Story - the cat who knew

This is the story of a little black kitten with a very special job: mascot of the warship HMAS Perth. At the beginning of 1942, HMAS Perth and its crew were famous across Australia. Only the year before it had been fighting the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. HMAS Perth also evacuated thousands of war-weary Australian troops from Greece.

Now HMAS Perth and its crew of over 600 men were back in pacific waters where they were needed for a very important task - to stop the Japanese advance across south-east Asia. They left Sydney in January 1942, stopping off at Fremantle on the way.

It was perhaps, at this time that Perth's animal mascot Red Lead, joined the ship. We know it was only a kitten in February 1942. What a place for a little kitten to explore! There were the sailors' quarters with their swinging hammocks, the wide, wooden deck, towering masts, the round signal lamps and deep in the bowels of the ship the growling engines. But Red Lead's favourite spot was curled up in the captain's cabin. The new captain, Hec Waller, always had a moment to spare for the playful kitten.

But Red Lead had little time to settle into its new home. On 27 February, HMAS Perth joined a fleet of British, Dutch and American ships to stop a Japanese naval convoy from landing on the island of Java. The fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and one by one, the Allied ships were crippled, sunk or forced to withdraw. The sound of firing ack ack guns and the shouting of the men surrounded the kitten! Japanese planes zoomed over ahead - there was no safe place to hide, except its one special place, Captain Waller's cabin. There it firmly stayed until the Captain gave orders to withdraw from the battle. Embattled but not defeated the warship steamed back to the harbour.

Back in the safety of the harbour, Red Lead somehow knew it would not survive another battle like that. It was time to find another job and another home. Quietly and stealthily it crept down the gangway. "Where do you think you are going?" yelled out one of the sailors and scooped up the little kitten, returning it to the deck. Foiled, Red Lead tried again and again. Three times in total, the kitten tried to leave the ship but to no avail. Some of the sailors looked at the unhappy cat and shook their heads - this was a bad omen. The official log at the end of the day read

"Red Lead, ship's kitten, endeavoured to desert, but was brought back on board, despite vigorous protests."

Red Lead was right that things would not improve. The next day HMAS Perth and USS Houston sailed for the south coast of Java and met a large fleet of Japanese ships. After a desperate battle, the Perth was sunk. Over 350 men (including Captain Waller) and one little black kitten went down with the ship.

Activities with a naval theme

  • Like every defence force, the navy has its own words and expressions, some dating back centuries. Do you know that starboard (meaning right hand side of the ship) has its origins with the Viking term stor bords? Stor bords were the wooden rudders used to steer the boat away from land or "port". They were always on the right hand side of the vessel. Find out the meaning of these words and expressions:

    Action stations
    He knows the ropes
    Running the gauntlet
    Devil to pay
    Keeping everything above board

    Brainstorm other words and expressions that have a naval origin. Build these words and expressions into a short story or poem.

  • One of the problems for the ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australian) group was the lack of a common signal code. Naval vessels have a number of ways of communicating with each other - semaphore flags, morse code and radio. Research each mode of communication. How long has each code been used? By what countries? Are they still used? How important are codes during wartime?

  • The story of Operation Jaywick and the Krait is one of the great naval adventures of the Second World War. The Krait was an old, Japanese fishing boat with an erratic engine. But in September 1943 its British and Australian crew made the dangerous journey from Western Australia to Singapore Harbour. Crew members paddled in canoes among the ships, attaching "limpet mines" and successfully sunk or damaged seven Japanese ships. The success of Operation Jaywick relied upon careful navigation of the Krait through occupied waters. Test your mapping and mathematical skills with these exercises.
    Plot these points on a map.

    1. 12.5° S, 113.8° W
    2. 6° S, 116° W
    3. 1.5°N, 104.8° W
    4. 3° S, 110.5° W
    5. 7.8° S, 116.5° W
    6. 24° S, 115° W

    Now join the dots together - this is the route of the Krait! On the same map shade in the areas that were occupied by Japan in 1943.

Activities about mascots and animals

  • Red Lead was one of many animals to be found in the defence services. Cats, kangaroos, snakes, turtles, goats, dogs and even ceramic spotted pigs were adopted by men as mascots. Other animals like horses, donkeys, pigeons and dogs played an important role in assisting their unit. Search the Memorial online encyclopedia and the collections database to learn more about the role of animals in war - try the keywords "animals", "mascots" and "Dicken Medal".

  • Write a story about what you see in the photo. You can be the soldier feeding the mule, the man in the background watching or the mule.

    AWM E00091An Australian feeding an exhausted mule on the road at Fricourt. Note the other infantryman watching in the background at right and the bicycle nearby. Dec 1916.
    AWM E00091

  • Make a collage from pictures in old magazines or newspapers. Select from the themes:

    "Animals are our best friends"
    "What can we learn from animals"
    "Who is the smartest - them or us?"