War heroes don’t have to be human.
As a dedicated advocate on behalf of animals, Peters Township resident Faith Bjalobok was aware that four-legged friends – two-legged with wings, as well – had distinguished themselves during various military encounters.
But she didn’t know the depth of their accomplishments until she started researching the topic, learning the list includes a wider variety of mammals and birds than many people would have guessed.
An adjunct lecturer at Duquesne University, where she earned her doctorate in philosophy, Bjalobok gave a presentation on her findings during a recent fundraiser, hosted by Eighty Four Agway in North Strabane, on behalf of the nonprofit Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans
Crimean Tom and Simon
As founder of the Fluffyjean Fund for Felines, a trap-neuter-vaccinate-release program for feral cats, Bjalobok has a particular interest in war heroes of the Felis domestic genus.
In 1854, during the Crimean War, British and French troops occupied the Russian port town of Sevastopol following a yearlong siege. Unfortunately, their supplies were exhausted. Fortunately, a cat later known as Crimean Tom or Sevastopol Tom knew how to help.
“Tom led the famished troops to caches of food beneath the rubble, which had been hidden all along the waterfront by the Russian defenders,” PetMD reports. “Though not an official military cat, Tom was adopted as a mascot by the grateful soldiers and was taken along to England when the troops were called back.”
Ninety-five years later, a British Royal Navy cat called Simon was awarded the United Kingdom’s Dickin Medal for animal bravery. Aboard the HMS Amethyst on the Yangtze River during the Chinese civil war, Simon hunted rats that threatened the ship’s food supply.
“One particularly vicious rat, nicknamed Mao Tse-tung, carried out repeated attacks on the meager food supplies,” according to the U.K. organization People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. “When Simon killed it, the crew were so impressed they promoted Simon to ‘Able Seaman’ in recognition of his achievement.”
Among the many canine war heroes was a dog named Stubby, for his short tail. He became the mascot of the U.S. Army’s 102nd Infantry, 26th Division, and in early 1918, he accompanied the soldiers to France in early 1918, where he was exposed to poison gas.
“The injury left him sensitive to the tiniest trace of gas. When the division was attacked in an early morning gas launch, most of the troops were asleep. Stubby recognized the gas and ran through the trench barking and biting at the soldiers, rousing them to sound the gas alarm, saving many from injury,” according to “The Story of Sgt. Stubby” on the Army’s 213th Regiment website.
“Stubby also had a talent for locating wounded men between the trenches of the opposing armies. He would listen for the sound of English and then go to the location, barking until paramedics arrived or leading the lost soldiers back to the safety of the trenches.
“He even caught a German soldier mapping out the layout of the Allied trenches. The soldier called to Stubby, but he put his ears back and began to bark. As the German ran, Stubby bit him on the legs, causing the soldier to trip and fall. He continued to attack the man until the U.S. soldiers arrived.
“For capturing an enemy spy, Stubby was put in for a promotion to the rank of sergeant by the commander of the 102nd Infantry. He became the first dog to be given rank in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Staff Sgt. Reckless
In addition to her work with cats, Bjalobok runs a rescue farm for horses and other animals.
During the Korean War, a filly named Reckless served the U.S. Marine Corps to the extent she eventually was promoted to staff sergeant by Gen. Randolph McCall Pate, the highest ranking Marine in Korea. Her mission was to help transport shells uphill for use in long-range recoilless rifles along the mountainous front.
The Horse Stars Hall of Fame, which inducted Reckless in 2014, tells of her experiences during the Battle for Outpost Vegas in April 1953.
“She was wounded twice, patched up and resumed her work without hesitation. Time and again, her fellow Marines marveled at her resoluteness, as she maneuvered across areas where shrapnel was falling and ran along the narrow berms beside the rice paddies, never stepping off into the mine-laden bogs,” a listing from the hall of fame said.
“In one day alone, she made 51 trips to the recoilless rifles sites, in all traveling more than 35 miles. She carried 386 of the heavy shells, each weighing 20 to 23 pounds, depending on their content, a total of over 9,000 pounds of explosives. Then, descending the ridge to reload, she carried the wounded or dead on her back. It is acknowledged that because of what Reckless accomplished in battle, many Marines came home who might not have otherwise.”
One animal of significant value during wars of the distant past was the carrier pigeon, serving as an effective means of distance communication before the advent of wireless transmission.
In World War I, the U.S. Army Signal Corps used hundreds of the message-bearing birds. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918, the last Allied push of the conflict, the Corps’ 77th Division pushed too far into the French forest and became surrounded by Germans.
Enter Cher Ami, a male carrier pigeon.
“The brave bird flew straight into the German fire, dodging bullets as he went. However, his luck did not last for long. Cher Ami was hit in the chest soon after takeoff, as American soldiers watched in horror as their last hope hit the ground,” according to the United States World War I Centennial Commission.
“Against all odds, though, Cher Ami got up again. Wounded but still alive, the little bird took flight again, charging head-on into wave after wave of gunfire. By the end of the trip, he covered 25 miles in roughly half an hour.”
For saving human lives, Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honors.
In 1942, members of the Polish army adopted a Syrian brown bear cub named Wojtek. He apparently was quite the character.
“As he grew, he was given marmalade, fruit, syrup and honey, and was often rewarded with beer, which fast became his favorite drink,” War History Online states. “Just like the soldiers around him, he started off his mornings drinking coffee, and he frequently smoked (and ate) cigarettes.
Beyond comic relief, the 440-pound bear provided his share of heroics, according to the site.
“Wojtek was present at the Battle of Monte Cassino (Italy) in 1944, where he is credited with helping move crates of ammunition, an effort for which he was promoted to the rank of corporal,” the site says. “There are many who disregard this tale as fiction, but at least one account exists. A British soldier recalled seeing a bear mimicking the troops and it was able to lift boxes that would normally require four men.”
Several books have been written about him, including “Wojtek: War Hero Bear” by Jenny Robertson, “Soldier Bear” by Bibi Dumon Tak and “Wojtek: The Bear Who Went to War” by Bob Moulder and Moy McCrory.
Sgt. Jack Cornelius
As a duck serving for 18 months as a morale-boosting mascot of a pack howitzer unit of the 2nd Marine Division, Sgt. Jack Cornelius – named after a human sergeant from Washington State, although the fowl turned out to be female – was the subject of a lighthearted story that appeared in the Oct. 7, 1944, issue of the Marine Corps Chevron.
According to the article, the duck “added a footnote to Marine battle lore at Tarawa,” fought Nov. 20-23, 1943, when she chased a “rooster up the beach while the fighting was at its height.”
As of the article’s writing, it still had to be determined whether the duck “was a WR (Woman Reservist) or a Marine. The question of the sergeant’s Stateside uniform hinges upon the answer to that one.”
In the meantime, “the salty sergeant suffered his first wound aboard the transport bringing him back. He stepped on something sharp and cut his ‘foot,'” the artcile says.
“Because all returning veterans are restricted to the base while being processed at the R&R Center, (Sgt. Jack) has had none of his favorite beverage – beer – since leaving foreign soil.”
Billy, or simply Bill, a goat from Saskatchewan, served as a Canadian Expeditionary Force mascot during World War I, helping to boost morale among the troops in Europe.
“The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War,” a 2019 book written by Mireille Messier and illustrated by Kass Reich, tells of how Billy trained with the soldiers, was smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean and was sneaked onto the front line in a crate of oranges. He also ate some secret documents and was imprisoned for treason, but he redeemed himself by head-butting soldiers into a trench, saving their lives from incoming artillery shells.
For that, Billy was promoted to the rank of sergeant, and he returned to Canada a decorated war hero.
During World War I, a pig called Tirpitz was originally aboard the German Imperial Fleet cruiser SMS Dresden as a mascot.
Following the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, the Dresden was sunk by the British HMS Glasgow. An officer on the Glasgow rescued Tirpitz, and he – some sources claim the hog was female – became the mascot of a new ship.
Toward the end of the war, Tirpitz was auctioned off to raise money, including a Dec. 13, 1917, sale to the Duke of Portland for the benefit of the Red Cross Society. Another sale’s proceeds went to the Agricultural Relief of the Allies Fund.