9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas

Larry Holzwarth - November 3, 2017

A ship is a natural environment for cats. Countless thousands of nooks and crannies, hidden spaces, dark passages inaccessible to humans, and warm sanctuaries in which to rest make up the bowels of a ship. While some spaces are loud and brightly lit, others are shadowy and seldom visited by the humans making up the ship’s crew.

In bygone days and still on many commercial vessels today, rodents are present in the hold and other spaces, providing natural prey for cats. Rodents were one reason for the prevalence of cats aboard nearly all ships for centuries. Companionship for officers and crew were another.

In the days of sail, most ships put to sea with livestock aboard, hogs and sheep to provide fresh meat, and chickens to provide fresh eggs and another source of meat. Crew members often adopted some animals for a time – particularly roosters, who were given names proclaiming fighting prowess – but it was difficult to become too attached to something which in the near future may be a meal. Ship’s cats provided companionship and served as a good luck charm for their ship and crew.

Ship cats are no longer legal in either the British or American Navy, and health regulations prohibit them on most commercial ships. But many ship’s cats have been memorialized around the world, noted for their service and contributions to the history of the sea. Here are the stories of a few notable ship’s cats.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
This photo is believed by many to be of Unsinkable Sam, also known as Oskar, who survived the sinking of three ships. Wikimedia

Unsinkable Sam

When Germany’s massive new battleship Bismarck put to sea for its first raiding voyage on Allied shipping in May 1941, more than 2,000 men were aboard. There was also at least one cat, brought aboard by its young sailor/owner for a voyage which would prove to be both short and singularly violent.

On the morning of May 24, Bismarck engaged two British warships, the new battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood, long the most powerful warship in England’s arsenal. After a short engagement, Hood was blown up by a salvo from Bismarck’s guns (some claim it was Bismarck’s consort, the cruiser Prinz Eugen, which fired the fatal shots). Prince of Wales retreated and the damaged Bismarck steamed onward.

Infuriated and dismayed at the loss of the pride of the British Navy, and concerned over the damage Bismarck could inflict if loose in the Atlantic, the Royal Navy sent every available ship in pursuit of the German battleship. On the morning of May 27, after several air and surface harassing attacks on Bismarck, a task force of battleships and cruisers caught the enemy and sank her with guns and torpedoes.

It is unknown how many of Bismarck’s crew survived the shelling which the ship endured – it was ferocious – because many of the German crew were left in the water when the British ships were forced to leave the scene due to warnings of U-Boats in the area. A little over 100 German sailors were rescued by the British ships before leaving the area.

Later that morning the crew of HMS Cossack, a destroyer which had harassed the Bismarck before the final battle, spotted wreckage in the area near where the sinking had occurred. Among the wreckage on a piece of broken wooden framing was a black and white cat, coated with oil. The crew of the Cossack, which was homeward bound for refueling and replenishment, took the cat aboard. Believing that the animal had survived the sinking of the German battleship they gave it the German name Oskar and adopted it as a new ship’s cat in Cossack.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
Pastel of Unsinkable Sam, done during his retirement in Belfast. Wikimedia

Oskar/Unsinkable Sam

Oskar remained in Cossack as a member of the crew and was aboard when the destroyer was sent to the Mediterranean that fall. Cossack was soon busy with convoying duties, protecting merchant and transport ships from U-Boats, and in that role traveled between Gibraltar and ports in the British Isles. The ship was off Gibraltar when it was torpedoed by a U-Boat on October 23, 1941. Three days later the ship sank after attempts to tow it to Gibraltar failed. More than 150 of her crew were lost. Oskar survived and was taken with the other survivors to Gibraltar. Having now survived the sinking of two warships, British sailors took to calling the cat Unsinkable Sam.

Sam was next brought aboard HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier which had been instrumental in the sinking of Sam’s first home. Just a few weeks later Ark Royal was returning to Gibraltar from Malta when another U-Boat’s torpedoes found their mark. The carrier was severely damaged but sank slowly enough that all of the crew which survived the torpedo attack were rescued from the water, save one.

Oskar/Sam was one such survivor, brought on board a launch from the destroyer HMS Legion – the ship which had rescued him when Cossack sank. According to witnesses, Oskar was unharmed, but “angry.” Oskar/Sam had survived the violent sinking of three warships in less than one year.

It was determined to be enough. Oskar/Sam found a home in the Office of the Governor at Gibraltar for a time before being sent to a home for retired sailors in Belfast. He remained there, evidently quite content to remain ashore, for the rest of his life, dying in 1955 of natural causes.

He is remembered in photos from the two British ships on which he served, and a portrait in pastel hanging in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Some dispute his story arguing that there was no confirmation of Oskar/Sam’s existence from the Bismarck survivors. Others point out that very few of Bismarck’s crew of more than 2,000 survived, and a cat could easily have been overlooked by those that did.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
Winston Churchill pauses while disembarking to meet FDR in order to pet Blackie, ship’s cat for HMS Prince of Wales. American officers and sailors await the Prime Minister in the background. Wikipedia

Blackie

HMS Prince of Wales had a ship’s cat too. Named Blackie, the cat was aboard during the battle with Bismarck and remained with the ship throughout the summer of 1941. In August of that year, Prince of Wales was dispatched to carry Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay, Newfoundland to meet secretly with an American squadron bearing with it the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The purpose of their meeting was to develop the means by which the Atlantic sea lanes could be kept open to allow American aid to reach England. Churchill had a heavy burden on his shoulders. By this point, England was fighting alone and American public sentiment was heavily in favor of keeping out of Europe’s war.

As Churchill prepared to leave Prince of Wales to meet with FDR on an American cruiser standing by, Blackie approached the deeply worried Prime Minister. Churchill, a devotee of cats for most of his long life, took a moment away from the concerns of protecting the world from Nazism and stooped to pet the welcoming ship’s cat.

Newsreel cameramen and photographers, there to record his meeting with Roosevelt for posterity (once the conference was over and both leaders safely home) took the opportunity to record Blackie’s brief meeting with the Prime Minister. Once the newsreels made it to the public eye, Blackie became an overnight celebrity. Blackie was given the additional name of Churchill.

Late that year Prince of Wales was sent to Singapore to bolster British defenses against the Japanese. On December 10 Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese air attacks off Singapore. Blackie survived and made it to Singapore with several other survivors. As the Japanese prepared to take Singapore from the British, the survivors were moved to another location at which time Blackie could not be found. He was presumed to be out hunting and unable to wait, the evacuees left him behind to his fate.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
Oblivious to his doting shipmates, Convoy enjoys some hammock time aboard HMS Hermione. Wikipedia

Convoy

Convoy was a ship’s cat serving in HMS Hermione, a light cruiser of the Royal Navy in the early days of the Second World War. Ships of the size and speed of Hermione were often tasked with the arduous, monotonous, and ultimately dangerous duty of protecting unarmed or lightly armed ships from enemy U-Boats, surface raiders, and air attacks.

Since it made sense to group the unarmed ships together so that fewer escorts could protect them all, convoys were formed to cruise routinely between ports. Convoy was named by his crewmates as a way of expressing what their life at sea had become. Convoy made many repeated iterations of his namesake in Hermione.

Convoy was such an integral part of the crew that he was entered into the ship’s books, registered as Ship’s Cat. Sailors of the British Navy were issued a “kit” which included items such as shipboard clothing, foul weather gear, hammocks, and so forth. Convoy had his own “kit” which included his own hammock, which he slept in quite comfortably. Convoy’s duties were not too onerous, limited to leisurely mousing and entertaining fellow crewmembers.

Hermione was lost at sea in a U-Boat attack on June 16, 1942, while on convoy duty in the Mediterranean. Most of the ship’s crew were rescued, but 87 crewmembers perished in the attack or from exposure, with Convoy among them.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
A worried looking Simon peers at the photographer aboard HMS Amethyst in 1949. Wikimedia

Simon

Simon was the ship’s cat aboard HMS Amethyst, a sloop which served in the Atlantic during World War II. In 1948 Amethyst was serving in the Pacific and while in port in Hong Kong one of the crew, a seaman named George Hickinbottom, found the cat undernourished and bedraggled near the docks of that exotic port.

Brought aboard Amethyst and nursed to health, Simon proved to be adept at catching rats and mice aboard the aging sloop and expressed his gratitude to his rescuers by frequently leaving the trophies of his captures in the beds of his fellow sailors. His favorite sleeping spot became the Captain’s overturned cap.

British ships routinely patrolled the Yangtze River during the ongoing civil war in China, and Amethyst became involved in a gun battle with units of the People’s Liberation Army in April 1949, now known as the Yangtze Incident. Amethyst’s commanding officer was killed during the exchange of fire, and Simon was severely wounded. Not expected to survive, the cat recovered and was soon back at his duties controlling rat infestation aboard the vessel, which had worsened as a result of long anchorage in the river.

When Simon’s story became known to the outside world, the cat was awarded the Dickin Medal, an honor established in 1943 to signify gallantry in service by animals. He also received a Blue Cross and a Campaign Ribbon, and his celebrity led to his receiving thousands of letters and telegrams.

Upon return to England in Amethyst, Simon was forced to endure the indignity of quarantine, required of all non-human entrants to the United Kingdom. While in quarantine he became ill and died of an infection which was likely caused by his wounds. He was buried with honors at Ilford Animal Cemetery in London, and his obituary was published in The Times, a distinction rare among his breed. His gravestone reads in part, “…Throughout the Yangtze Incident His Behavior Was of the Highest Order.”

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
A retired Pooli models her uniform, adorned with her service medals, in 1959. LA Times

Pooli

Pooli was a ship’s cat who served in the USS Fremont, an attack transport and later a command ship in the Pacific during the Second World War. Pooli was as American as they come, born on the Fourth of July in 1944 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Pooli was short for Princess Papule, and under her nickname, she was pampered by the ship’s crew after being brought aboard Fremont by crewman James Lynch. Pooli was on board long enough to witness some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific War, including the invasions of Saipan, Palau, Leyte, and Iwo Jima.

When ships cross the equator, members of the crew who have never before ventured across that line are initiated as shellbacks. Pooli became a shellback in her turn. She also had her own battle station (apparently self-assigned), as do all members of a warship’s crew. When the alarm to man battle stations sounded, an unnerving clamor for any who hear it, Pooli established herself in the ship’s mailroom deftly concealed within a canvas mail sack, where she would remain until normal ship’s routine returned.

Pooli was issued her own uniform, and to adorn it she was awarded three campaign service ribbons and four battle stars for her services during World War II. After the war, she lived out her days in quiet retirement although she modeled her uniform, which still fit, in a photograph for the July 4 1959 edition of the Los Angeles Times. She was reported to be fit but nearly deaf at the age of fifteen.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
Kiddo poses with fellow crewman Melvin Vaniman. Library of Congress

Kiddo

In the early part of the 20th-century experimentation with airships led to Navies, merchant interests, and explorers, using lighter than air vessels to use the skies as ships had used the seas for centuries. Airships were looked at as an alternative to plowing through often hostile seas to travel great distances with speed and comfort.

America was an airship built in 1906 for its owner, a journalist named Walter Wellman, to use as the means of traveling to the North Pole. After repeated attempts to accomplish that purpose failed, Wellman decided to use America to cross the Atlantic, departing from Atlantic City New Jersey and reaching land somewhere on the European continent.

Kiddo was a stray gray tabby cat who with his brother was known to while away the time in the vicinity of the airship’s hangar. Brought aboard America by a crew member, Kiddo was adopted by the airship crew and although he was not part of the failed Polar flights, he was aboard for the Atlantic crossing. Kiddo was a reluctant flyer at first, noted in the airship’s log as “…like a squirrel in a cage…” as he raced around the vessel voicing his displeasure.

When a series of failures forced the crew to abandon ship, the crew resorted to a longboat being towed for the purpose far below on the surface. They were picked up by the British steamer Trent, which ship’s radio transmission announcing the crew of the Airship was safe mentioned Kiddo’s presence among the rescued.

Kiddo did not take to the skies again; whether by his own choice or by arbitrary decision of his owner is unknown. He instead resided with Edith Wellman, Walter’s daughter, for the remainder of his days. Nor does Kiddo hold the distinction of the first cat to be airborne, which honor goes to the unknown cat who accompanied Vincenzo Lunardi aloft in a balloon nearly 130 years before Kiddo’s aborted flight to Europe.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
Jenny left her berth on RMS Olympic – seen here – to give birth on RMS Titanic. MaritimeQuest

Jenny

Jenny ranks as among the unluckiest ship’s cats in history. Jenny was a ship’s cat aboard the White Star Line’s Olympic, where she lived mostly in the second class areas of the ship, sleeping most often in the ship’s galley, where the scullions (dishwashers) ensured that she was well fed and generally looked after.

Either there was at least one other cat aboard Olympic or Jenny enjoyed a turn ashore because she became pregnant, and was in that state when her primary human companion was transferred from Olympic to its sister-ship, RMS Titanic while lying in Southampton in 1912.

Titanic left Southampton in April of 1912, with stops in Cherbourg, France and Cork Harbor, Ireland to collect passengers prior to final departure for the Atlantic crossing to New York. Sometime during the early stages of the voyage, Jenny gave birth to her kittens. As in her days in Olympic, Jenny remained in the general vicinity of one of the ship’s galleys, where she and her kittens were looked after by the crew.

She was mentioned in the memoirs of at least one survivor as offering “…warm devotion” to one crew member in particular, who had brought her aboard the ill-fated liner. Jenny and her kittens were lost with the ship.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
An otherwise good sailor and soon to be a famous one, Felix objected to wearing his life jacket. Flickr

Felix

Mayflower II was a replica of the vessel of the same name which brought the pilgrims to New England, built in the mid-1950s. When the ship was preparing to sail from Devon, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1957, Felix was assigned by the captain as ship’s cat.

Felix was provided with his own gear, including a life jacket (which he hated to be put on him), and appeared with the crew during photo opportunities and even during the ticker-tape parade they received in New York.

During the voyage, Felix became an accomplished rope climber and in general a good sailor. He became so popular that Yankee Magazine published his story, and he was featured in National Geographic, with another photo spread in Life Magazine.

To return to England Felix faced the strict quarantine laws in effect in that country, and his human companion decided not to subject him to the indignity. Felix remained in America in the care of Ann Barry. Felix became the subject of a children’s book which recounted his voyage on the Mayflower II, “Felix and his Mayflower II Adventures,” which was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Mayflower II in 2007.

9 Lives: The Tale of Unsinkable Sam and 9 Other Cats that Sailed the High Seas
Emmy jumped ship just before Empress of Ireland left port in May, 1914, having never missed a cruise before then. Stockholm Maritime Museum

Emmy

Emmy was a ship’s cat who served in and derived her name from the Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner operated by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. The liner operated on the North Atlantic between Liverpool and Quebec for most of its career, which ran from 1906 to 1914. During most of that time, the crew watched over Emmy as the orange tabby cat worked for its keep by suppressing rat and mouse infestation in the ship’s hold. Emmy was fond of the canned sardines and kippers which her fellow crew members provided her, and seldom if ever left the ship, even when tied up in port.

Emmy usually remained topside while the ship was getting underway, surprising for an animal which is sensitive to noise. As anyone who has ever seen a ship getting underway can attest, the evolution is fraught with loud noises, seeming confusion, the constant rattling, and banging of ropes and machinery, and the loudly shouted frequently colorful communications of the sailors and dockworkers. Emmy appeared to enjoy them all.

Emmy was considered a good luck charm by the crew, who were dismayed to find while getting underway from Quebec City on May 28, 1914, that Emmy was not at her usual spot. As the crew went about their duties and the moment of departure grew imminent, Emmy was spotted ashore, sitting on the top of a shed on nearby Pier 27, watching the proceedings below.

No amount of coaxing by the crew could bring Emmy to come aboard before the gangway was removed and Empress of Ireland moved away from the pier. Witnesses later reported Emmy continued to watch the ship as it drew off into the channel.

In the wee hours of the morning of May 29 Empress of Ireland collided with the collier Storstad near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Storstad was heavily damaged but managed to reach safety. Empress of Ireland was not so lucky, sinking quickly and with heavy loss of life. Over 1,000 passengers and crew were killed in the chill waters of St. Lawrence. About 460 were saved. Emmy was never seen again.

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