Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Arwendnesdays with Arwen the Wonder Dog: Lest We Forget

Today is Remembrance day and I, Arwen the Wonder dog, wanted to honor all of the troops, past, present and future with a post about their heroism. One thing we often forget, however, is that animals also played roles in earlier wars. Horses, and dogs helped our troops quite often. Here is a true story, taken from the Dogs In Canada website, written by Amanda Kelly, about a Canadian dog named Gander. He was a Newfoundland breed of dog and turned out to be quite a hero. Please read on:

Big, hairy and goofy, ‘Gander’ was a typical Newfoundland Dog – and an unlikely Canadian war hero. Nevertheless, this gentle giant was destined to carve out a spot in history and in the hearts of Canadian veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong.

Humble beginnings

Gander began his life as ‘Pal,’ the beloved pet of Ron Hayden, manager of Shell Oil at the Gander Airport in the early 1940s. Pal was a frequent visitor to the airport, where he often assisted Hayden in refueling aircraft by towing a sled carrying the 45-gallon drum of fuel. When not working, Pal kept himself busy visiting with the soldiers assigned to Gander’s busy airbase and serving as a popular playmate for the town’s children.

During one particularly exuberant playtime, Pal accidentally scratched young Joan Chafe on the face, leaving scrapes requiring a doctor’s attention. Upset, his owners discussed the possibility of having Pal euthanized, but no one, least of all the children, wanted to see this happen. Instead, Pal was gifted to members of the first Battalion of the Royal Rifles of Canada stationed in Gander at the time. Renamed in honour of the town, Gander became the unit’s mascot.

Gander goes to Hong Kong

Hoping to deter hostile action by Japan, Britain began reinforcing its out-post in Hong Kong in October 1941. Canada sent a force of 1,975 troops, consisting primarily of two battalions – the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada. As a newly minted member of the Royal Rifles family, Gander sailed from Vancouver with his new companions on October 27, 1941.

Upon arriving on November 16, the Canadian units were assigned the task of defending Hong Kong’s beaches. On December 8, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong. What ensued were 17-1/2 days of intense fighting known as the Battle of Hong Kong.

A hero is born

Poorly equipped and outnumbered, defences on mainland Hong Kong were quickly defeated and the Japanese army turned its attention to the island of Hong Kong, where Canadian forces bravely stood their ground. After two demands for surrender were summarily rejected, Japanese forces invaded the island under the cover of darkness on December 18.

Gander is reported to have engaged the enemy on no fewer than three separate occasions during fighting around the Lye Mun Barracks. The first came when a wave of attackers landed on the beach and Gander rushed at them, barking furiously and charging at their legs. Not long after, he again charged and barked, snapping at advancing Japanese troops and forcing them to alter their course – effectively diverting them away from a group of injured Royal Rifles trapped only a few feet beyond him, and saving them from death or capture.

It is for his final act of bravery that Gander is most remembered. Pinned down under intense fire, a group of injured soldiers watched in horror as a live grenade rolled into their midst. Acting quickly, Gander grabbed the grenade in his mouth and ran. Though killed in the subsequent explosion, Gander’s last heroic act saved the lives of several of his human friends.

Honouring Canadian heroes

Fifty-nine years later, Gander’s sacrifice was finally recognized. For the first time since 1949, the Dickin Medal was presented for an act “of conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in wartime.” Gander is the only Canadian dog to have received the medal. Accepting on his behalf was Fred Kelly of Campbellton, N.B. – one of Gander’s primary handlers and caretakers during his time with the Royal Rifles.

Known as the “Animals’ Victoria Cross,” the Dickin Medal was established in 1943 by Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), an English veterinary charity. The bronze medal honouring the work of animals in war was awarded by the PDSA 54 times between 1943 and 1949. Gander’s posthumous induction in 2000 marked a revival and since then the number of Dickin recipients has increased to 62. Other honourees include 32 pigeons, 25 dogs, three horses and one cat.

Those who gathered in Ottawa in 2000 remembered the sacrifices of all who fought in Hong Kong, a defence made at great human cost. When Allied forces were overrun on Christmas Day 1941, approximately 290 Canadian soldiers were killed in battle. Survivors endured nearly four years of captivity in prisoner-of-war and Japanese work camps where 267 more would perish. For those counting, that is a total of 557 dead Canadian heroes. Gander made it 558.

Lest we forget.

Gander’s memory lives on today in the hearts and minds of Canadian children from coast to coast, thanks to innovative educational material developed by Veterans Affairs Canada.
Recognizing that teaching young children about war can be difficult, the department uses cartoon relatives of real-life Dickin Medal winners to introduce concepts of remembrance on a level even the youngest reader can understand.

Lest we forget. Please thank a veteran for their service today. We wouldn't be the same without them.
and Arwen

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