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Duckbour Caleb James Shang, known as Caleb, or by his Chinese name Lee, or the nickname “Charlie”, was one of the more unlikely heroes of World War I. Quiet, soft-spoken and shy, the slightly-built Queenslander from far north Cairns was 170 cm tall and weighed 51 kg. Furthermore, as the son of a Chinese-born father and Australian-born mother, nobody expected him to even enlist, as only those of European ancestry were considered eligible for military service at this time, and it was unusual for people of Asian ancestry to join the armed forces.

Yet both Caleb and his brother Sidney enlisted in 1916, and in 1917 Caleb joined the 47th Battalion in time to join heavy fighting in Flanders on the Western Front. He later fought on the Somme during the heaviest attack ever faced by Australian soldiers, and after his battalion was disbanded due to severe casualties, he served in the 45th Battalion during the Battle of Amiens. Here he was wounded, and evacuated to England before being sent back to Australia when the war was over.

Caleb was a runner, signaller, and scout, tirelessly running messages and bringing supplies at all hours, signalling while exposed to the enemy, constantly volunteering for dangerous missions into enemy territory, and attacking snipers in broad daylight. The runner’s job was one of the most dangerous on the Western Front, and had a terrifying casualty rate, yet for most of his war service, Caleb got through these perilous situations without a scratch.

Caleb’s outstanding endurance, contempt for danger, gallantry, skilful resourcefulness, and devotion to duty inspired those around him, and earned him the admiration of both the officers and men. The first Australian soldier of Chinese descent to be decorated, the most highly decorated Chinese Australian soldier of World War I, and the most highly decorated Queensland soldier of his time, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal twice, and was awarded the Military Medal.

When he returned home to Cairns in 1919, Private Caleb Shang received a hero’s welcome, with 3000 people turning out to jubilantly greet him on the wharf at dawn. The mayor was there, as were the Returned Soldiers League, and the Cairns Citizen Brass Band played See the Conquering Hero Comes. The Cairns Post raised a subscription fund to start him off in civilian life, and more than £45 was raised by the townspeople.

During World War II, Caleb served with the Volunteer Defence Force in Cairns; during his service he suffered several head injuries, which may explain why he later spent time in a psychiatric hospital. In the 1940s, there was heightened anti-Asian feeling due to the war against Japan, and Caleb was sometimes the target of racist slurs, as few people knew of his distinguished war record and volunteer service. In 1943, he attended his only Anzac Day parade, apparently in response to the racism he encountered during World War II.

According to Caleb’s sister Alma, he never talked about the war to his family. In 2002, Caleb’s daughter Delta, then in her 70s, described her father as reserved, modest, understanding, kind and gentle, speaking very little about his war service. She could not guess what motivated him to enlist, but knew that her father loved a challenge.

Caleb Shang’s story is not completely unlike that of Caleb in the Bible. According to the Old Testament, Caleb was one of twelve spies sent out by Moses into the land of Canaan. Each spy was the head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and Caleb represented the tribe of Judah. Ten of the spies reported back that it would be impossible to conquer the land, but Joshua and Caleb brought back encouraging reports to Moses. Because of Caleb and Joshua’s courage and faith, they were the only two ancient Israelites allowed to reach the Promised Land, and Caleb was granted lands around Hebron, now in Palestine.

There is another Caleb mentioned in the Bible, the great-grandson of Judah. Jewish tradition says these two Calebs are the same person, which would explain why Caleb was the head of the tribe. However, biblical scholars find this unlikely – in fact, they are not even sure that Caleb the spy was an Israelite by birth, as the Bible indicates he was a Kenizzite, from a desert tribe. He might have been accepted into the tribe of Judah, and if so, becoming its head would have indicated someone of really superior ability. That’s more impressive than just inheriting the role from great-granddaddy.

Bible historians believe the story of Caleb represents the movement of a clan which invaded Palestine from the south, settled around Hebron, and became gradually absorbed into the tribe of Judah. According to Bible genealogies, the Calebites were descendants of Esau, twin brother to Jacob, so were closely related to the Israelites, and natural friends and allies. (Nabal, the grumpy first husband of the prophetess Abigail, was a Calebite). The Bible story is a way to explain how a non-Israelite desert people became part of the tribe of Judah.

The original Hebrew spelling of the name Caleb is identical with the Hebrew word kelev, meaning “dog”. Animal names are not unusual in the Old Testament, although nobody knows for sure why Caleb might have been called this. Considering his non-Israelite origins, it’s possible that his name was non-Hebrew, and just sounded like the Hebrew word for dog.

However, some scholars think it may have been given to indicate his original tribal totem as an ethnic signifier; if so, the totem would have referred to the Canaan dog. This is a breed of pariah dog which has existed since biblical times, and is one of the oldest breeds of dog in the world. The Old Testament makes several references to these dogs, both wild ones roaming in packs through the desert, and those which worked alongside humans. The Canaan dog is modern Israel’s national dog.

Canaan dogs are strong, athletic, agile and healthy, with a well-developed survival instinct. Highly intelligent and naturally defensive, they make excellent watch dogs, who bark readily as a warning. They are not aggressive towards humans, being cautious and even docile, and remain strongly attached and loyal to their owners. They are still used as sheep dogs by the Bedouins.

For a tribe to take the Canaan dog as their totem, they would have seen themselves as survivors in the harsh desert – not fighters ready to attack, but willing to defend their territory. Baby name books are generally reluctant to admit the meaning of “dog” to Caleb, and often gloss it as “faithful” or “devoted to God”. Although you can see the Caleb from the Bible story as having canine faithfulness, the original tribal totem seems much more likely to indicate a people tough enough to get through anything.

Caleb has a long history as a Christian name, because a 5th century king of Axum (around modern-day Ethiopia) was named Kaleb; he is considered a saint in the Orthodox tradition. Caleb has been used as an English name since at least the 16th century, and became much more common after the Protestant Reformation (Kaleb has been used almost as long by English-speakers, but not so widely).

A fictional namesake is the hero of William Godwin’s radical 18th century novel, Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. A raging commercial success, the book was both condemned as dangerous anarchist propaganda, and glorified as an inspiring work of genius. Another is Caleb “Cal” Trask from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, portrayed on film by James Dean. There have been many other Calebs in fiction, right up to the present, with Pretty Little Liars, and Divergent.

Caleb has charted since the 1970s, when it debuted at #443. It rose steeply until joining the Top 100 in 1996 at #83, but has never been higher than #50. Currently it is #72 nationally, #71 in New South Wales, #95 in Victoria, #66 in Queensland, #61 in Tasmania, where it was one of the fastest-rising boy’s names of last year, and #78 in the Australian Capital Territory.

This is a handsome modern classic – one of the Old Testament biblical names for boys which sounded fresher and more exotic than the familiar Bible classics. Despite being popular for many years, it has remained relatively stable in the bottom half of the Top 100, making it a safe choice. Perhaps the meaning has dogged its footsteps, but I can’t really see any problem as dogs are our beloved companions, known for their beautiful, faithful natures. Cal, Cale or Cabe can be used as nicknames.

Caleb received an excellent approval rating of 84%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2014. People saw the name Caleb as a modern classic with plenty of history (30%), strong and masculine (19%), and handsome or cute (13%). However, 9% thought it was too popular. 15% of people thought the possible meaning of “dog” wasn’t a problem, as dogs are faithful, smart, and loving, while 6% were really bothered by the canine connection. Nobody thought the name Caleb was harsh or ugly.