The dog who risked all to save ‘secret’ prisoners of the Second World War
Judy the pointer chanced her life many times to protect British PoWs. Now the story of how she forged a special bond with one man has been told in a book in time for the anniversary of VJ Day.
By Jane Dalton
Maybe the Japanese guards suspected something. They started scouring the barracks inch by inch, methodically turning the place upside down. Their half-starved British prisoners exchanged fearful looks. Discovery of the stolen sack of rice hidden under a blanket would mean, at best, a savage beating for every Prisoner of War in the hut. At worst…
They had hoped the rice might keep them alive for a little longer; now it seemed it would be the death of them. As the guards approached the hiding place, the sense of terror among the prisoners was almost palpable. Then – something extraordinary. A streak of brown and white tore into the room, charging around the guards, carrying a human skull in its mouth. The Japanese had a superstitious horror of bones and skulls and were thrown into confusion by this mad hellhound hurtling around, eyes glowing. Just as one guard raised his rifle to shoot at the dog, it hared out of the barracks and disappeared into the Sumatran jungle surrounding the camp. Inspection forgotten, the unnerved guards moved swiftly on. Not for the first time, Judy the pointer – who was to become the only official canine Prisoner of War (PoW) of the Second World War – had saved the lives of the men who had adopted her. Recalling this incident years after the war, former prisoner Les Searle said: “I think animals have a built-in radar system which picks up all radiations of different sensations such as fear, happiness, panic and sorrow. Judy certainly sensed the danger in that room and she knew what to do about it.”
It was 1942, and conditions in Sumatra’s prisoner camps were beyond endurance for many of the thousands of inmates: rations were disgusting and in short supply, reducing to skin and bones the sleep-starved men who were forced into gruelling manual labour. Malaria, dysentery, skin ulcers, worm infestations and beriberi were widespread; medical care was non-existent. Vicious beatings were routine. One had his eardrum pierced when a pencil was forced into his ear. Prisoners were hit with shovels for the “crime” of dropping their tools. Lives hung constantly by a thread. Among the 1,200 PoWs at one of the worst camps – Gloegoer – was Frank Williams, a shy young man from Portsmouth, brought up by his widowed mother. Too tall to become an RAF pilot, Frank trained as a radarman, and was posted to Singapore. He had been captured after the Japanese invaded in early 1942 and was put to work in the searing heat of the thick, unforgiving jungle where the men building an elaborate Japanese temple were besieged by swarms of vicious biting insects. Judy, born in Shanghai dog kennels in 1937, had been brought to the camp by the men from the gunboat on which she had served as a mascot. She was already a proven life-saver, having located a fresh water spring on the desert island where the survivors of the bombed gunboat had been washed up. Given the mayhem of war and the fact that dogs were considered a culinary delicacy by the Japanese, that she had already made it this far was astonishing.
Now the extraordinary story of how Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Frank Williams and pointer Judy met at Gloegoer and helped keep each other alive has been pieced together by author Robert Weintraub for a book published in time for the 70th anniversary of victory over the Japanese. Most prisoners were, understandably, preoccupied with their own survival, but Frank noticed that no single person cared for Judy. Periodically kicked and stoned by the Japanese, she was left to forage for food at night. Frank started taking an interest in her plight. After the war, he recalled: “I remember thinking what on earth is a beautiful English pointer like this doing here with no one to care for her.” Despite – or perhaps because of – the desperate conditions, “something wobbled in his soul”, as Weintraub puts it. “It was all he could do just to survive himself. But the sight of this dog wasting away… was intolerable to him.”
That day, after queuing for his meagre portion of watery, maggoty rice, Frank poured some into his palm and offered it to her. Judy, with her “watery brown eyes”, remained frozen but whined. Despite his own hunger, Frank put down his whole bowl for her, the grateful dog hungrily ate – and a lifelong bond was forged. Another radarman, Tom Scott, said: “I was always fascinated at the complete understanding between Frank and Judy – they were truly an amazing team… Thin, half-starved… her eyes only softened when Frank touched her or spoke to her…Whenever she found herself too close to a guard, her lip curled back in a snarl and her eyes seemed to glow with almost a red glare.”
When a guard threatened to retaliate, Frank would click his fingers and Judy would hurtle off into the jungle, only to reappear when he gave his “unique” low whistle. Even so, Judy lived constantly under threat. Frank needed to act. And when a litter of puppies appeared, he spotted an opportunity. The head of Gloegoer camp, Colonel Banno – a man marginally less vindictive than most of the guards – spent much of his time drinking or romancing a local woman, who, as it happened, adored Judy and cooed over her. Picking the cutest puppy, one night he nervously approached Banno’s quarters – in itself an executable offence – and, taking his life in his hands, he placed the tiny creature on the colonel’s desk,
offering it as a gift for Banno’s lady friend. The colonel, happily drunk, was amused by the puppy and accepted the gift. Frank took a deep breath. Explaining to the colonel how important the puppy’s mother was to maintaining camp morale, he asked for her to be made an official prisoner of war, which would protect her under Geneva protocols. To his immense relief, Banno, in indulgent mood, agreed – and Judy became Prisoner of War 81A Gloegoer – a designation that would later save her from being shot.
In June 1944, on a whim, the Japanese high command ordered the PoWs back to Singapore. The transport was a rusting cargo ship, where dogs weren’t allowed. But, unknown to the Japanese, Frank had trained Judy to jump into a sack, unseen – and managed to smuggle her on board. There being no outward indication that the vessel was carrying PoWs, it was a prime target for Allied torpedoes – and the resulting explosions sparked fires and scattered wreckage and burning oil across swathes of the sea. To save her from drowning inside the broken hulk, and with his heart in his mouth, Frank hurled his precious Judy through a porthole into the water, shouting: “Swim!” hoping her survival instinct would save her. He escaped through a hatch and, after finally being swept into the waves himself, spent the next two hours swimming around, frantically searching for his beloved friend. Unbeknown to him, Judy was busy saving other lives. She allowed one prisoner, too exhausted to swim, to wrap an arm around her to use as a float. Seattle, witnessing it, feared she would be dragged down; instead, she guided the drowning man to a large piece of floating debris, before returning to repeat her action for others. She saved at least four men, “like an aquatic version of a Saint Bernard” according to Weintraub. Remarkably, she even refused proffered hands from boats that would have rescued her. She finally accepted when there were no more men to save. “She was more dead than alive,” recalled one witness. “She had totally given herself to the drowning men.” The move to Singapore abandoned, it was back to Sumatra, and with each successive new camp the prisoners were moved to, conditions deteriorated. When the Japanese ordered the construction of a new railroad from one side of the island to the other, running through mosquito-infested swamps and thick forests, over mountains and rivers, it was a death sentence for hundreds of men. The prisoners worked from 7am until after dark, with no rest. When progress faltered, the men were beaten with wire. They “dropped like flies”, starved or worked to death. Judy survived by catching snakes and rats for herself and for the men – surreptitiously, somehow keenly conscious that she had to keep out of sight of the guards.
The men were physically crippled and mentally in tatters after three long years of brutal incarceration. What kept Frank from despair was, as Weintraub says, “a bag of bones with brown eyes and a cold nose”. A fellow captive noted that Frank and Judy “lived for each other” and he felt sure that if one fell ill, the other would die. And then the worst thing that could happen to Frank
did. In the summer of 1945, when the prisoners were still unaware the war in Europe was over, malaria took hold of Frank and he reached his lowest point physically and mentally. No prisoner wanted to admit to being unwell as it meant even lower food rations. But Frank, trembling with fever, had no choice. His life was in the balance. Seeing this, one of the Japanese officers ordered that Judy be killed and cooked, and Frank force-fed the first helping. But yet again, Judy’s acute sensitivity to impending danger drove her into the jungle for a lengthy spell before returning to