May 06, 2015

Robert Weintraub

Uncovering the heroic story of the “Pooch POW”
Judy, a purebred English pointer born in Shanghai in 1936, was clearly one special dog: The only canine POW of World War II, she survived the grueling experience thanks to her friend and protector, Royal Air Force technician Frank Williams. When the transport ship on which the two were being moved came under attack, Frank pushed Judy through a porthole into the South China Sea to save her life. It was one of many close calls she would endure during more than three years in captivity.
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Judy, a purebred English pointer born in Shanghai in 1936, was clearly one special dog: The only canine POW of World War II, she survived the grueling experience thanks to her friend and protector, Royal Air Force technician Frank Williams. When the transport ship on which the two were being moved came under attack, Frank pushed Judy through a porthole into the South China Sea to save her life. It was one of many close calls she would endure during more than three years in captivity.

Robert Weintraub, an author (The Victory Season) and sportswriter for Slate, the New York Times and other publications, tells the duo’s amazing story in No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII.

How did you first find out about Judy and get interested in this story?
Total serendipity. I happened to be flipping through the pages of a collection of lists and arcana called The People’s Almanac, which I’ve loved since I was a boy. I was just idly looking, but of course the writer in me was subconsciously on the lookout for a story. So when I saw a couple of paragraphs under the heading “The Pooch POW,” I knew I had to investigate further. The more I dug into Judy’s story after that, the more amazed I became. I knew I had to write about her.

His main priority was not his own survival but the safety of a dog he had just met. That’s pretty amazing stuff.

While No Better Friend focuses on Frank Williams and his partnership with Judy, it is also a fabulous explication of lesser-known aspects of WWII. Did you know much about this time period before beginning your research?
I’ve always been a WWII buff, so I knew the broad strokes, but I certainly had no idea about the incredible details of the evacuation of Singapore, the building of the “Death Railway” in Sumatra, and many of the other smaller but amazing stories in that corner of the Pacific theater.

The details of life in a WWII POW camp are riveting. How did you conduct your research? Were you able to visit any historic sites?
I was all set to go to Sumatra to visit the POW camps, but then I discovered that virtually nothing remains of them. Instead, I spent a lot of time in the U.K. National Archives and the research rooms at the Imperial War Museum, both in London, and I hired a professional researcher based there to further assist me. I visited Frank’s hometown of Portsmouth, and hunted through the files at the Merchant Navy Archives in Southampton. Many accounts, including some of Frank’s personal memories, were in Dutch, so I had to get those translated before using them. And of course, I read memoirs and histories and accounts of the camps by the dozens.

What impressed you most about Frank's story?
Probably the way he gave himself over so completely to the protection of an animal while he was so far gone physically in the camps. He suffered from severe hunger, malnutrition, malaria, dysentery and beriberi, along with physical punishment from the guards and the endless, punishing work. Yet his main priority was not his own survival but the safety of a dog he had just met. That’s pretty amazing stuff.

This must have been an immersion. How long did the book take to write?
Yes, it did take over my life for a good year and a half or more. It could have been more, of course, but at a certain point the publisher says that’s enough already, we’re printing this as is.

What surprised you the most as you uncovered the details of Judy and Frank's ordeal?
Several things—Judy’s ability to stay alive in the camps and along the railway was extraordinary, and how she managed to elude the guards through her uncanny communication system with Frank. How the other men along the railway took strength from Judy’s survival, and the inspiration they drew from her every day she wasn’t shot by the Japanese. And of course the very idea that Frank talked the Japanese commander into actually making Judy an official POW, with a serial number and everything, was historic and sets her story apart even from other stories of canine heroics during the war.

Do you have a dog? How does he/she compare to Judy?
I grew up with a great golden retriever named Rookie, who wasn’t nearly as intelligent or brave as Judy, but was great in his own way. I have a pair of young children, so we are waiting until they are able to take care of the dog (at least a little) to get one now. When I do, I’m sure it will be an English pointer!

What are you working on now?
I’m in the midst of a couple of longform pieces about sports for Grantland/ESPN and Sports Illustrated, and of course I’m busy publicizing No Better Friend!

If readers become interested in WWII after reading your book, what other reading recommendations might you have?
Boy, there are so many aspects of the war, so many titles. I’d say off the top of my head Hiroshima by John Hersey, D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, With The Old Bree: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge, and A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan are must-reads.

And even though they are fiction, novels like War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut do a great job of capturing what the war was like.

 

Deborah Hopkinson is an award-winning children's author whose many books for young readers include Sky Boys and the forthcoming Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark (Scholastic).

RELATED CONTENT: Read a review of No Better Friend.

Author photo: Liz Stubbs

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No Better Friend

No Better Friend

By Robert Weintraub
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316337069

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