The WWII Sinking of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea: And the Stories of Survivors

USS Lexington (CV-2) on October 14, 1941, leaving San Diego, California. Aircraft on the flight deck include TBD torpedo bombers, F2A fighters, and SBD scout bombers. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 

The aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed  “Lady Lex,” was the fourth United States (US) Navy ship to be named after the American Revolutionary War 1775 Battle of Lexington. The ship was commissioned in 1928 and would serve until its sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4 – 8, 1942).

On December 7, 1941, fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), in a surprise attack, bombed Pearl Harbor and other US military installations on Oahu, then the US Territory of Hawaii. There were three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet at that time. The USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise were at sea ferrying aircraft to Midway Island and Wake Island, respectively.  The third aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, was preparing to leave San Diego, California, following an overhaul at the Bremerton, Washington, Puget Sound Naval Yard.

The Lexington arrived back in Pearl Harbor on December 13.  The ship would return to sea to patrol the Pacific and take part in US naval operations as part of Task Force (TF) 11.

In April 1942 the Allied codebreakers at Pearl Harbor deciphered the Japanese naval operation code JN (Japanese Navy) – 25.  They had information that the Japanese were planning a major attack, Operation Mo, on Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Gaining control of New Guinea would have isolated both Australia and New Zealand from their allies in the South Pacific.  

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, ordered TF 17 to the Coral Sea to counter Japanese operations. The aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown were the two carriers in TF 17.  [The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was later sunk during the Battle of Midway June 4 – 7, 1942.  The USS Yorktown (CV-10) was commissioned April 15, 1943, and served in the Pacific through WWII.)

 

Coral Sea. Map Wikipedia.

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea.  It would be the first battle in history fought between aircraft carriers.

On May 3, 1942, the Japanese landed on the island of Tulagi (a first step of Operation Mo) in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

On May 4 Vice Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, upon getting an intelligence report of the landing, ordered aircraft from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese landing group. Japanese intelligence had not reported American ships in the area, and they were taken by surprise.  

IJN Fourth Fleet Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue and Carrier Striking Force Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi began the search to find the Americans.  

With limited visibility in the area of operations, neither the Americans nor the Japanese were successful in immediately finding the opposing enemy carrier force. 

On May 7 the Japanese found and sunk the destroyer USS Sims and badly damaged the fleet oiler USS Neosho

Also on May 7 aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown sunk the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō.

American and Japanese naval forces became aware of the enemy fleet positions on May 8.  

Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commanding officer of the Lexington, ordered “General Quarters” at 0552 hours (military time) that morning. Carriers on both sides started launching aircraft shortly after 0900 hours.  Two torpedoes hit the port side of the Lexington at 1120 hours to be followed by another two bombs.    

USS Lexington hit by two torpedoes and two bombs on May 8, 1942. Wikipedia Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

Torpedo and bomb damage resulted in a jammed hydraulic ship elevator, flooding in boiler rooms, and ruptured gasoline fuel storage tanks on the port side causing fires and explosions.  The fires could not be extinguished, and Captain Sherman ordered “abandon ship” at 1707 hours.  TF 17 destroyers and cruisers rescued sailors and marines abandoning the Lexington.

 

Sailors and marines evacuating the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosion on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942, shortly after Captain Sherman left the ship. Note aircraft being blown off the deck. Destroyer USS Hammann ship’s bow is shown in far left of photograph rescuing the crew.  National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosions and fires on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington D.C.

 

By 1830 hours 2,735 surviving sailors and marines had been evacuated from the Lexington.  Two hundred and sixteen men had been killed in action.  

Captain Sherman was the last man to leave the Lexington.

The destroyer USS Phelps was ordered to sink the Lexington for several reasons:  (1) the ship could not be saved, (2) the US Navy did not want the Lexington to become a trophy for the Japanese, and (3) the US Navy did not want it discovered that the ship had been lost — at least not at that time.

The Phelps fired torpedoes into the Lexington at 1841 hours.  It was reported that the hull was glowing “cherry red” from the fires.  The ship took about an hour to sink.  

There were losses of men and ships on both sides. But the Allies had blocked the Operation Mo Japanese drive into the Coral Sea to Port Moresby.  Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue ordered the Japanese invasion force to return to port.

[The public would learn of the loss of the USS Lexington (CV-2) in June 1942.  The Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, where the ship was originally built, was in the process of building a new ship to be named the USS Cabot.  The shipyard petitioned US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to change the name of the ship from Cabot to Lexington, and he agreed.  The (fifth) USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned on February 17, 1943, and would be assigned to the Pacific.  The Japanese several times would sight CV-16 and were confused thinking the ship had been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. CV-16 got the nickname “The Blue Ghost.”]

 

Stories about the survivors of the sinking of the USS Lexington (CV-2) .

 

James A. Phinney III.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on July 15, 2010.  He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

James A. Phinney III oral history interview July 15, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas.  Photograph video frame from 2010 interview.

 

Jim was born in Childress, Texas, on November 12, 1923, and was raised in Hugo, Oklahoma.  He graduated from high school in May 1941 and then joined the US Navy.  He was on his way to church on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.

After training stateside Jim was assigned to the USS Lexington. While training in Pearl Harbor awaiting the arrival of the aircraft carrier that was out to sea, he recalled that he and his friends would run over to a nearby Dole Pineapple Company building to drink pineapple juice coming out of the drinking fountains.

Jim would board the Lexington in April 1942.  He was assigned as an electrician Seaman First Class.

On  May 8, 1942, Jim was on the flight deck checking electrical systems in the aircraft.  He caught sight of a plane flying off the port side of the ship that dropped something.  His first thought was that something fell off a plane and that “somebody has sure messed up.” It was actually a Japanese torpedo plane dropping the first torpedo to hit the Lexington

After hours of fighting off attacking Japanese airplanes and fighting fires, the crew was ordered to “abandon ship.”  

Jim related in his interview that there was a plan to evacuate the crew in groups.  He said his group had a period of time to wait until their turn to evacuate, so they went to the “ship’s service store soda fountain,” also known as the “Gedunk,” and ate ice cream.  [Ice cream in WWII was a great treat for the sailors and marines.  You will be reading about ice cream again later in this story.]

It was about 65 feet down from the flight deck to the water.  Before starting down the rope lines, Jim said they took the emergency life rafts out of the remaining aircraft (36 aircraft would be lost in the sinking), inflated the rafts, and threw them overboard.  After getting in the water, they swam to the rafts.  A cruiser was the first to try to rescue them off the raft without success.  The destroyer USS Hammann would later pick them up. He said the crew of the destroyer had to “scrub them down” because they were soaked in salt water and fuel oil.  [The Hammann would later be sunk at the Battle of Midway.]

On the way to Tonga [an archipelago of 169 islands in the South Pacific at that time a British Protectorate],  the rescued crew on the Hammann were transferred to the cruiser USS Portland.  From Tonga a troop ship took them to San Diego.

 

Tonga archipelago in South Pacific Ocean. Map WorldAtlas.com.

 

Jim’s next assignment would be on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.  

Having several shore assignments after the Enterprise, then First Class Petty Officer Electricians Mate James Phinney would be in Houston, Texas, when he heard WWII ended.

Jim, after being discharged from the US Navy, would use the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill) to further his education.  After that he rejoined the US Navy and would retire as a Warrant Officer with over 20 years of service.

Jim passed away on September 9, 2015.

 

Julius Harry Frey.  Oral History Interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 6, 2013. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Harry Frey. Photograph mynssa.nssa-nsca.org.

 

Harry was born in Laredo, Texas, on March 6, 1923.  When he was six weeks old the family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was 17 years old when he joined the US Navy in 1940 and had not graduated from high school.  [In 1946 after serving in WWII he would graduate from Breckenridge High School in San Antonio and continue his education.] 

Trained in the military as an Aviation Metalsmith, Harry’s first assignment was on the USS Lexington.  He was assigned to the pilot “ready room” keeping statistics on the aircraft.

The Lexington was two days at sea out from Pearl Harbor delivering aircraft to Midway Island when the ship’s captain announced that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.  The ship returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13.  Harry remarked in his interview that the oil on the water was about two inches thick and difficult for smaller boats to even pass through it.

On May 8, 1942, Harry was standing on the landing at the Lexington emergency battery locker of the ship’s superstructure when the first torpedo hit the ship.  Aircraft were trying to land, others trying to take off, some planes landed and were shoved over the side, and others were sent to land on the USS Yorktown.

When Captain Sherman gave the order to “abandon ship” Harry reported to his muster station on the port side of the ship near the aft (stern) elevator. The area was just above the Gedunk.  While his group was waiting to evacuate, Harry remembered the ice cream.  

From Harry’s interview, “So, I rolled off the flight deck onto the next level. There was a big lock on the hatch going into the Gedunk.  Now there was a fire axe there, so I took the axe, and it took only one blow to knock off the lock.  I went in and took my helmet off, … , and I went behind the counter and loaded my helmet with pineapple ice cream.  …  Then I went out and I tossed it up to my buddy on the flight deck.” His buddy and others rolled off the flight deck, went into the Gedunk, and got more ice cream. He and his buddies got back up to the deck, and Harry continued, “So, when they came around to muster, everybody was up there eating ice cream.”

Harry would evacuate the Lexington using rope lines.  He was wearing a life jacket but took if off because it was difficult to swim. After about 30 minutes swimming he was picked up by the destroyer USS Morris.  Again from Harry’s interview, “Someone grabbed me and hauled me up on the deck.  I must have laid there for fifteen or twenty minutes … I looked, and I saw these ox-blood shiny shoes and the trouser had a sharp crease in them and this guy says, ‘I know this guy.  He is from our neighborhood back in San Antonio.’  He was a marine on the Morris.”

Harry and others rescued by the Morris were transferred to the cruiser USS Chester and transported to Tonga and then to San Diego.

After visiting his family in San Antonio Harry was assigned to the escort carrier USS Card. The Card provided protection for convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, searched for German submarines, and would see action in the North African Campaign (June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943).  Harry’s next assignment was the aircraft carrier USS Bennington.  

Being on the shakedown cruise of both the Card and Bennington earned Harry what the US Navy calls a “Plank Owner” card for the two ships.

After WWII Harry used the GI Bill to get a degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma.  

Harry did earn some credits from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas.  He said he was into roping at that time and could take his horse with him. 

Harry Frey passed away on August 22, 2016.  On July 15, 2017, his and his wife’s ashes were “buried at sea” from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with a 21 gun salute at the location in the Coral Sea where the USS Lexington (CV-2) sank in WWII.

 

Harry Frey’s burial at sea with a 21 gun salute on the USS Ronald Reagan July 15, 2017. US Navy.

 

 

[After my oral history colleague, Floyd Cox, and I interviewed Jim Phinney and Harry Frey, we realized they didn’t know each other while assigned to the Lexington nor that they both lived in San Antonio.  I asked their permission and passed on contact information to them.

Jim and Harry got together for hamburgers over lunch in San Antonio and talked about their experiences on the Lexington.

I forgot to ask if they had ice cream for dessert.]

 

The Patten brothers from Iowa.  

 

Seven Patten brothers assigned to the battleship USS Nevada. Photograph siouxcityjournal.com.

 

December 7, 1941, the battleship USS Nevada was berthed next to the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.  Because of battleship arrival times at Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was berthed in the usual place of the Nevada.  

The Nevada was badly damaged during the surprise Japanese attack. All the brothers survived and were then assigned to the Lexington. The Patten brothers were all survivors of the sinking of the Lexington.

After the death of the five Sullivan brothers in the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Patten brothers served on different ships.

Floyd Patten, the boys’ father, received an age waiver during WWII to join the Navy.  Sadly he died of cancer in March 1945.  

The youngest Patten brother, Wayne, had the nickname “Patten pending” until he was old enough to join the Navy. 

The eight Patten brothers would all return home when WWII ended. 

 

Admiral Wags.  Commanding officer of the USS Lexington, Captain Sherman, had his dog Admiral Wags with him on the ship.  He was a cocker spaniel that according to the tale (not the tail) had his own muster station under the captain’s bed.

 

Picture of Admiral Wags and Captain Sherman. Photographs defensemedianetwork.com.

 

Captain Sherman was the last man off the Lexington and was able to rescue Admiral Wags.  Evacuated on different ships, they were reunited at Tonga.

Fanny Jessop Sherman, wife of Captain Sherman, wrote a children’s book about Admiral Wags published in 1943.

Admiral Wags passed away and was buried in the Shermans’ backyard with “full military honors” in 1949 at the age of 17.

 

 

Writer and WWII US Navy veteran Herman Wouk wrote two books about WWII The Winds of War and War and Remembrance that were made into two miniseries in the 1980s.  During the filming of War and Remembrance the USS Lexington (CV-16) [which at that time was designated AVT-16, training aircraft carrier] was used as a stand-in for both US Navy and IJN ships recreating battles in the Pacific.  

 

Staging on the flight deck of the USS Lexington (AVT-16) during the filming of War and Remembrance.  Photograph nara.getarchive.net.

 

The USS Lexington is now the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The book Stay the Rising Sun by Phil Keith has an extremely detailed  narrative of the sinking of the USS Lexington and the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

An article with more information on Admiral Wags can be found on the Defense Media Network website.

On March 4, 2018, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s expedition crew of the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel discovered the wreckage of the USS Lexington (CV-2) 76 years after being sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interviews of James Phinney and Julius Harry Frey are in the museum archive.  Jim Phinney’s oral history interview can be listened to online.

Thank you to Floyd Cox, my oral historian colleague, at the National  Museum of the Pacific War.  

Thank you to US Navy veteran and US Naval Academy graduate Clifford L. Deets (Lcdr, USN ret.) for providing information on Navy terminology and Navy life.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

 

Boike Flies WWII B-17 “Mascot” Position with the 306th Bombardment Group

Boike photographed still in his parachute after a jump from a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress over England.

 

State of Nebraska native Boike joined the United States Army Air Force in October 1943. He flew “Mascot” position with the WWII B-17 Flying Fortress “Weary Bones” Lieutenant Walter H. Keilt crew, 306th Bombardment Group, 368th Bomb Squadron, stationed in Thurleigh, England.

Boike’s story below as told by Walter Keilt. 

Who was Boike?

Boike was a dog.  He was also the crew mascot for my gang which flew “Weary Bones”  ….  Boike first made his appearance one October 1943 evening in the BOQ [Bachelor Officers Quarters] at Grand Rapids, NE [Nebraska].  He was accompanied by six assorted crew member sergeants and a mysterious looking flight bag.

“Lieutenant [Keilt], this is Boike, our new mascot.”

Five-Pound Wonder  

He didn’t look like much, being of doubtful lineage.  He was all black except for a small white patch on his chest and white paws.  He weighed all of five pounds.  Somewhere in his background was Scotch terrier blood.

“Are we correct in assuming he is flying to the UK [United Kingdom] with us?” the four officers questioned.

“Oh, yes.  He is definitely flying over with us and will be a full-fledged member of the crew.”

“What happens to Boike when we have to go to altitude and have to put on oxygen masks?”

“No problem, sir.  We have all that taken care of.”  Whereupon the mysterious flight bag was opened and eager hands produced a standard oxygen mask which had obviously been modified by an additional strap.

“But does it fit?”

“Oh, yes.  As you can see it fits securely over his snout.”  And indeed it did with no apparent leaks.

“Ah, yes, but what happens if we have to jump out and hit the silk [bail out]?”

Boike’s Own Parachute

Back to the bag again and out came a small parachute and special “dog” harness made by some sympathizing parachute packer.  It was very tiny but fit snugly around his chest, stomach, and front legs.  The chute diameter was alleged to be about six feet.  And so it was agreed that Boike was indeed an official crew member and was going to war with us.

One afternoon months later [in England], during a “stand down,” into the officers’ quarters come the enlisted crew with determined looks on their faces.

“Lieutenant,” someone said, “we have decided that Boike is not a real member of our crew as he has not even flown a single mission.  All he does is eat and get fat.”

“So what?” we asked.  “What can you expect of a mere dog?”

“We have a mission planned for him,” was the answer.  “He is going to make a parachute jump, and then he will be a real crew member.”

“And how is he going to make this jump?” we asked.

“Very simple, sir.  In two days, as you know, we are scheduled to ‘slow time’ a new engine on ‘Weary Bones.’  We, including Boike, will be on board, and you will fly over Thurleigh with flaps down, as slow as you can fly, and we will drop Boike out of the tail gunner’s hatch.”

“You have to be kidding” was our incredulous answer.  “If the chute doesn’t open, we will all be murderers, and I could get court-martialed for ‘dog murder’.”

Can’t Fail, Says Crew

“But sir, we have done everything to make this a ‘no fail’ mission.  We have enlarged the harness, installed a static line on the chute, and tested the whole thing by dropping it attached to a rock from the control tower.  We can’t fail, and Boike will be as safe as it is possible to be.”

“Besides,” they continued, “we will have a photographer on the ground taking pictures.  We will take pictures of him just before he hits the ground.  We’ll send the pictures to Stars and Stripes [an American newspaper reporting war news], and we’ll all be famous.”

No amount of protesting from us could deter the crew from going through with this doubtful event.  And so, on 5 June 1944 at 1000 [10 am] hours, “Weary Bones” was seen flying at 1,000 feet over Thurleigh with half flaps at 120 mph [miles per hour].  Aboard was the entire crew with the exception of the bombardier who was on the ground traveling with a base photographer in a jeep.

Boike was all harnessed up with his static line attached and ready to go!

Out Came Boike!

After the third pass the fateful deed was done!  Out came Boike.  The static line did its job and down came Boike the chute blossoming over his head.  Upon wracking [banking] the ship over on its left wing, we could all see Boike rapidly speeding to the ground with hind feet dangling, suspended by a chute that seemed too small.

Down, down he went and after some thirty seconds Boike hit the ground, hind feet first.  He let out a yip and at full speed headed for the nearest patch of trees some thousand feet west.  The jeep was unfortunately on the wrong side of the field, but someone took note that Boike ran to the woods and lifted his leg on the first tree he came to.

In the meantime, up in the air, over the radio came the question, “Ship flying over Thurleigh, what are you doing throwing a dog out of the aircraft?”

“Thurleigh, this is ‘Weary Bones’ 943 [B-17 tail number 42-37943], we are just testing a parachute.”

“Roger, 943, Thurleigh tower out.”

Colonel Williams, … , who just happened to be in the [control] tower at the time, grabbed a telephone and called 368th squadron operations, “What are you crazy guys doing, throwing a poor, defenseless dog out of an airplane?” 

“It’s o.k., Colonel, that was Boike’s seventeenth jump!”

“O.K., 368th, we were just wondering what was going on.”

And so that was the end of Boike’s famous jump, and he was now an official member of Keilt’s crew.

While no photographs were taken of the descent, Boike was picked up by the jeep and driven to 368th headquarters where the accompanying picture of him [above] was taken before his parachute was removed.

Boike continued to live near the mess hall and reached a weight of thirty pounds. As far as anyone of the crew knows, Boike remained at Thurleigh long after my crew went home.

If anyone knows of descendants of Boike still living in England, please contact …………. all your friends.  It is a great story.

 

 

For information about the 306th Bombardment Group Historical Association visit 306bg.us.  The link to the above story is http://306bg.us/Echoes%20files/90jan151.pdf.

 

The Dickin Medal: A Different Kind of Hero

The Dickin Medal
The Dickin Medal

 

In 1917 Maria Dickin founded an animal charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in the United Kingdom. During WWII she introduced the Dickin Medal which honors the bravery and devotion to duty of animals in wartime. The medal is considered to be the animal equivalent of the British Victoria Cross. Recipients of the award have included pigeons, dogs, horses, and a cat. Below are the stories of three of the animal heroes.

 

Rip
Rip

Southill Street Air Raid Warden Mr. E. King found a stray dog in the Poplar area of East London in 1940. It was discovered that Rip had an instinctive ability to find people buried beneath the rubble of buildings bombed by the German Luftwaffe during the London Blitz (1940-1941). He is credited with saving the lives of over 100 people. Rip was London’s first “search and rescue” dog.

Rip’s Dickin Award Citation: “For locating many air-raid victims during the Blitz of 1940.”

 

William of Orange
William of Orange

Pigeon, William of Orange, served with the British Army Pigeon Service (APS) in WWII. When elements of the British 1st Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade were surrounded by German forces near the town of Arnhem, Netherlands, during Operation Market Garden (September 17-25, 1944), the pigeon was released with a message to carry back to England. He flew over 250 miles through bad weather in 4 hours and 25 minutes to his home loft there. His flying speed was calculated at nearly 60 miles per hour or 1,740 yards per minute. The information in the message was used to develop a troop withdrawal plan (called Operation Berlin) which resulted in over 2,000 British and Polish soldiers escaping through German lines. 

William of Orange Dickin Medal Citation: “For delivering a message from the Arnhem Airborne Operation in record time for any single pigeon, while serving with the APS in September 1944.”

 

Judy
Judy on the deck of HMS Grasshopper

Judy was an English Pointer born in Shanghai, China, in 1936 and became a British Royal Navy ship mascot on His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Gnat and later on the gunboat HMS Grasshopper.

The HMS Grasshopper was sunk February 14, 1942, during the Malaya-Singapore Campaign (1941-1942). Judy, with surviving HMS Grasshopper crew members, was marooned for a time on an uninhabited island off of Sumatra. She was able to locate fresh water on the island for them to drink. They eventually made their way to Sumatra, and after trekking 200 miles through the jungle, they were captured by the Japanese and became prisoners of war (POW). The crew members smuggled Judy into the POW camp with them.

It was at the Medan, Indonesia, Gloergoer POW camp that Judy met Royal Air Force Leading Aircraftsman Frank Williams in 1942. In the POW camp Judy would snarl and growl at Japanese guards who were beating POWs. Frank Williams knew this kind of behavior would probably result in Judy being killed. He convinced the camp commandant to register the dog as a POW hoping that would save her life. It worked. Judy became POW #81A.

In 1944, Medan camp POWs, including Judy, were put on the Steam Ship (SS) Van Waryck which was to transport them to Singapore. A torpedo from the British submarine HMS Truculent sank the ship on June 26. Judy, Frank Williams, and other POWs survived the sinking. While they were in the water, it is said Judy would swim over to drowning men, let them grab hold of her, and then swim with them to some debris or wreckage that would help them stay afloat. All were again captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Sumatra.

In 1945 WWII ended. Being hidden yet another time, Judy was smuggled back to Britain on the SS Atenor with Frank Williams and other released POWs. Frank Williams credited Judy with saving his life. He said she lifted his morale and gave him a reason to live in order to protect her.

Judy’s Dickin Medal Citation: “For magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped to maintain morale among her fellow prisoners and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness.”

 

The award of the Dickin Medal continues today.

Sir William Proctor Smith of Cheshire, England, the original owner and breeder of William of Orange, bought the pigeon from the APS after WWII ended. Smith commented, some 10 years later, that William of Orange was “the grandfather of many outstanding racing pigeons.”

 Judy was the only dog registered as a POW in WWII. She spent the rest of her life with Frank Williams after the war.

 Thank you to W. O’Konski for his assistance in writing this story.

 

Odd Man (Bear) Out: Corporal Wojtek, Polish II Corps WWII

Wojtek with Polish Soldier
Wojtek with a Polish Soldier

 

In September 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and divided Poland.  Approximately two million Polish citizens were deported by the Soviets to labor camps or imprisoned.  After Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, with the subsequent Sikorski-Mayski Agreement of July 30, 1941, and the Polish-Soviet Military Agreement of August 14, 1941,  the Soviets released  thousands of Poles to fight with the Allies. Under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders, the Poles left the Soviet Union and made their way to the Middle East.  Once there, the Poles formed the Polish II Corps and fought under British command.

A brown bear first became part of Polish WWII history in 1942. When the Poles reached Persia (Iran), they met a young boy who sold them a orphaned bear cub. The bear became a mascot for the Polish II Corps.   The Polish soldiers named him Wojtek (Voytek in English). As the bear grew he became more than a mascot and fit very well into army life. He learned how to smoke, enjoy a beer, wrestle and relax with his fellow soldiers, eat army food, go on guard duty, salute, nod his head when addressed, and liked riding in trucks. Wojtek and his fellow soldiers developed a camaraderie that would last a lifetime.

Wojtek moved with the soldiers from Persia, to Palestine, to Iraq, and then to Egypt. When the Poles were preparing to sail from Egypt to Italy, a problem arose. The ship would only transport soldiers and supplies. It is said by some that General Anders officially “enlisted” Wojtek into the Polish Army at that time. Corporal Wojtek was listed as a soldier and left for Italy.

In Italy the Poles fought with other Allied countries in the famous Battle of Monte Cassino.  In the fourth battle to capture the Benedictine monastery, the Poles reached the top of the mountain and raised the Polish flag on May 18, 1944.

Among the Polish units at Monte Cassino was the 22nd Transport Company. It was their responsibility to transport and distribute munitions, food, and fuel to the heavy artillery regiments. During the battle, one of the soldiers carrying munition boxes was Corporal Wojtek. Wojtek carrying a shell became the emblem of the company.

85px-The_badge_of_the_22nd_Artillery_Support_Company_of_the_2nd_Polish_Corps

After WWII ended, the Polish II Corps sailed from Italy to Scotland and was demobilized. WWII had ended, but Poland was not an independent, free country again. Many Poles felt they were left homeless and chose not to return to Poland after the war.

But what would become of Corporal Wojtek?

It was decided to send Wojtek to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. He had a new home, but like the Poles he was not free. There are stories of Poles who visited Wojtek at the zoo, threw him cigarettes which he ate, and proclaimed he still understood Polish. A touching story is told of a man who brought a violin to the zoo and played a Polish mazurka for Wojtek. It is said Wojtek “danced” with the music. Wojtek had the look of a bear but, indeed, had the heart of a Pole.

Wojtek was a popular resident at the Edinburgh Zoo but never again had his freedom or the camaraderie of his Polish friends. Wojtek died at the zoo on December 2, 1963.  He was about 21 years old.

In a newspaper Letters to the Editor section after Wojtek died, a Londoner, Michael George Olizar wrote, “He left his bones, like many other Polish veterans, on British soil.”

 

Wojtek, the soldier bear, is still remembered and celebrated today. His story has been told in books, a BBC documentary, and there are statues and plaques dedicated in his memory around the world.