There’s no denying it: war is hell. In No Better Friend by Robert Weintraub, we once again are confronted by the god-awful truth behind that expression. But we also learn about the true nature of grit, resiliency, courage and, in this case, the strength of the bond between man and dog.
This inspirational story revolves around an English Pointer born in 1936 in Shanghai, who became a mascot on one of the many English gunboats that patrolled the Yangtze River. At first called Shudi, Chinese for peaceful, she became Judy, and was adopted by the crew of the Royal Navy’s HMS Gnat.
Although the crew hoped that Judy would be a good hunting companion, it quickly became clear that her talents didn’t lie in that direction. But she was able to put her alertness, intelligence and intense drive to use by barking alarms at sewer ships (“cess boats”) and river pirates—even defending against onboard invaders. After 1937 and the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, she ratcheted up her early-warning system, signaling when fighter planes were approaching.
How she became the war’s only official canine POW is a long story, and one best left for readers to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that Judy, who was, as Weintraub describes, “a fiercely loyal dog, with a keen sense for who was friend and who was foe,” performed many memorable feats (see excerpt).
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After Singapore fell to the Japanese, she dug up a life-saving fresh water source for those who were marooned on a barren atoll, and led soldiers (including Frank Williams, who became her chief caregiver and companion) on a dangerous march across Sumatra. Once she and the soldiers had been captured and interned in a Japanese POW camp, she found rodents, snakes and other creatures to help feed herself and her fellow captives. For four horrible years, she and the other prisoners were kept under barbaric conditions. Judy had numerous near-misses with guards who wanted to kill (and eat) her; it’s amazing that anyone, much less a dog, survived such treatment.
Williams and hundreds of other prisoners (all of whom were slowly starving to death) were forced to build a railroad by hand. As Weintraub noted, “Judy’s mere presence on the railway rallied men who had been pushed beyond the brink.” One prisoner penned a quatrain to memorialize the men’s feelings for this heroine dog, and his words summed up their sentiment perfectly: “They would stagger to their workplace/Though they really ought to die/And would mutter in their beards/If that bitch can, so can I.”
Weintraub’s compelling, well-researched book does justice to the remarkable Judy and the men whose stories he tells so effectively and poignantly. Theirs is truly one of the great sagas of WWII and I highly recommend it to everyone. (A younger readers’ version is due out soon—keep an eye out for it.)