Friday, 14 August 2015

A soldier's best friend

On the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, Katrina Schollenberger reveals the remarkable story of how a dog risked her life to save prisoners

Written by Katrina Schollenberger
On 15 August 1945 – VJ Day – Japan surrendered, bringing an end to the Second World War. Three months earlier, celebrations were rampant across Europe when the Nazis were defeated, but many had forgotten tensions were still high in the South Pacific. Thousands, known as the Forgotten Army, were still fighting in the Far East, and those who had been captured as prisoners of war in that part of the world feared they would never be found or liberated.

Britain’s most important South East Asian military base prior to the start of the Pacific War was Singapore in Malaya. Its fall in February 1942 meant over 130,000 British, Australian, Indian and Dutch personnel were taken prisoner and transported to camps in Japan, Korea, Burma, Sumatra, Manchuria and elsewhere to be used as slave labour. They were forced to carry out back-breaking work in hostile environments, with even the smallest of slip-ups resulting in sadistic punishment.

Among the malnutrition, disease and the looming threat of death, prisoners formed powerful bonds. They would share what little food rations they received with each other and imprisoned doctors would improvise medical care denied by the Japanese. But no bond could be more moving or inspiring than that between Leading Aircraftman Frank Williams and Judy, an English pointer.

Frank first met Judy – born in the Shanghai dog kennels in 1936 – at the horrific Gloegoer prisoner-of-war camp in Sumatra. With her brown-and-white spotted fur and big doe-like eyes, she had already displayed remarkable heroism and survived against astonishing odds.

Judy had been the ship’s mascot on HMS Grasshopper when that vessel and HMS Dragonfly were bombed following the evacuation of Singapore. After the survivors escaped to a small island, she saved their lives by locating fresh water. Later captured in Padang along with her fellow crew members – and at risk of being eaten – she was smuggled into the camp on a truck.

With her bones showing through her coat, she had no one to look after her. Judy immediately captured Frank’s heart. The RAF crewman began to share his meagre daily ration of maggot-infested rice with her. It was the start of what became an inseparable bond. Developing a sense of responsibility for her fellow inmates, Judy would snarl and glare at any guard that got too close to her. When the guards tried to discipline her, Frank would shoo her off into the forest, from where she would return only at the sound of his low whistle.

Frank sought to keep Judy safe by any means necessary. One night, at great risk, he approached the commandant of Gloegoer, Colonel Banno, to explain that she was vital to camp morale. He hesitantly requested that Judy be made an official prisoner of war, which would mean she was protected under the Geneva Convention, to which Banno agreed.

Before the war ended, Judy proved her loyalty to Frank and his prisoner comrades on numerous occasions. She protected them one night from a vicious beating – or even death by firing squad – after a prisoner hid some stolen rice in his bunk. When the guards began scouring the cabin, Judy came bounding in with a human skull between her jaws. The Japanese, who had a superstitious fear of anything to do with death, were thrown into disarray, and soon left, their inspection forgotten. Frank knew Judy, in some way, could sense danger, as well as sorrow, panic, happiness and fear among her human counterparts.

In June 1944, the prisoners were transferred to Singapore by boat, and Frank smuggled Judy on board in a sack, having trained her to lie completely still. When the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine (whose crew had no idea it was carrying POWs), Frank made the tough decision to push her out of a porthole into the sea.

Frank was washed ashore, with no Judy in sight. Little did he know she was acting the hero once again, bringing drowning men floating debris and allowing them to hang onto her back, thereby saving at least four lives.

The move to Singapore abandoned, the prisoners eventually ended up back in Sumatra, where they were forced to build a railroad from one side of the island to the other, passing through thick jungle and mosquito-infested swamps, and over mountains and rivers. The men, already weak, worked from dusk till dawn and were beaten with wire when they faltered. Hundreds died. Judy, avoiding the guards, caught rats and snakes for the prisoners to eat, helping to keep them alive.

By the summer of 1945, Frank was malaria-ridden and on the brink of death. In his despair he contemplated killing himself and Judy so neither would have to watch the other die. But as he was considering how to do it, she gave him a look that dispelled all thoughts of suicide. Finally, on 15 August, the Sumatran prisoners were liberated. Every one of the nearly 5,000 survivors at Pakan Baroe, the terminus of the railway, had chronic malaria, and half had beriberi.

After they were both nursed back to health, Frank and Judy received bravery awards. Judy was awarded the Dickin Medal – ‘the animals’ VC’ – for ‘magnificent courage and endurance… and for saving many lives’. Frank went on to work in Africa, accompanied, naturally, by Judy. She died there in 1950, at the age of 14.

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