Day 680: The Forgotten Four-Legged Heroes

originally published November 10, 2013

Every few years Remembrance and/or Veterans Day drops itself beside a weekend, giving us an extra day to lie on the couch while watching a TLC marathon of Say Yes To The Dress while eating Ovaltine with a spoon. But this holiday is different – it’s not a throwaway day off like Columbus Day or Victoria Day, nor is it a day custom-built for the followers of any specific religion. We are all supposed to take some time and pay at least a modicum of mental tribute to the brave men and women who died so that we could have the freedom to watch crap TV and fill our yap-holes with chocolate drink powder.

Americans believe in this duty so strongly they have two holidays every year for this purpose. Canada has opted to devote our May day-off to Queen Victoria, though no one has ever told me why. I think we should take a clue from our southern brethren and sistren, and add a second day to honor our war heroes. But with a twist.

Instead of saluting only our fallen men and women, how about a day just for the animals who have given so much to the cause? Okay, it’s not like they signed up for the fight but animals have played a much larger part in past conflicts than acting as vehicles in the cavalry or keeping up morale by using their feline charm on the troops aboard a battleship.

It has been almost 500 days since I wrote about Sgt. Stubby, the most decorated pooch in US Army history. But Stubby wasn’t the only four-legged beast to suit up in khaki fatigues for the good of some nation or another.

In February of 1942, a regiment of the Australian Air Force came across an injured 6-month-old kelpie (that’s an Autralian sheep dog). He was patched up, given the name of Gunner, and placed in the care of Leading Aircraftman Percy Westcott. The troops quickly recognized that Gunner would whimper and whine and jump around like his colon was on fire right before Japanese bombers would show up in the sky to bomb the Northern Territory capital of Darwin, where they were stationed.

Gunner became a reliable signal, recognizing an impending attack squadron twenty minutes before the planes would show up on radar. When allied planes would take off or land, Gunner wouldn’t bat an eye – it was as though he knew the distant hum of the bad guys. He was so reliable they would blare the air raid siren whenever Gunner would start to wig out. He was never wrong. Just another compelling case for a global Animal-morial Day holiday.

No one ever said you had to move fast to be a war hero. Well, maybe somebody said it, but clearly they’d never met Timothy the war-tortoise. Timothy was discovered by Captain John Courtenay Everard of the British Royal Navy in 1854. He was given his name and assigned as a mascot aboard various ships up through 1892, inspiring soldiers aboard the HMS Queen during the Crimean War. After his 35+ years of military service, Timothy retired to Powderham Castle where he lived with the Earl of Devon.

Timothy was discovered to be a female in 1926 – nobody had bothered to perform a dink-check before that. He continued to live as a pampered veteran for a long time, and when he passed away in 2004, it’s believed he was more than 160 years old. Needless to say, he was the last surviving veteran of the Crimean War, probably by about 80 years.

The Polish Army was fighting for the return of its home in World War II, and as such their animal heroes needed a bit more heft. Wojtek the Bear was found by a local boy in Iran, then sold to a young Polish refugee who subsequently donated him to the Army cause. Wojtek was taught to salute, loved to wrestle the troops, and enjoyed a cool beer and a cigarette with his dinner. But Wojtek was no slack-off tortoise-ish mascot showpiece. He was officially drafted into the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.

During the Battle of Monte Cassino he transported crates of ammunition to help his fellow soldiers. Following the war Wojtek was donated to the Edinburgh Zoo where he remained a popular attraction. Tourists would toss him cigarettes, which the bear would eat since zookeepers were reluctant to light them for him. He died in 1963, but a statue of Wojtek stands proudly in Krakow, with another one recently approved for display in Edinburgh.

While I’m not certain how effective a pig would be in a combat situation, King Neptune the pig did a fine job helping out the war effort back home. He was born on Sherman Boner’s pig farm (please… no giggling) in 1942. King Neptune was destined for a fundraising pig roast, but US Navy recruiter Don C. Lingle came up with an idea: he decided to auction the pig to raise money for war bonds.

King Neptune was auctioned off several times on his tour around the state of Illinois, always getting returned to be re-auctioned again. On March 6, 1943, Illinois Governor Dwight H. Green bought him for $1 million on behalf of the state. One of the pig’s bristles went at for $500 that same day. Keep in mind this is 1940’s dollars – in total the pig was responsible for bringing in over $19 million, the equivalent of nearly a quarter-billion dollars in today’s money.

Out of respect for his work, King Neptune was buried with military honors and not converted into bacon.

William Windsor isn’t just the name of that guy with the new baby on the front page of your local supermarket tabloids. It’s also the name of a goat who hooked up with the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh in the British Army. This battalion has held a goat among its ranks since 1775, and apparently “Billy” was descended from that first goat. Billy was not a war hero; his only duties were to march in front of royalty or in parades. Billy did this with honor, except for that one little blunder.

While marching near Limassol, Cyprus, for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday, Billy became a little ornery and head-butt-y. As a result he was demoted from lance corporal to fusilier. There was apparently an actual disciplinary hearing to decide this – I suppose this is what happens in the army when there’s no war to keep them busy. Luckily Billy learned from his stupidity and performed admirably at the next… I don’t know, the next goat-marching event. He was promoted back to lance corporal.

Having never served in the armed forces, I can only imagine the intensely vivid fear of existing in harm’s way during one’s time of service. Having an animal there seems as though it would be inspiring, comforting, and possibly a tiny furry tether to one’s sanity. So let’s give these creatures a day, ideally one that involves a mandatory day off from work with pay for us working schlubs. And our pets. Until that happens, we’ll just have to keep a thought for them on November 11.

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