Judy. A dog in a Million, by Damien Lewis (London: Quercus Editions Ltd., 2014)
Judy. A Dog in a Million by Damien Lewis is a biography of one of the World’s most heroic dogs and the only animal prisoner of war of the Second World War. Judy of Sussex, a stunning liver and white English Pointer, was born in Shanghai, China in 1936 at an English-run kennel. As a young dog she was bought—recruited—by British Naval officers. Judy was the official mascot of two gunboats of the British Royal Navy, the HMS Gnat and HMS Grasshopper, which patrolled the Yangtze River in China prior to and just after the Second World War; once the war began, the Grasshopper sailed the open sea with its crew which included Judy. Later, during the Second World War, she and her fellow crew members were bombed on and shipwrecked numerous times. She suffered and struggled to survive along with everyone else. Ultimately she was awarded the Dickens Medal – The Animal VC for her “magnificent courage”.
It goes without saying, Judy of Sussex went on to live a life that most dogs would never ever experience, one that exposed her to the ravages of war in Sumatra (modern-day Indonesia) at the cruel hands of the Japanese and Koreans, which included her being the only animal POW of WWII.
Of particular philosophical interest are the numerous accounts of a dog who clearly exhibited rational decision-making, ‘intelligent disobedience’ and an exceptional sixth sense. Judy intentionally created diversions to distract the enemy in order to save humans. She also jumped into the sea to save drowning people (Judy was never trained to do this beforehand). And “she’d dived into the waters off this tropical island to distract a shark from an intended human prey” (124-25). Judy sensed danger long before her fellow human crew ever did—preventing untold casualties and loss of life. When Judy and her crew, along with civilians, were shipwrecked on an uninhabited Indonesian island, the humans decided that they would go inland into the forest to search for water. However, Judy had other ideas and ignored their commands—”the dog knows better”. Instead she frantically began to dig a hole in a patch of sand near the shore, and Judy was soon joined by her fellow crew members who wondered what she was up to: “All of a sudden, there was a gurgling at the bottom of the hole and a stream of clear water bubbled up from below. […] ‘Water! Water! Judy’s found water!’” (127). This dog observed that the humans as well as herself were in desperate need of fresh water: “[H]er sixth sense had led her to understand what her human family needed and then to go and find it” (128). Judy’s intelligent disobedience and sixth sense saved the survivors.
The “Will to Live” is a continuous theme which runs through the book. Winston Churchill’s (October 29, 1941) words ring on: “Never, never, never give up”, and “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” to repeat Churchill’s words—it is exactly what they ALL did, Judy and her fellow crew members and POWs. The Allied POWS (British, Australians,Dutch and Americans) in Japanese POW camps—and not just military personnel, but also civilian women and children lived and died in these camps. Judy was a dear friend to all of them—boosting their morale so they had a will to live. It’s amazing what a dog can do to uplift the human spirit in times of terrible anguish, relentless torture and escaping the throngs of death. The POWs that did survive only seemed to do so because they had Judy who helped them keep going: “It offered a hint of home; of family; of domesticated pets in the home” (xvii).
You have to have a strong stomach to read certain parts of this book, especially where it goes into detail about how the Allied forces survived in the Japanese POW camps—the abuse and terror endured by all of the POWs and civilians in the POW camps—which included being used as slave-labor in building the Pakan Baroe “hell” railway on Sumatra, a massive Japanese project (once the railroad was completed, it was never actually used and disintegrated from the elements). It isn’t all grim either, lots of humor is interwoven throughout the narrative, and this is what makes the book something that you don’t want to stop reading.
The book is not only an extraordinary biography about a canine war hero, but it is also a thought- provoking text for anyone interested in philosophy of mind and especially the concept of “personhood” as it could pertain to dogs—man’s best friend. I have to say, that this is the most extraordinary account of a dog I have ever read. Included are a generous Preface, a collection of photographs, an Epilogue, an Appendix of Original Documentation and an Index. The only thing this book is lacking is nothing. I wish the book was longer, because I want to know so much more about Judy especially after the war years. But this book is devoted to years of service in the British Royal Navy as a ship’s dog.
Judy’s high intelligence, courage, diligence, “good will”, and endless love and devotion towards the humans who lived and suffered alongside her, go beyond our comprehension. Judy was truly a dog in a million, she was indeed a remarkable person in the truest sense.
Review by Karin Susan Fester (c) copyright 2015