The ability to communicate is essential to soldiers in the field. Without communications to their commanders or support units in the rear area, soldiers on the front line can't send messages about their progress, request needed supplies, or call for help when things reach their worst.
During World War I, messages were sometimes transmitted by wire (telegraph of field phone), but two-way radio communications had not yet become available. Sometimes a unit was ordered to attack over a broad and often difficult terrain, making it impossible to string the wire necessary for communications. In these situations, a field commander often carried with him several carrier pigeons.
Pigeons served many purposes during the war, racing through the skies with airplanes, or even being fitted with cameras to take pictures of enemy positions. But one of the most important roles they served it was as messengers. An important message could be written on a piece of paper, then that paper neatly folded and secured in a small canister attached to a pigeon's leg. Once the pigeon was released, it would try to fly to its home back behind the lines, where the message would be read and transmitted to the proper military planners.
The United States Army is divided among several different specialties, the men from each specialty trained for a particular kind of work. Infantrymen are trained to fight on the ground, artillerymen are responsible for the big guns, armor refers to the men who fight in tanks, and the Air Service was the name for the group of soldiers who fought in the air during World War I. One of the oldest of these groups of soldiers was the members of the U.S. ARMY SIGNAL CORPS. Since the birth of our Nation, it was these men that were responsible for insuring that messages between all units, (including messages to other branches of service like the Navy and Marines), got through. The Army Signal Corps identifies itself by a torch with two crossed flags. These represent SIGNAL FLAGS, a common way that messages were passed using code.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Army Signal Corps was given 600 pigeons for the purpose of passing messages when it couldn't be done by signal flag or field phone. The pigeons were donated by bird breeders in Great Britain, then trained for their jobs by American soldiers.
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 2-month battle that finally ended World War I, 442 pigeons were used in the area of Verdun to carry hundreds of messages. This is how the system worked:
When a commander in the field needed to send a message, he first wrote it out on paper, trying to be both brief and yet as detailed as possible. Then he called for one of his Signal Corps officers, who would bring one of the pigeons that went with the soldiers into battle. The message would be put in the capsule on the birds leg, and then the bird would be tossed high in the air to fly home.
The carrier pigeon would fly back to his home coop behind the lines. When he landed, the wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer, and another soldier of the Signal Corps would know a message had arrived. He would go to the coop, remove the message from the canister, and then send it by telegraph, field phone or personal messenger, to the right persons.
Carrier pigeons did an important job. It was also very dangerous. If the enemy soldiers were nearby when a pigeon was released, they knew that the bird would be carrying important messages, and tried their best to shoot the pigeon down so the message couldn't be delivered.
Some of these pigeons became quite famous among the infantrymen they worked for. One pigeon named "The Mocker", flew 52 missions before he was wounded. Another was named "President Wilson". He was injured in the last week of the war and it seemed impossible for him to reach his destination. Though he lost his foot, the message got through to save a large group of surrounded American infantrymen.
Probably the most famous of all the carrier pigeons was one named Cher Ami, two French words meaning "Dear Friend". Cher Ami several months on the front lines during the Fall of 1918. He flew 12 important missions to deliver messages. Perhaps the most important was the message he carried on October 4, 1918.
Mr. Charles Whittlesey was a lawyer in New York, but when the United States called for soldiers to help France regain its freedom, Whittlesey joined the Army and went to Europe to help. He was made the commander of a battalion of soldiers in the 77th Infantry Division, known as "The Liberty Division" because most of the men came from New York and wore a bright blue patch on their shoulders that had on it the STATUE OF LIBERTY.
On October 3, 1918 Major Whittlesey and more than 500 men were trapped in a small depression on the side of the hill. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, many were killed and wounded in the first day. By the second day only a little more than 200 men were still alive or unwounded.
Major Whittlesey sent out several pigeons to tell his commanders where he was, and how bad the trap was. The next afternoon he had only one pigeon left, Cher Ami.
During the afternoon the American Artillery tried to send some protection by firing hundreds of big artillery rounds into the ravine where the Germans surrounded Major Whittlesey and his men. Unfortunately, the American commanders didn't know exactly where the American soldiers were, and started dropping the big shells right on top of them. It was a horrible situation that might have resulted in Major Whittlesey and all his men getting killed--by their own army.
Major Whittlesey called for his last pigeon, Cher Ami. He wrote a quick and simple note, telling the men who directed the artillery guns where the Americans were located and asking them to stop. The note that was put in the canister on Cher Ami's left leg simply said:
"We are along the road parallel to 276.4.
"Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.
"For heaven's sake, stop it."
As Cher Ami tried to fly back home, the Germans saw him rising out of the brush and opened fire. For several minutes, bullets zipped through the air all around him. For a minute it looked like the little pigeon was going to fall, that he wasn't going to make it. The doomed American infantrymen were crushed, their last home was plummeting to earth against a very heavy attack from German bullets.
Somehow Cher Ami managed to spread his wings and start climbing again, higher and higher beyond the range of the enemy guns. The little bird flew 25 miles in only 25 minutes to deliver his message. The shelling stopped, and more than 200 American lives were saved...all because the little bird would never quit trying.
On his last mission, Cher Ami was badly wounded. When he finally reached his coop, he could fly no longer, and the soldier that answered the sound of the bell found the little bird laying on his back, covered in blood. He had been blinded in one eye, and a bullet had hit his breastbone, making a hole the size of a quarter. From that awful hole, hanging by just a few tendons, was the almost severed leg of the brave little bird. Attached to that leg was a silver canister, with the all-important message. Once again, Cher Ami wouldn't quit until he had finished his job.
Cher Ami became the hero of the 77th Infantry Division, and the medics worked long and hard to patch him up. When the French soldiers that the Americans were fighting to help learned they story of Cher Ami's bravery and determination, they gave him one of their own country's great honors. Cher Ami, the brave carrier pigeon was presented a medal called the French Croix de guerre with a palm leaf.
Though the dedicated medics saved Cher Ami's life, they couldn't save his leg. The men of the Division were careful to take care of the little bird that had saved 200 of their friends, and even carved a small wooden leg for him. When Cher Ami was well enough to travel, the little one-legged hero was put on a boat to the United States. The commander of all of the United States Army, the great General John J. Pershing, personally saw Cher Ami off as he departed France.
Back in the United States the story of Cher Ami was told again and again. The little bird was in the newspapers, magazines, and it seemed that everyone knew his name. He became one of the most famous heroes of World War I. Years after the war a man named Harry Webb Farrington decided to put together a book of poems and short stories about the men and heroes of World War I.
G.I. Joe (March 24, 1943 in Algiers - June 3, 1961 in Detroit) is possibly one of the most famous pigeons in world history, serving much of its life in the United States Army Pigeon Service as one of over 54,000 pigeons in the force.
In World War II, G.I. Joe saved the lives of the inhabitants of the village of Calvi Vecchia, Italy, and of the British troops stationed there. The village was scheduled to be bombarded by the Allied forces on 18 October 1943, but the message that the British had captured the village, delivered by G.I. Joe, arrived just in time to avoid the bombing. Over a thousand people were saved.
In November 1946, G.I. Joe was presented with a high award, the Dickin Medal for gallantry.
NEHU.40.NS.1 - Blue Cheq. Hen "Winkie"
MEPS.43.1263 - Red Cheq. Cock "George"
SURP.41.L.3089 - White Hen "White Vision"
NPS.41.NS.4230 - "Beachbomber"
NPS.42.31066 - Grizzle Cock "Gustav"
NPS.43.94451 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Paddy"
NURP.36.JH.190 - Dark Cheq. Hen "Kenley Lass"
NURP.38.EGU.242 - Red Cheq. Cock "Commando"
NPS.42.NS.44802 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Flying Dutchman"
NURP.40.GVIS.453- Blue Cock "Royal Blue"
NURP.41.A.2164 - "Dutch Coast"
NPS.41.NS.2862 - Blue Cock "Navy Blue"
NPS.42.NS.15125 - Mealy Cock "William of Orange"
NPS.43.29018 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Ruhr Express"
NPS.42.21610 - B.C. Hen "Scotch Lass"
NU.41.HQ.4373 - Blue Cock "Billy"
NURP.39.NRS.144 - Red Cock "Cologne"
NPS.42.36392 - "Maquis"
41.BA.2793 - "Broad Arrow"
NURP.39.SDS.39 - "All Alone"
NURP.37.CEN.335 - "Mercury"
NURP.41.SBC.219 - Cock "Duke of Normandy"
NURP.43.CC.2418 - B.C. Hen
NURP.40.WLE.249 - "Mary"
NURP.41.DHZ.56 - "Tommy"
42.WD.593 - "Princess"
USA.43.SC.6390 - "G.I. Joe"
In ancient times pigeons were the fastest way to send messages. There are writings that report that the Persian King Cyrus used birds to send information, and the Greeks used homing pigeons to send news of Olympic victories. During the eighth century in France, only the nobles had homing pigeons and the birds were considered a symbol of power and prestige, until the French revolution changed things so that the common man could have them. Even Julius Caesar used homing pigeons to carry messages of importance.
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian war broke out and Paris was surrounded and cut off. The people in Paris figured out they could use hot air balloons to carry baskets of homing pigeons and other letters out of the city and the friendly French in the countryside could send messages back into Paris via the homing pigeons. This allowed the trapped people of Paris to communicate and maintain their hope and morale during the war. It was about this time that microphotography was developed in England, but used to great effect in this war to exchange many military instructions quickly via homing pigeon. The microphotography allowed a pigeon to carry as many as 30,000 messages to be carried by a single bird! The four month siege of Paris saw 400 birds deliver nearly 115,000 government messages and about a million private messages according to historians.
By 1914 when the war to end all wars (WWI) broke out the European armies were widely using homing pigeons in their war communications. United States General John Pershing saw the birds in use and ordered the Army Signal Corp to begin putting together their own pigeon communication system. It is believed that over half a million birds were used by the warring armies as reliable communication. These special birds had a 95 percent success rate in WWI delivering their messages and proved to be a lifeline for the troops on the front line. Remember this war was before modern radio and the telegraph was the other more-modern option for communicating. But this wire based system was easily cut in two or tapped into by enemy forces if given the chance. Others used the homing pigeon like aircraft pilots on recon missions, sailors off the coast, and even tanks on the move. WWI was the height of homing pigeon used for military purposes. There were many pigeon heroes and several of these war birds received medals.
One of the most famous WWI pigeon stories to be told is that of the ”lost battalion” in France that was saved by a pigeon named Cher Ami. This 600 man battalion was being shelled and wounded by friendly fire because they advanced too far into enemy territory. Their only hope of communication was by bird and Cher Ami gave it his all. The German soldiers saw the bird take flight and began firing upon the bird wounding it but not enough to take away its will to fly the 25 miles back to the command post. It arrived with one eye shot out, a bullet in its breast and most of the leg missing that had the message capsule still attached – hanging on only by a tendon. The message stopped the shelling and the battalion was later saved. After healing, Cher Ami went on to receive an honorary service cross and taken back to America and lived until 1919. Later he was mounted and then placed on display in the Smithsonian Institute.
When WWII broke out in the early 40’s the homing pigeon was brought back into service on both sides of the war. Many people do not realize that the head of the SS, Hemlic Hemmler, was also head of the national pigeon organization at one time and felt that the Nazis would benefit by taking over the national pigeon organization and the use of its members and birds. The Germans had 50,000 birds ready for use when the war had broken out. Unfortunately for America, the US Army Signal Corp did not maintain its pigeon program and to rebuild it from scratch. The Corp solicited birds from fanciers that were willing to donate them, and looked for new draftees that had a poultry or pigeon background to work as pigeoneers.
Although the radio was developed at this time to carry voice, whereas Morse code was used in WWI, the homing pigeon was sometimes an excellent choice for communicating while maintaining radio silence. As one might expect radio direction finders were used by both sides to locate and try taking out each other’s forces. The homing pigeon was also found to be a capable airborne means flying a camera over enemy locations to learn more about troop strength and location. A camera was mounted underneath the pigeon behind enemy lines and allowed to fly home where the camera was examined. These photos might show actual troops and equipment or if flying over a German town might show certain type factories or other military targets for bombing.
Spies on both sides used pigeons to carry information and sometimes the birds were asked to fly the English Channel between Great Britain and France. The English and the Germans developed their own falcon program to intercept birds but they were just as likely to intercept one of their birds and stop the intended communication from ever arriving.
WWII came to an end and in 1956 the US Army shut down the Pigeon Corp. The service of the homing pigeon went dormant until the 1970’s when the US Coast Guard started using them again but in a different way. During the 1940’s pigeons in a Tufts University lab had proven the exceptional ability to pick out certain shapes and colors in exchange for food. The US Coast Guard decided the same abilities could be useful while searching for men and equipment in open waters so they set up some testing using a small observation bubble on the bottom of some their helicopters stationed near San Francisco. This project called Project Sea Hunt used three pigeons that faced 120 degrees from each other so that they covered the entire 360 degrees under the helicopter. The pigeons were 92 percent reliable in finding the test subjects or objects where humans were found to be in the 30-40 percent range. The project never got out of the testing phase and was ended in 1983 due to federal budget cuts so the birds did not get a chance to actually save any lives.
(Excerpts taken from the History Channels production called Animals in Action, and Jerome Pratt’s book titled Courageous Couriers.)