Judy: A dog in a million

Judy’s Story

Early Days

In researching a book on canine artificial intelligence (‘How to talk to your robot dog’), the story of the dog Judy is highly significant. An excellent example of extraordinary canine intelligence and human bonding was demonstrated by Judy, an English pointer and where it would be relevant at this stage to provide more detail of her life story. Born in the Shanghai Dog Kennels in 1936, Judy initially escaped from the kennels into the bustling, chaotic city but was fortunately found before any serious harm befell her. This experience, however, would have exposed her to many situations that would have tested her survival skills. At that time, the Royal Navy operated a series of gun boats on the Yangtze river to protect British and other Western ships trading with China. China was then an unstable entity, with various warring factions seeking control of different regions of the vast country. Pirate ships also operated on the Yangtze river as a threat to such patrol boats and also commercial Western traffic. A growing threat was also the presence of the Japanese – evident in the form of Japanese gunboats patrolling the Yangtze and also Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland. Judy was to begin her adventures as a mascot on board one of the Royal Navy patrol vessels – HMS Gnat.

A Member of the Crew

It was not long, however, before Judy was able to demonstrate her unique abilities in protecting her adopted crew. While HMS Gnat was anchored one night up river, Judy became highly agitated which led the officer on watch shone a searchlight into the darkness ahead to reveal that two large junks which were drifting in the direction of HMS Gnat. A rope was tied between the junks with the intention to straddle the bow of the HMS Gnat and allow the crews of the junks to board her. Judy’s warning, presumably on account of her exceptional hearing, allowed the ship’s company to rapidly respond to repel boarders and to sever the rope that connected the two pirate junks. These subsequently floated downstream past HMS Gnat.

This was to be the first of many interventions of Judy that would prevent injury and death of those ‘in her charge’. Sometime later during a ship inspection by a Rear Admiral, Judy broke into continuous and insistent barking at the sky above the ship, drowning out the Rear Admiral’s verbal commands. Moments later a Japanese warplane ‘buzzed’ HMS Gnat and the Admiral’s vessel, demonstrating again her uncanny ability to detect danger and communicate this to the crew.

Another demonstration of her exceptional sensory awareness was observed when HMS Gnat had anchored upriver at Hankow. Judy was accompanied by an officer of the ship in a walk of the grounds of a hotel where one side of the road being walked on faced onto dense jungle. Suddenly Judy darted off into the undergrowth – as if to follow up the scent of an animal. This was shortly followed by a yelp of alarm from Judy who bolted from the undergrowth in an agitated state and set off away from the jungle towards the hotel, with the officer in rapid pursuit. Looking back momentarily, however, the officer could see a large forest leopard at the edge of the undergrowth. It is likely that the forest leopard had picked up the scent of the officer and Judy had intervened at great risk to provide a distraction.

While there were some tense and dangerous episodes upon the Yangtze, there were also times of relaxation when the beer would flow freely on shore leave. Judy would also join in such celebrations and enjoy the odd glass or two of the beverage. She would also be encouraged on occasion to howl along to the enthusiastic singing that was also part of a good night out.

It was in the Spring of 1937, however, that Japanese forces openly engaged with those of China. Western naval forces were also at risk of engagement with the Japanese but without formal declaration of war. Western shipping and Royal Navy and American gunboats would be attacked by the Japanese with significant casualties. HMS Gnat would, however, survive her term of duty, being replaced by a newer ship, HMS Grasshopper in June 1939 to which Judy duly transferred. The operational base was in Singapore – described in those times as ‘the Gibraltar of the East’. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, open warfare with the Allies broke out and HMS Grasshopper would see active duty in the relentless siege of Singapore. During this period Judy was would spend time in the ship’s sickbay, to provide comfort to the patients there.


As part of a final evacuation of Singapore, HMS Grasshopper and other vessels left Singapore on 13th February 1942, though soon encountered the main Japanese naval force and air force en route to Singapore. It was Judy that first alerted the ship’s crew to approaching danger. As she dashed to the ship’s bridge and proceeded to bark furiously, the ship’s captain called the ship’s company to battle stations. Shortly after the first wave of Japanese bombers attacked the flotilla of ships. After a heroic struggle, HMS Grasshopper suffered serious damage and the captain resolved to beach the ship on a nearby island. As a second wave of enemy aircraft attacked survivors in the water making for the island, the remaining gunners on HMS Grasshopper were able to provide effective covering fire for their protection. The sister ship of HMS Grasshopper, HMS Dragonfly, was to suffer significantly more casualties as she was rapidly sunk in the air attack. Judy eventually came ashore on the island after being rescued from HMS Grasshopper and proved invaluable in discovering a source of water on the island.

As remaining supplies had been transferred from HMS Grasshopper on a raft, it is likely that Judy’s behaviour of swimming aggressively round the raft was to distract a shark that had been attracted to the scene. This was another example of Judy placing herself in danger in order to safeguard others. The local Dutch Administrator subsequently provided assistance to the group of survivors by way of a boat to cross to the east coast of Sumatra in order to trek to the town of Padang on the West coast, where it was hoped that allied shipping could take them to safety. Unfortunately, when they arrived in Padang after a period of five weeks exhausting travel, it was learned that the last ships had left the previous day. That evening the Japanese entered the town and thus began three years of deprivation and suffering for those who were now prisoners of war. The group was initially transported north by road to the district of Medan on the east coast of Sumatra to the Gloegoer One camp. There the prisoners would labour on various projects such as the construction of an aerodrome within a system of harsh and cruel discipline. In the midst of this, Judy was a boost to the collective morale of the camp inmates.

In a daring scheme to boost the diet of those in the British hut, a sack of rice was stolen from the Japanese officers’ mess at the camp and concealed under one of the sleeping platforms in the hut. In a subsequent search of the British hut, the Japanese guards were just about to discover the sack of rice when Judy charged down the length of the hut with a gleaming human skull clasped in her mouth. She had correctly sensed the gravity of the situation and had come up with a ploy which utterly terrified the superstitious Japanese guards who chased after the dog and forthwith abandoned their search. This episode demonstrated that Judy had ‘read’ the signals of extreme anxiety from those in the British hut that the rice sack was about to be discovered. She had presumably previously also identified a weak point in the Japanese guards as their highly superstitious outlook on anything related to death and where the sight of a human skull would be the perfect trigger for fear and distraction.

It would be in 1943 while at the Gloegoer One camp that Judy would ‘buddy up’ with Frank Williams who had previously been an RAF maintenance engineer. It was the custom for the Japanese guards to place fruit over the graves of colleagues as part of Shinto/Buddhist observance. Frank would train Judy to snatch such offerings and bring them back as a valuable food supply. Frank, with considerable foresight and also bravery, subsequently asked the camp’s commandant to issue Judy with documentation to make her an official prisoner of war with reference ‘Prisoner of War 81A Medan’ in exchange for one of Judy’s puppies. This would at least provide some measure of protection for Judy, who daily risked attack from the Japanese and Korean guards. This documentation would prove invaluable in saving Judy when the camp commandant was later replaced by one with a considerably darker heart.

Eventually the stay of the British prisoners at Gloegoer One camp would come to an end in June 1944, when they were due to be transferred to Singapore. With great daring, Judy was smuggled on board the SS Van Waerwijck, a Dutch vessel that had started life as a passenger ship but had been rebadged by the Japanese as the Harukiku Maru. Conditions on the vessel were dire, with severe overcrowding in the hold of the ship where the prisoners were mainly confined. The convoy of boats that left the harbour of Balawan was, however, intercepted later by the captain of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Truculent, which proceeded to torpedo the Harukiku Maru, this being the largest ship in the convoy. Frank Williams had been below decks when the two torpedoes struck and pushed Judy through an open porthole as the fastest way for her to escape the sinking vessel. Frank succeeded in escaping from the hold and was picked up by an oil tanker in the convoy several hours later. Meanwhile, Judy had been actively rescuing survivors by dragging them towards rescue vessels and later pushing driftwood toward those in need of assistance. She had continued in this mode until utterly exhausted. Her rescue efforts, however, would have certainly saved several lives, though around 200 of the initial number of prisoners that sailed on the Harukiku Maru were lost in the attack. Judy’s rescue attempts were once again evidence of her strong independent instinct to help those in need without consideration for her own safety or physical condition. Judy finally was pulled aboard one of the local rescue boats, but she had to remain hidden during the remaining journey to Singapore since the commandant of Gloegoer One camp had ordered that she should remain there as a camp mascot. Frank Williams would arrive at the new camp some two days after the initial group of survivors and there he would be joyfully reunited with Judy. The camp with almost non-existent facilities, would prove, however, to be only a transit camp. A period of unimaginable suffering and deprivation lay ahead in constructing a railway some 200 km long in Sumatra between Pekanbaru on the Siak River and Moeara which had an existing railway connection to Padang on the west coast of Sumatra.

The Railway Camps

The first groups of allied prisoners would arrive at the site of the railway camps during May 1944 and during this time Judy would be the close companion of Frank Williams in the never ending struggle to survive each day, subjected to the cruelty of the Japanese and Korean guards, a starvation diet, exhausting labour, and the ravages of disease. During this time Judy’s hunting skills in the jungle would provide extra food for the work teams. Judy would bark to indicate where larger game was present in the jungle – whereupon the guards would bring down the animal. Later some scraps of carcass would be subsequently provided to the prisoners. On at least one occasion Judy used this ‘animal alert’ scenario to distract a notorious guard from beating an allied prisoner. In a later incident, Judy had openly challenged a guard beating a British prisoner and had subsequently bolted into the jungle seeking refuge. The guard fired a shot after the escaping dog. Frank was to later to discover that the bullet had grazed Judy’s shoulder. Judy’s intervention, however, had been an act of true courage.


As 1945 progressed, the increasingly harsh conditions began to take its toll on the prisoners, with the result that the prisoner death rate rose steadily. This was in part due to the increasing forced work rate to complete the railway and the demanding terrain over which the railway was being built. Tensions also began to increase between Judy and the guards. Frank trained Judy to hide in safety in the jungle during the daily routine until it was safe to make an appearance again. Morale among the prisoners was to some extent raised by news of Victory in Europe Day on the 8th of May 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Germany. A ceremony was subsequently held by the Japanese on the 15th of August 1945 to mark the completion of the railway, though this was in fact the same day that Japan had surrendered unconditionally, following the earlier detonation of nuclear weapons against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was not until the 4th of September 1945, however, that Allied forces, announced noisily by Judy, reached the Sumatra railway camps. Judy and Frank would sail initially back to Singapore and then onward to England, disembarking at Liverpool. After release from quarantine, Judy made numerous public appearances and was awarded the Dickin Medal by the United Kingdom charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1946, where the medal inscription included the words ‘for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness’. Judy would have a new series of adventures in Tanzania in Africa, where Frank took up work in 1948 in a ground nut project before she died in 1950 at the age of 14. Frank would subsequently begin a new life in Canada in Vancouver and raise his own family there. A detailed account of Judy’s history is recounted in the book ‘No Better Friend’ by Robert Weintraub.


Judy prisoner of War 81A Medan receiving her PDSA Dickin Medal from Viscount Tarbat, President of the Returned Prisoners of War Association: London May 1946, Copyright © PDSA

Judy in quarantine, Copyright © PDSA

Close up of Judy, Copyright © PDSA

Map showing key locations of the exploits of Judy in the Far East: Credit DM Clarkson

By northernlight1

I have interests is a wide range of topics and have written on these and more formal subjects for quite some time. The written word still retains the power to inform and motivate - hopefully constructively and certainly has to be used responsibly in an age of false information trails.


  1. WOW, what a wonderful fun read about Judy and making through being a POW and feeding her fellow captures. Loved this story as a former Dog Handler US Customs Service, USAF Military Handler. P.S. I did not add her story to the website, felt that best left for your team.

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