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Hidden Heroes: The Unlikely Animals Helping Australians At War

Animal war heroes come in all shapes and sizes, from the gallant mounted Light Horse Brigade to the unlikely, yet humble, pigeon. 

Take Pigeon Q879, for example.

During the Second World War, the bird was released by a US marine patrol while under attack by the Japanese on Manus Island. Q879 flew through heavy gunfire, delivering a message warning headquarters of the attack.

The pigeon was known purely by the number inscribed on an aluminium ring on its right leg. Two other birds were shot down, but 879 delivered its message in time, and the patrol was saved.

"Sometimes the only way to get a message out was by carrier pigeon," Australian War Memorial historian Dr Meleah Hampton told 10 daily.

Pigeon Q879. Image: Australian War Memorial

Pigeon Q879 -- who was attached to the US Forces at Manus --  was one of two Australian birds, and 32 pigeons, to have been awarded the Dickin Medal -- the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross -- during the Second World War.

That pigeons were still used well into the 1940s amazes Hampton to this day.

"They were widely used in the First World War, but the fact that they continued on was a surprise to me," she said.

The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 to recognise the heroic acts of animals in warfare -- and the list is extensive.

"They have been so important," Hampton said. "It's a little different now as numbers have diminished, but in the past they integrated into our war experience naturally."

Hampton believes the gravity of animals' role has not been "overlooked," but more so loosely featured in Australia's military history.

As the country celebrates its first National Day for War Animals, here are some of our favourite non-human friends.

Pte. D.W. Jones (NX15179) of Carlton N.S.W. and "C" company the 2/33 battalion. Image: Australian War Memorial
Simpson's donkeys

During World War One, one of the noted Anzac legends was Simpson the Donkey Man, aka John Simpson Kirkpatrick.

Simpson served at Gallipoli from the landing at Anzac Cove until he was killed in action on May 19, 1915. He became famous for his work as a stretcher-bearer, and for recruiting a team of donkeys.

"There was shambles after the arrival, and so Simpson took it upon himself to travel up Shrapnel Gully -- a valley, known as the 'artery' of the Anzacs -- to bring back lightly wounded soldiers," Hampton explained.

"It's one of those cases where animals can either enhance the work of people, or it can't be done without them."
Sarbi, the canine war hero

The Australian army has a long history working with dogs in different roles --some of whom are trained to find integrated explosive devices (IEDs) and save lives.

Meet Sarbi, Australia's most decorated canine war hero and a highly trained IED detector who worked in Afghanistan.

The black Labrador-Newfoundland cross went missing in 2008 when a convoy of Australian and Afghan soldiers was attacked by insurgents in the Uruzgan Province.

Sarbi the Explosive Detection Dog. Image: AAP

Nine Australian soldiers were wounded in the attack, but Sarbi disappeared -- until an American special forces soldier came across the dog with some Afghan locals 14 months later.

Sarbi was  awarded the War Dog Operational Medal and the RSPCA's Purple Cross -- its highest award for animal bravery -- and enjoyed a lovely retirement with her handler before her death in 2015.

Sarbi with her handler, Sergeant D. in 2011. Image: AAP
Horrie the War Dog

There have been highly trained dogs working on the front line, and other companions who forged an inseparable bond.

Early in 1941, Australian Private Jim Moody from the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion found a puppy abandoned in the Western Desert of Egypt.

"Horrie" the white terrier soon became the battalion's unofficial mascot, travelling with them from Egypt to Greece, Crete, Palestine and Syria.

When Moody returned to Australia in 1942, he smuggled his new pup ashore. Three years later, Horrie was put down in Sydney by order of the federal government's Department of Health.

Horrie became a war hero, his death a national outrage.

"It shows this very real attachment for people with very serious jobs and horrific experiences who want to take care of something," Hampton said.

'Horrie' the war dog. Image: Australian War Memorial

Animals as mascots became particularly common towards the end of the Second World War, according to Hampton.

"When quarantine restrictions ramped up, officials started going through what people were bringing home," she said.

"They found dogs, monkeys, squirrels, cats, rabbits and birds -- all animals soldiers had picked up and carried with them throughout war."

Featured image: Australian War Memorial

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au