They say cats have nine lives. While there’s no scientific evidence to back up this claim, there’s one feline in history who certainly put this old wives tale to the test: a black-and-white mouser who served aboard three different ships during World War II and would affectionately become known as Unsinkable Sam.
Sam began his nautical career aboard the Bismarck, the first of two Bismarck-class battleships commissioned into the Nazi Kriegsmarine. The ship set sail on Feb. 14, 1939 with a mission to raid British and American trade routes on the Atlantic Ocean. It was during the Battle of the Demark Straight that the Bismarck first saw action, when the HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales engaged the German battleship and her partner ship, the Admiral Hipper-class heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen.
In the ensuing battle, the HMS Hood was sunk by the combined firepower of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, prompting the Royal Navy to dispatch dozens of additional ships in response. Two days later, while on its way to occupied-France for repairs, the Bismarck was attacked by a number of torpedo bombers launched from the HMS Ark Royal, crippling her and leaving her stranded for an onslaught from British battleships and cruisers the following morning which resulted in its demise.
Of the 2,100 crew members, only 210 survived. Sam, whose real name was unknown, was later found adrift by the crew of the HMS Cossack and brought aboard. And, like all good cats, he flipped allegiance as soon as he realized his rescuers had food and joined the British crew as their new mascot. The crew of the Cossack named their new pet Oscar, which is the alphanumeric code for the letter “O” and used by sailors to indicate someone overboard.
Unfortunately, Oscar brought with him an incredible deal of unlucky baggage.
Nearly five months after the destruction of the Bismarck, the Cossack was conducting an escort mission for a convoy of ships from Gibraltar to Great Britain when the ship was attacked and severely damaged by a German U-boat’s torpedo, killing 159 crew members. Another vessel attempted to tow the Cossack back to land after transferring most the crew to the safety of the HMS Legion. However, as weather conditions worsened, the rescue attempt had to be abandoned and the ship eventually sank.
Oscar survived and after the story of a cat who outlived his two vessels circulated, the nickname “Unsinkable Sam” was born.
Now, in a brilliant turn of events, the Royal Navy decided to transfer the world’s most unlucky cat to the HMS Ark Royal, the aircraft carrier responsible for the destruction of the Bismarck and which had garnered a reputation for being a “lucky” ship after surviving multiple near-misses with German U-boats.
Good luck vs. bad luck. Who wins? Well …
While on a mission to return to Malta on Nov. 14, 1941, the U-boats finally hit their mark and torpedoed the ship. Attempts were made to tow the crippled vessel to Gibraltar but proved to be a futile effort. The ship rolled over and sank about thirty miles off the coast.
Thanks to the slow rate in which the ship rolled, all but one crew member – including Sam – were able to evacuate. When he was found (again, clinging to a board), he was described as being “angry but quite unharmed”. And, let’s be honest, if you’d survived your third sinking ship in as many years, you’d be a bit angry, too.
The sinking of the HMS Ark Royal was Sam’s last adventure at sea, but it may not have been the end of his bad luck. The crew of the Ark Royal were rescued by the HMS Legion (yeah, the same ship that rescued him from the Cossack) and HMS Lighting. Both the Legion and Lightening were sunk in 1942 and 1943, respectively.
After his naval career, Sam spent some time in the Offices of the Governor of Gibraltar before being sent back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his life at the “Home for Sailors”, a seaman’s home in Belfast. Sam passed away in 1955.
Over the years, there have been many claims that Sam’s story is nothing more than a “sea story” citing the desperate weather conditions in which the survey of the Bismarck remains were conducted, or the fact that photos of at least two different cats have surfaced over the years that ID’d the feline as Sam.
But at the end of the day, who really cares whether the story of Unsinkable Sam is real or not? In times of extreme adversity, like war, its stories like this that can help warriors find their grounding in the chaos. Plus, let’s not forget the incredible moral of the story: no matter what life throws at you (or how many times you find yourself in rough seas on a proverbial sinking ship), there will always be some kind of floating debris there for you to hold on to until you find calmer waters.