Heroic War Pigeons

Mar 16, 2021 0 comments

World War One, and to some extent, the Second World War, was a strange blend of archaic and modern technology. The First World War, in particular, saw many technological innovations such as machine guns, grenades, submarines, warplanes and tanks, and despite the advances in radio and communications technology, many field commanders preferred to use carrier pigeons to convey important messages. Radio sets were too heavy to carry into battle, and field telephone lines snapped easily. With a homing pigeon, one could write a message on a piece of paper, place it inside a small canister and attach it to the pigeon’s leg. Once the pigeon was released, it would invariably try to fly back home and deliver the message.

Two Swiss Army soldiers prepare a homing pigeon for dispatching

Two Swiss Army soldiers prepare a homing pigeon for dispatching. Photo: Swiss Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Being a carrier pigeon was risky. Many pigeons fell to enemy gunfire—not by stray bullets, but deliberately shot down by trained German gunners to prevent messages from the front lines to the commanders. Some of these pigeons became quite famous for their service. Here are their stories:

President Wilson

President Wilson was one of the many pigeons serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I. On the morning of 5 October, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the vicinity of Grandpr√©, France, Wilson’s unit was pinned down by enemy fire and was unable to move. President Wilson was released with a message requesting artillery support. While flying back to his loft at Rampont some forty kilometers away, President Wilson attracted the attention of the German soldiers who tired their best to bring down the bird. President Wilson managed to deliver the lifesaving message within a record twenty-five minutes. When he landed, his left leg was found shot away and there was a gaping wound in his breast.

President Wilson survived his wounds, and lived another eleven years until his death in 1929. His taxidermied body is now in an exhibit in the Pentagon, just outside the office of the Chief of Staff of the Army.

President Wilson’s mortal remains in the Pentagon.

President Wilson’s mortal remains in the Pentagon.

Cher Ami

Cher Ami, meaning “Dear Friend” in French, was a female homing pigeon in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. She spent several months on the front lines delivering 12 messages in total. Her last delivery was the most important mission she ever flew.

In October, 1918, approximately 550 soldiers of the 77th Division led by Major Charles White Whittlesey found themselves trapped in a small depression behind enemy lines in the Argonne Forest. Without food or ammunition, the battalion suffered immense hardship for the next six days, incurring heavy losses, until their numbers were reduced to just under two hundred. Aside from being surrounded by Germans, the men were also receiving ‘friendly fire’ from allied troops who did not know their location.

Cher Ami

Cher Ami’s taxidermied body.

Major Whittlesey tried dispatching runners, but they kept getting killed or captured. In the end, Whittlesey began dispatching messages by pigeon. The first pigeon, carrying the first message, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate” was shot down. A second bird with the message, “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” also got killed before it could deliver its message. On 4 October, 1918, Whittlesey wrote on a piece of onion paper:

We are along the road paralell to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.

He put the note inside a canister, and tied the canister on the left leg of Cher Ami, and set her free. As soon as Cher Ami rose out of the brush, the Germans opened fire on her. Bullets zipped through the air all around her. Inevitably, Cher Ami was struck, but the brave bird spread her wings again and continued to fly. When she arrived at her loft at division headquarters 40 km away in less than half an hour, she was found shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and a leg hanging only by a tendon. Although army medics managed to save her life, the wounds she received was too deep to heal completely. She died a year later.

Cher Ami

Close up of Cher Ami’s taxidermied body showing the missing leg.

Cher Ami became the hero of the 77th Infantry Division. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her heroic service in delivering 12 important messages in Verdun. She was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931. She also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of her service during World War I. A century later, she became one of the first winners of the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery, bestowed on her posthumously at ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Cher Ami’s taxidermied body is on display in the National Museum of American History.

Cher Ami

Cher Ami’s message from Captain Whittlesey to the commanding officer of the 308th Infantry. Photo: National Archives.

G.I. Joe

During the Second World War, the village of Calvi Vecchia, Italy, was occupied by the Germans, and Allied air forces were requested to help dislodge the occupying Germans. At the same time, British forces were advancing on land but they weren’t supposed to reach the village until after it was bombed. Yet, the British infantry’s advance was so rapid that they reached the village and liberated it ahead of schedule. The British infantry tried to radio the allies’ airfield to call off their attack, but the message did not went through. Now they were in danger of getting caught up in ‘friendly fire’ if the attack went ahead.

A homing pigeon named G. I. Joe was released with the message. He flew to the airfield twenty miles away in just twenty minutes, arriving as the planes were preparing to take off to bomb Calvi Vecchia. G. I. Joe saved the lives of at least 100 men. He was presented the Dickin Medal for gallantry, an award equivalent to the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor for animals.

G. I. Joe receiving the Dickin Medal.

G. I. Joe receiving the Dickin Medal.

A pigeon Loft at Rampont, France.

A pigeon Loft at Rampont, France.

2nd Lt. Milne pictured in 1918 with carrier pigeons he is raising for the Army during World War I.

2nd Lt. Milne pictured in 1918 with carrier pigeons he is raising for the Army during World War I. The sign on the pigeon's cage reads, "These are the birds that work to save the lives of our boys in France." Photo: Department of Defense

two German soldiers on the Western Front are seen with their pigeons.

The German Army also used carrier pigeons. Here two German soldiers on the Western Front are seen with their pigeons. Photo: German War Department

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