By Elisa Black-Taylor
Cats have likely been at sea since the time when ancient Egyptians walked the earth. This leads me to believe cats have sailed on long voyages and proven their worth for thousands of years now. Not just during war times, but on trade ships as well. It’s quite unlikely any ship would sail without a few prized cats aboard. These ancient felines found a niche to earn their keep onboard ship, and later became “standard issue,” for lack of a better word. I can picture it now. I can hear the Captains voice in my head calling out “We can’t sail without the cat! Has anyone seen the cat?”
I’ve titled this article Cats in the Navy because that’s what the photos shown in this collage depict.It’s fascinating to surf the web and find old photos of seamen and their cats. I found the original photos on the U.S. Naval Institute webpage http://usni.org/news-and-features/cats-and-the-sea-services
Sailors long ago learned the value of a good mouser cat. Without cats on a ship, rats would likely take over the food supply. Not only can a rat chew through bags of food, a rat can also chew through rope and they carry many life threatening diseases. So it’s safe to assume cats have always been welcome on ships to keep down on the vermin. The small amount needed to feed the cats (assuming they didn’t catch enough on their own) is small compared to the amount the rats could destroy.
Cats were also used for companionship on a long voyage. Most crewmen considered a cat as a good luck omen for their ship. It was also common for sailors to take home a stray cat as a souvenir from a foreign land. Maine Coon cats are said to have come aboard a ship and are still considered one of the most popular breeds in the U.S. Regardless of which ship tale you believe on how the breed arrived in Maine, they definitely had to cross the ocean by ship. I imagine a lot of mixed breeds also made the journey.
Today I’d like to share some very old photos with all of you. I pulled them off of a U.S. Naval Institute website I was browsing through and thought all of you might like to see how well thought of ship cats were. Since none of the photos are more recent than 1959, I believe they’d be considered public domain.
Take a look at the cat named Pooli (pictured top middle), who’s shown wearing her own special naval uniform. Pooli received three service ribbons and four battle stars for serving aboard an attack transport ship during WWII. She was 15-years old when this photo was taken. Now how old would that make her in cat years?
Here’s a brief description of each of these wonderful vintage photos. Top left is a group of French soldiers on board a U.S. vessel in 1950. Then in the middle we have our “war cat” Pooli in a photo taken in 1959. On the top right we have pilots aboard the USS Ranger in July 1944. They were in a briefing room and decided to play with the kitty while they awaited instructions. These pilots were back in the air not long after posing for the photo. The bottom left photo was made aboard the USS Texas in 1900. It shows their cat and dog mascots. The final photo on the bottom right is the oldest. It was made in 1898 on the USS Olympia and shows the crewmen using a mirror to play with their cats. The Olympia is the oldest floating steel warship and is now docked in Philadelphia.
I hope the readers have enjoyed this article and these vintage photos. I’d like to thank the photographers who took the time over half a century ago to capture these moments and give credit to these cats who served in the U.S. Navy. I wonder whether these military photographers realized their photos would still be making people smile today.