The Story of Gunboat Judy for Kids

Today, we are going to hear the tale of an amazing animal – a feisty Pointer dog nicknamed “Gunboat Judy.”  Judy lived during a terrible time in history, World War II, and her story is one of courage, survival, and loyalty.  Judy came from humble beginnings.  She was born in a kennel in Shanghai but rose to fame as a war hero, diplomat, and celebrity.  And like our previous stories on “Unsinkable Sam, the Battleship Cat” and “Jeep, the Flying Coyote,” the story of Gunboat Judy is truly amazing and inspirational.  So, let’s dive right in!

Judy, who was originally called “Shudi,” was born in February 1937 in a kennel in Shanghai, one of 7 adorable puppies.  That August, sailors from a British gunboat, HMS Gnat, visited the kennel looking for a dog.  They bought Judy and returned with her to the ship.  Judy didn’t know it at the time, but her life was going to change forever.

Like every puppy, Judy was inquisitive, rambunctious, and full of energy.  One day she became a little too excited and fell overboard into the Yangtze River.  The captain immediately stopped the ship and sent a small boat out to rescue Judy.   She must have felt very scared but she paddled bravely with her little paws until help arrived. Upon her safe return to the ship, the incident was noted in the captain’s log as a “man overboard exercise!”


The days ticked by and Judy grew accustomed to ship life and all the friendly sailors.  Then one night, Judy heard something strange.  The sailors were asleep and didn’t notice that a boat was drifting silently towards them in the water.  Judy heard it though, and didn’t like it.  She started growling, then barking.  Her barks awakened the sailors and alerted them to the dangerous pirates nearby.  Due to Judy’s actions, the pirates retreated and the seamen were saved.

Judy quickly became invaluable as a protector.  She would bark when she heard the approach of Japanese planes long before the crew heard them in the skies.  One day, a sailor took Judy for a walk outside a nearby city and Judy started running away, dragging the man behind her.  This action shocked the sailor and as he turned around, he saw a leopard behind them!  Luckily, they both escaped with their lives that day!

In November, the seamen took Judy to a party on a US ship, the USS Panay.  After the party, the British sailors returned to their boat, only to discover that Judy was missing.  They contacted the Panay but was told Judy was not there.  Eventually they learned that Judy had been kidnapped by the US sailors as a prank.  The British sailors were not amused.  They sailed back to the Panay, snuck onto the ship, and stole their brass bell.  They later contacted the Panay with one demand: “Give us our dog and we’ll give you your bell.”  Judy was returned within the hour!

The following year, Judy met another Pointer on a French gunboat and the crew decided that the two dogs should get married!  They held a wedding ceremony and later that same year, Judy had a litter of Pointer puppies!  The puppies were later gifted to French and American boat crews.

But war was approaching.  In September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and Judy’s ship sailed to Singapore.  Two years later, they fought in the Battle of Singapore providing anti-aircraft fire and evacuating people from the island.  Poor Judy must have been frightened by all the Japanese airplanes diving at their ship and the gunship firing back at them.

A month later, on Valentine’s Day 1942, Judy alerted the crew that Japanese planes were approaching.  The sailors raced to their guns as the planes dove out of the sky, their engines shrieking as they dropped three bombs on the ship.  The captain ordered an immediate evacuation.  The sailors jumped into boats and paddled to a deserted island while Japanese planes shot at them from above.  Only when they arrived on shore did they notice that Judy was not among them.  One sailor rowed back to the flaming ship to find Judy and retrieve supplies.  He grabbed Judy, where she was trapped under some metal lockers, and rowed back to the island.  That night, the ship exploded and sunk out of sight.  Judy had been rescued just in time!

The crew quickly discovered that the island had minimal food and no fresh water.  But Judy saved the day again by digging and finding a fresh water spring!  At night, she stood watch over the sleeping soldiers, keeping deadly snakes at bay.  

Five days later, the sailors were rescued by a passing tongkang – a small supply boat – and they set sail in search of the British Navy.  They even trekked 200 miles across Sumatra.  Poor Judy.  She must have been tired and thirsty and hot, but she continued to protect her friends.  One day while they were trekking through the jungle, Judy was attacked by a crocodile.  She suffered an injury to her shoulder, which a sailor bandaged as best he could.  A short time later, Judy started barking furiously and saved the sailors from an attack by a Sumatran tiger!  She never let down her guard while in that hot, scary jungle, always alert for snakes, tigers, and other large predators.  Eventually they were caught by the Japanese and taken to a camp as prisoners of war.  The sailors hid Judy under empty rice sacks so the Japanese soldiers wouldn’t kill her.

Once in camp, Judy met Leading Aircraftman Frank Williams and they became quick friends.  Frank would save rice from his meager meals to share with Judy.  In return, Judy would bark at the Japanese guards to distract them from beating the prisoners.  This angered the guards, who aimed their guns at Judy.  Williams ran forward and intervened just in time.  He pleaded with the camp commandant to save Judy and make her an official prisoner of war.  In return, Williams would give the commandant one of her future puppies.  The commander agreed and Judy became the only animal prisoner of war and was registered as prisoner “81A.”

Judy was more than a protector in camp.  She also foraged in the nearby forest, bringing back rats and snakes for the prisoners to eat.  She had another litter of puppies and one was given to the camp commandant as promised, while another was smuggled into the women’s camp along with precious morsels of food.

In June 1944, the prisoners were transferred to Singapore aboard a Japanese ship.  Judy was stuffed into an empty rice sack and slung over Williams shoulders.  He had to hide her from the Japanese because dogs were not allowed on board and they might kill her.  It was blazing hot and the prisoners stood on the metal deck for 3 hours but Judy didn’t make a peep inside the sack.  

Three weeks later, the British torpedoed the Japanese ship and chaos ensued.  Fire, flames and screams filled the air.  Frightened men scrambled up and out of the sinking ship.  Williams grabbed Judy and pushed her out of a porthole to the water 15 feet below.  Then he lost sight of her.  He raced to the deck and jumped into the water, swimming for land.  Of the 700 prisoners on board the ship, 500 did not survive.

But Williams did survive.  He was recaptured and sent to another prison camp.  When he arrived, he heard stories of a dog who saved drowning sailors by dragging them to floating debris or brought debris to them to keep them float.  As fate would have it, Judy was plucked out of the water by other British sailors, who hid her from the Japanese prison guards.  About 4 weeks later, Judy and Williams were happily reunited in the camp!  

For the next year the prisoners worked building railroad tracks in the jungles of Sumatra.  Judy stood guard over them, barking at any large beasts that came near, such as tigers and elephants.  And her personality was changing in the prison camp.  Stated Williams, “She wasn’t that tame, obedient dog anymore, she was a skinny animal that kept herself alive through cunning and instinct.”  Judy became more aggressive towards the Japanese and Korean guards.  Williams would send her into the jungle to keep her out of sight, but one day a guard shot at her. The bullet grazed her shoulder.  Williams could do nothing but bandage the wound with a palm frond.  

When a lice infestation broke out in the camp, the guards were ordered to kill Judy.  Before they could do so, Williams sent her back into the woods, where she hid until the guards evacuated the camp several days later.  

The war was finally over!  The prisoners were rescued by allied troops and put on ships for home.  Again, Judy was smuggled on board and kept out of sight.

Upon landing in England, Williams and Judy became instant celebrities.  Judy was awarded the Dickin Medal – a WWII medal honoring animals – and a medal for valor.  She appeared with Williams on a BBC radio broadcast and at a victory celebration at Wembley Stadium in front of 82,000 people.  Newspapers hailed her as “Gunboat Judy.”  

Judy and Williams spent a year traveling England visiting the families of POWs and raising money for charities. In 1948, Williams accepted a job in East Africa and took Judy with him.  They stayed for two years and Judy had her third litter of puppies.  Then it was discovered that Judy had a tumor.  She underwent surgery but contracted an infection and passed away at the age of 14.  She was buried in an RAF flight jacket with her three combat medals.  Williams spent two months building a monument in her honor before leaving South Africa.

Judy’s legacy lives on.  She was featured in the children’s book, “The Judy Story” and on the British TV show, “Blue Peter.”  Her collar and Dickin Medal were put on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.  This medal reads: “For magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped to maintain morale among her fellow prisoners, and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness.”

I think this is an incredible story of the special bond between humans and dogs.  Judy was shot, torpedoed, attacked by a crocodile, starved, kidnapped, and smuggled around Asia.  And yet she remained loyal to her friends and protected them fiercely from pirates, predators, and prison guards.  She’s a true inspiration, showing us that dogs can survive under the most extreme circumstances with intelligence, strength, and courage.