoid quarantine and smuggle the goat into France. Bill stayed with his unit, suffering shrapnel wounds, shell shock, and trench foot. He went missing once, and was once arrested for eating military equipment. Yet he was credited with saving at least three lives when he head-butted men into a trench to avoid an exploding shell.

Sgt. Bill was honored with the 1914 Star, the General Service Medal, and the Victory Medal for his war efforts, and, after being retired, returned to Saskatchewan. After he died, the goat was mounted and is now a part of the Broadview Museum. The hero goat of World War I is the subject of an upcoming movie, The Invincible Sgt. Bill.

2. Siwash // Marine Duck

Lt. Col. Presley M. Rixey // Public Domain

The First Battalion of the Tenth Marine Regiment managed to acquire a duck named Siwash as a mascot. Supposedly, a Marine won the duck in a poker game in New Zealand. Siwash accompanied the Marines to the Battle of Tarawa in 1943, where the animal engaged in hand-to-hand (or wing-to-wing) combat with a Japanese rooster. A citation was published in LIFE magazine a year later: 

For courageous action and wounds received on Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, November 1943. With utter disregard for his own personal safety, Siwash, upon reaching the beach, without hesitation engaged the enemy in fierce combat, namely, one rooster of Japanese ancestry, and though wounded on the head by repeated pecks, he soon routed the opposition. He refused medical aid until all wounded members of his section had been care of.

Siwash was referred to as “he” during the war, and then “she” in her retirement at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Trained zoo personnel probably could tell better than the Marines. Still, it’s sad that she had to hide her gender in order to serve. Siwash lived until 1954, when she died of a liver ailment. According to Siwash’s obituary, the duck's death had no connection to her “fondness for beer.” A service was held at a taxidermist’s shop.

3. Sgt. Reckless // Korean War Combat Veteran

USMC photographer via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1952, a young Korean sold his beloved race horse Ah Chim Hai (Flame in the Morning) to the U.S. Marines so he could purchase a prosthetic leg for his sister, who had lost her limb to a land mine. The Marines renamed the mare Reckless. She was very friendly with the troops, sharing their rations, entering their quarters, and snuggling with them on cold nights. Reckless's appetite was famous: She loved candy, beer, eggs, and coffee—anything the Marines ate—and would even eat poker chips or a hat if she was feeling stubborn.

Reckless was used to carry ammunition. Her finest hour came during the five-day Battle of Outpost Vega in March of 1953, when she made 51 trips to the front in just one day—most of them unaccompanied—to ferry ammunition in and wounded Marines out. That was a total of 9000 pounds of ammunition, and over 35 miles of walking under enemy fire. Reckless was wounded twice, but kept going.   

USMC photographer (Rhoades) via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For her bravery, Reckless was promoted to Staff Sergeant. She was eventually awarded two Purple Hearts and a slew of other medals. After the war, Sgt. Reckless was shipped to the U.S. She arrived in San Francisco on November 10, 1954 (the Marine Corps birthday), and was feted at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball that evening, where she ate both the cake and the flowers. Just before a parade was held for her promotion, she ate her custom-made blanket, and a substitute had to be constructed quickly to hold her medals. Sgt. Reckless lived peacefully at Camp Pendleton until her death in 1968.

4. Wojtek // Polish Artillery Bear of World War II

Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wojtek (also spelled Voytek) was a Persian bear cub who was adopted by a unit of Polish soldiers training under the British Army in the Middle East during World War II. The 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division raised him the best they could to be a good soldier. Wojtek fit in quite well—his favorite activities included wrestling, drinking beer, and taking showers. When the unit was deployed to Europe, the only way they could take Wojtek with them was to make him an official soldier. So he became Corporal Wojtek of the artillery supply unit. And he was good at that job.

The bear’s finest hour came during the Battle of Monte Cassino, when he loaded 100-pound boxes of artillery shells into trucks all day long, every day until the battle was won. The army honored Wojtek's service by putting his image, carrying ammo, on the unit's official badge. After the war, Wojtek was housed at the Edinburgh Zoo until his death in 1963. Wojtek is to be the subject of an upcoming film

5. Joe // Carrier Pigeon

War/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

Quite a few carrier pigeons were honored for their service in war, but Joe was an American pigeon from Fort Monmouth, N.J., the first non-British animal to be awarded the Dicken Medal. Joe performed an important task during a British advance on the town of Calvi Vecchia, Italy. As they were moving in, the Germans abandoned the town, just ahead of a planned U.S. air strike. As Rob Lammle wrote in a piece for mental_floss last year,

Radio communications couldn’t reach the airfield 20 miles away, so a message was strapped to Joe and he was sent to the air. The bird flew at an amazing clip, covering the entire 20 miles in only 20 minutes. His message reached the airfield just as the bombers were taxiing for take off. With only five minutes to spare, the bombing run was canceled, saving the lives of at least 1000 British troops.

Joe retired to the Detroit Zoological Gardens until he died in 1961 at age 18. His body was mounted and displayed for years at Fort Monmouth, which closed in 2011.

6. Sgt. Stubby // Hero Dog of World War I

Stubby wandered into the encampment and was adopted by the 102nd infantry of Massachusetts in 1917. When the infantry shipped out to Europe, Stubby was smuggled onto the ship bound for France. During World War I, Stubby kept watch and alerted the troops to German attacks. He was wounded by a hand grenade, gassed several times, and once found a German spy and held him by the seat of the pants until American troops could complete the capture.

When his master, Corporal J. Robert Conroy was wounded, Stubby accompanied him to the hospital and made rounds to cheer the troops. He eventually became a highly decorated dog, amassing medals for service, campaigns, and battles, a Purple Heart, and various veteran's awards. A group of French women made Stubby a chamois blanket decorated with Allied flags to display his medals.

Stubby returned home at the end of the war and became quite the celebrity. He was made a lifetime member of the American Legion, the YMCA, and the Red Cross. He lived at the Y and made recruiting tours for the Red Cross. When Stubby passed on in 1926, he was preserved and displayed with his medals at the Smithsonian Institution.

7. Simon // Ship’s Cat

Screenshot via YouTube

Simon was born in 1947 in Hong Kong. As a half-grown cat, he was taken aboard the HMS Amethyst to control rats. In 1949, the ship was attacked on the Yangtze River in China by communists. Simon was wounded and not found for days. The injured sailors had been evacuated, so the ship's doctor nursed Simon's facial burns and shrapnel wounds. As Simon recovered, he resumed rat catching, but also added visiting sick and wounded sailors to his list of duties.

Upon return to Hong Kong, Simon was presented with a campaign ribbon and news that he would receive a Dicken Medal, an award for animal gallantry. When the Amethyst reached England, Simon had to go into quarantine; sadly, he developed an infection and died just before his planned formal medal ceremony. The veterinarian believed the young cat would have recovered if his war wounds hadn't weakened him. Simon was buried in a specially-made casket with full naval honors.

8. Tirpitz // Swimming German Pig of World War I

Tirpitz was a pig carried on the German warship SMS Dresden in 1914 as a food source. The Dresden was sunk in battle with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Glasgow off the coast of South America during the Battle of Más a Tierra. Tirpitz managed to escape the sinking ship and swam towards the Glasgow. The crew brought him aboard and adopted him as a mascot, named him after German admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and awarded him the Iron Cross for bravery.

After a year aboard the Glasgow, he was transferred to the Whale Island Gunnery School in Portsmouth. Tirpitz was eventually auctioned off as pork, but in his final act he raised £1785 for the British Red Cross. His head was mounted and can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London. Tirpitz's trotters (feet) were made into handles for a carving set that traveled with the Glasgow in World War II, giving Tirpitz the dubious honor of serving aboard the ship in two wars.

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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