Posted by Beth Anne Quinlan, PhD Avian Sciences on 10/30/2021 to Wild Birds
Did you know that birds were used by the U.S. Military during WWI, WWII, and the Korean Conflict?
At the time of WWI, there were no cell phones or other easy ways of communication between the front and rear lines of a battle. This distance was often 20 to 30 miles. Although the Signal Corps, under George Squire, worked to develop radiotelephones during this time, George Squire also worked on a different method of communication, the pigeon.
Homing pigeons were used to facilitate communications between the front and rear lines and are known to fly at an average speed of approximately 50 mph. During WWI, believe it or not, there was actually a U.S. Pigeon Intelligence Service which had approximately 2350 breeder birds. Despite the large number of breeder birds, only about 600 birds were flown by the Signal Corps during this war. These birds were housed in a mobile loft, which was the home base for these birds during WWI, WWII, and the Korean Conflict. Pigeons were placed in baskets and taken to the front. Other birds-in-baskets went into the tanks and were released from there. The pigeons were kept in the baskets for no more than 48 hours before being released to return to the mobile loft. A 'pigeon gram' consisted of two pigeons carrying the same message, to increase the odds of the message getting through. Avian veterinarians were employed by the army to look after the birds.
The battle of Meuse-Argonne was the bloodiest battle in U.S. history. There were 14 mobile lofts used during this battle. The birds were in such great demand that they had little time to recuperate between journeys. It was during this battle that a great hero was recognized. One bird, Cher Ami, delivered a dozen crucial messages and saved the lives of almost two hundred men.
Major Charles Whittlesey's Seventy-Seventh Infantry Division was trapped behind the German line. On October 4, 1918, American heavy artillery began to pummel the 77th. They were beyond radio range. Bird after bird tumbled from the skies, lost to devastating machine gun fire. Originally about 550 men strong, their numbers were dwindling and there was but one hope remaining to save the lives of the soldiers. Cher Ami was released. But then he was hit and tumbled to the ground. The brave Cher Ami took off again. Homeward he flew through heavy fire until arriving at his mobile loft with a mangled leg, pierced breast, and the message that saved the lives of nearly 200 soldiers that day!
Like all of the other surviving birds in the Signal Corps, Cher Ami returned home. His trainer, Captain John Carney brought him home in his cabin. General Pushing wanted this amazing bird to have the best care possible and that included fine accommodations for the journey across the Atlantic. The French honored Cher Ami with a medal, the Croix de Guerre with palm. However, he died in June 1919 as a result of his wounds. He received posthumous awards including induction into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame and a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Pigeon Fanciers.