There is no shortage of animal heroes today, from service dogs caring for their owners, to those serving with the police, fire departments, and militaries across the world. Many animals of the past were heroes, to the point they were celebrities in their day. In some cases, they became celebrities due the celebrity of their master. In others, their own exploits garnered them fame.
A Latin phrase, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, “Thus Passes the World’s Glory” is sometimes paraphrased, “all glory is fleeting.” Certainly the phrase applies to the animals listed here, all of which were honored in life, though their stories are known today to a relative few. Here are ten memorable animals celebrated as heroes during their lifetimes, and why.
10. Copenhagen, the race horse who became a war hero
Copenhagen was a part thoroughbred and part Arabian race horse, with his maternal grandsire the winner of the 1793 Epsom Derby. In 1811, Copenhagen began a racing career in which he gained marginal success and lasted just two seasons. In 1813 the five year old stallion was sent to Lisbon, part of a consignment of several horses for the use of British officers, and later that year was purchased by Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon. Gordon acquired the horse for the Commander of British forces during the Peninsular War with Napoleon in Spain, Sir Arthur Wellesley.
Wellesley then held the title of Marquess of Wellington, since his brother Richard, also a Marquess, had retained the family name in his title. Wellington found Copenhagen to be an exceptional horse in battle and in travel. It was said Copenhagen would allow no other to ride him, and he even took a kick at Wellington from time to time. As Wellington’s fame grew, so did that of his horse, and his mane and tail were snipped to allow jewelry to be made of his hair. At the Battle of Waterloo Wellington remained on Copenhagen for 17 hours, and his praise of the horse added to its fame.
Wellington continued to ride Copenhagen in victory parades and other events until the horse was retired at the Duke’s estate at Stratfield Staye, where he enjoyed sugar cakes and other delectables until his death at the age of 28. The Duke had him buried at Stratfield, though he later claimed to have no knowledge of where the horse was interred. Years later, a headstone was placed near the site where he was believed to have been buried. He is memorialized in equestrian statues of the Duke of Wellington, and in many paintings of the mounted Duke in battle.
9. Montauciel, the sheep who flew in a hot-air balloon
The Montgolfier brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne were early experimenters with hot-air balloons, though they believed it was smoke, which in their minds contained a gas they called Montgolfier gas, which caused their balloons to rise. In 1782 they proposed the use of their balloons as a means of assaulting the British fortress of Gibraltar to King Louis XVI. The King agreed to allow a demonstration, but at the time no living thing other than birds had ascended to what they then considered the “upper atmosphere” (about 1,600 feet). The brothers proposed launching a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. The latter was chosen because it was believed its internal anatomy was similar to humans. The birds, which were expected to be unharmed, served as controls for the experiment.
So, on September 19, 1783, with King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette in attendance, as well as Benjamin Franklin, a sheep became the first mammal to ascend into the sky in a man-made vehicle. The brothers named the sheep Montauciel, French for “ascend the sky.” It flew a distance of about two miles, at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, and landed safely. Montauciel exhibited no harm from its experience, and the King agreed to further demonstrations of flight with the brothers taking turns as the balloon’s pilots. Jacques-Etienne went first, making him the first man to fly in a balloon.
Marie-Antoinette was smitten by Montauciel, and to further ingratiate themselves with His Majesty (they needed money) the brothers made her a gift of the sheep. She kept it in the gardens at Versailles, and allegedly fed it candy and other sweets. Sheep were then common on palace grounds as they kept the lawns clipped with their grazing, so Montauciel likely had plenty of ovine company.
8. Simon, ship’s cat on HMS Amethyst
Ship’s carried cats as mascots for centuries, both to entertain the crew and more importantly, to help control rodents. Several became famous, including Unsinkable Sam, who allegedly survived the sinkings of three ships. Simon, ship’s cat in HMS Amethyst in the late 1940s, earned the Dickin Medal for his heroics aboard the ship during its deployment to China during the Chinese Civil War. Ordered to Nanking to protect the British embassy from the communists, Amethyst came under fire on April 20, 1949 while still traveling up the Yangtze River. Some 22 men of its crew were killed and several more were wounded, including Simon, severely enough that he wasn’t expected to survive.
Simon suffered lacerations and several burns, but after the crew was attended to, he was cared for by the ship’s medical staff. Eventually he returned to duty, helping control the ship’s worsening rodent problem. From April 30 into July, Amethyst was unable to depart for Hong Kong without being shelled by communist guns. For months negotiations for the ship’s release proved fruitless. The long stay in the river caused the rodent infestation to worsen, which threatened the dwindling food stores. As he regained his health Simon stayed busy. Finally, on July 30, Amethyst slipped away under cover of darkness, eluded the communist batteries, and returned to Hong Kong. There Simon’s story became known to the world.
The ship’s captain, Lt. Cdr. Bernard Skinner, was killed during the attack. On April 21, Lt. Cdr. John Kerans arrived from the British Embassy and took command of the vessel through its ordeal and escape. Kerans was not a fan of the cat when he came aboard. Simon caused him to change his mind. He recommended Simon for a Dickin Medal, and when the award was confirmed in August, the crew fashioned a collar for Simon in the colors of the award’s ribbon. He was scheduled to receive the award formally on December 11, after Simon completed quarantine upon arrival in Britain in November. Sadly, Simon died of enteritis in late November. He was given a Naval funeral with full honors and buried in the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) cemetery at Ilford. To date, Simon is the only cat to be awarded the Dickin Medal, often referred to as the Victoria Cross for service animals.
7. Comanche, survivor of Custer’s Last Stand
Comanche was a 15-hand mixed-breed gelding purchased by the US Army in 1868 for use as a cavalry mount. At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Captain Myles Keough encountered the horse and purchased it from the army to serve as his personal mount. Keough served in the 7th Cavalry, a newly formed unit commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Keough was mounted on Comanche when he rode with Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June, 1876. When the bodies of Custer’s men were discovered by troops under General Alfred Terry, they found the badly wounded horse on the battlefield, two days after the battle. Comanche was taken to Fort Lincoln, nursed back to health, and retired.
In the order establishing his retirement, it was mandated that Comanche “…will not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstances, nor will he be put to any kind of work”. Comanche was used in regimental formal mounted formations, saddled, bridled, and draped in mourning garb, for the remainder of his life. He lived to be 29 years of age, according to estimates of his age at the time he was purchased by the army in 1868. After he died he was given a funeral with full military honors, though the horse was not interred.
Instead, he was sent to the University of Kansas and taxidermists preserved his body for display. He is there still, in a temperature and humidity controlled glass display case at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Comanche is often referred to as the only US Army member with Custer’s command to have survived the Little Big Horn, and as the only cavalry horse to have survived the battle. Neither is true, though it is true he is the only veteran of the battle around today, in a manner of speaking.
6. Antis, the German Shepherd that helped bomb Germany
Czechoslovakian Air Force airman Vaclav Bozdech fled his home country to Poland when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938. From Poland he made his way to France, where he served with the French Air Force until it was apparent France was to fall to the Germans in 1940. While there he either found or purchased a German Shepherd puppy (his later stories varied). He smuggled the pup into Britain when he escaped to that country, evading the British quarantine laws. He joined the Royal Air Force, and the dog joined him, living on base. Assigned to a Wellington bomber, Bozdech was on a flight when he discovered the dog had “stowed away” on the airplane. The crew decided following the mission that the dog, which its owner named Antis, had brought them luck.
And so, despite it being against regulations, Antis became part of the crew, normally six men. In the case of Bozdech’s Wellington it became six men and a dog. Antis flew 30 missions during the war before the illicit practice was discovered. After the war he returned to Czechoslovakia with his master. When the Soviet Union made it plain that Czechoslovakia was to be a communist puppet state, Bozdech again fled, leaving behind his wife and child but taking his dog, which helped him evade Soviet and Czech secret police and border guards and cross the border into West Germany. From there he again went to England, with Antis. He never returned to Czechoslovakia.
Following the war the story of the German Shepherd flying on bombing missions over Germany became well-known, including the fact Antis had been wounded by flak fragments on two occasions. Antis was recommended for the Dickin Medal, which was pinned to his collar by Field Marshall Archibald Wavell in 1949.
5. Enos, the only chimpanzee (so far) to orbit Earth
Enos is not as well known as Ham, the first chimpanzee to fly in space, and return to earth. Ham’s fight was suborbital, lasting only about fifteen minutes. Because his flight was longer, Enos required more extensive training than Ham, and was subjected to zero gravity conditions for a longer period of time. Enos’ flight was far from problem free, and after just two of the planned three orbits NASA aborted the mission, though the chimp returned to earth safely and was recovered.
Enos, like Ham, was trained to press levers in response to light patterns, and received a small electric shock on the soles of his feet if he didn’t respond correctly, or at all. During the flight Enos sometimes responded correctly, only to receive a shock due to a failure in the system. At times the frustrated chimp pushed different combinations of levers, only to receive further shocks. In all, Enos received 78 shocks during his flight, nearly all of them because of the failure of the system. His capsule also overheated, adding to the animal’s discomfort. Finally, NASA decided to bring him down early.
Enos’s problems were not over. His capsule splashed down far away from where his earthbound controllers anticipated, and Enos had to ride out his wait on the tossing ocean while the Navy steamed to recover him. While he waited (over three hours) Enos ripped open his spacesuit and tore up his biosensors, as well as his urinary catheter in a perfectly understandable expression of disgust. Enos died of dysentery less than a year after his space flight. NASA officially chronicled it as a success to the newspapers and other media.
4. Sgt. Reckless, USMC
Sgt. Reckless was a Korean mare of Mongolian breeding, purchased from a South Korean stableboy at the Seoul racetrack by US Marines in 1952. The Marines intended her to be a packhorse for a Recoilless Rifle Platoon, 5th Marine Regiment. The mare was allowed to roam freely through their encampment, and became known for a willingness to eat virtually anything put before her. She also learned to drink both Coca-Cola and GI-issued beer with her Marines. And she exhibited exceptional intelligence.
Sgt. Reckless learned the route from the combat fronts to the supply depots after just one or two trips with a handler. She would then make the trip on her own, freeing a handler to perform other duties. On one day of heavy fighting, Sgt. Reckless made 51 trips on her own, resupplying the Marines on the front lines. She often transported wounded on her return trips as well. She received two Purple Hearts after being twice wounded during the war, and afterwards was awarded the Good Conduct Medal. She also received the Dickin Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and numerous other awards.
After the war she stayed in the Marines, spending most of her time at Camp Pendleton, where she often snacked on her own blankets, a proclivity she had also demonstrated in Korea. Reckless retired from the Marine Corps in 1960, and instead of taking retirement pay she accepted free room and board. During her career, few Marines were allowed to ride her, though legendary Marine Chesty Puller did, and later a foal she produced was named Chesty in his honor. Sgt. Reckless died in 1968. She is honored through several monuments in the United States and South Korea, as well as in Marine Corps lore.
3. Kaiser, the longest held prisoner of war in American history
Kaiser was a German carrier pigeon, captured by the Americans near the end of the First World War. After the war’s end, the bird, who was given the name Kaiser by his American captors, was brought to the United States. After a stint at being used for publicity purposes, Kaiser was assigned a job likely never before or since offered to a prisoner of war. He was sent to the Signal Corps Pigeon Center at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.
Kaiser was assigned to serve as a breeding pigeon. Despite the onerous nature of his duties Kaiser evidently tackled them enthusiastically. After the United States entered the Second World War Kaiser performed his duties at the Camp Crowder, Missouri. By then he had sired scores of offspring which served on all fronts where American troops fought during the war. During the war years Kaiser, who lived with his mate, Lady Belle, enjoyed a private loft which the Army thoughtfully provided with a heater during cold Missouri nights. Over 75 pigeons sired by Kaiser entered the Signal Corps during World War II, an indication he took his duties seriously, despite his German birth.
Kaiser died on October 31, 1949. There is practically no way to establish the number of pigeons his progeny produced for the US Army. The latter dissolved the pigeon service in the late 1950s. But his heroic performance of his duties during the Second World War led to him being preserved at the Smithsonian Institution, along with other heroic pigeons of his era. He must have loved his work, because he is the longest-lived carrier pigeon on record, living over 33 years. He was also the longest American held prisoner of war in the nation’s history.
2. Judy, the only dog to be held as a POW during World War II
Judy was a ship’s mascot aboard HMS Grasshopper when that vessel attempted to flee Singapore early in the Pacific War in 1942. The ship was sunk en route to the Dutch East Indies, and the survivors, which included Judy, attempted to reach safety overland, but were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned at Medan. There a British prisoner, Frank Williams, convinced the Japanese commandant to treat Judy, a pedigreed Pointer, as a prisoner of war. Miraculously the commandant agreed and Judy became the only canine registered prisoner of war of World War II. Like the other British prisoners, Judy endured the kicks and beatings administered by the Japanese guards, but she stayed alive.
Judy evidently got in and out of the camp at will, because she delivered two litters of puppies during her incarceration. In 1944 Williams and 700 other prisoners were transferred to Singapore by ship. Williams smuggled Judy aboard. When the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine Williams and Judy both survived, but were separated for some time. By 1945, Judy was acting more aggressively toward the Japanese, and they decided to shoot the dog. Judy fled from the camp into the jungle and did not return until after the Japanese guards had abandoned the camp.
After the war, Judy was smuggled into a troopship bound for Liverpool by Frank Williams. After the latter used an advertisement to solicit funds to pay the quarantine fees, Judy entered quarantine, and was finally released to Frank in the UK in April, 1946. She became a celebrity, met actor David Niven, and was feted in towns across the UK. She then traveled with Frank to East Africa. There it was learned she had a tumor, which was surgically removed, but an infection proved too much for her to handle. She was euthanized in 1950. Judy was awarded the Dickin Medal, “For magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps…” in May, 1946.
1. Rin Tin Tin, an early international action hero
The original Rin Tin Tin was a newly-born puppy when he was found by an American soldier in France during World War I. The soldier, Corporal Lee Duncan, discovered five pups and their mother, the puppies so young their eyes were not yet open. The mother was emaciated. After nursing the mother to health and weaning the puppies, Duncan kept one of each sex for himself. He named the male Rin Tin Tin, though he called the dog Rinty, and his sister he named Nanette. He smuggled both pups onto the ship taking him back to the United States. Nanette developed pneumonia, and Duncan replaced her with another Shepherd pup in New Jersey before traveling across the United States by train to California.
Duncan trained both dogs on his own. In 1922 Rin Tin Tin appeared in his first film role, portraying a wolf in the silent film The Man From Hell’s River. The following year he appeared as the star in Where the North Begins. Rin Tin Tin became a major big screen action hero, popularizing the then little-known German Shepherd breed in the United States. Because the films had no dialogue and could be shown overseas by simply changing the intertitles screens to the appropriate language, Rin Tin Tin became a global superstar, popular on the five inhabited continents.
He had just ventured into sound movies when he died in 1932, aged 13 or 14, depending on the source. Radio networks interrupted programs to announce the news. Obituaries and appreciations appeared in newspapers and national magazines. By the time of his death his sons and grandsons were playing him onscreen. He was buried in Duncan’s Los Angeles backyard, and later reinterred in the Cemetière des Chiens in Paris, France, the country of his birth. His descendants continue to portray his persona, using his name, to the present day.