Feathered Fighters

by Tom Clavin 67 years ago, the U.S. Army Pigeon Service closed. You might think that couldn’t have been much of a big deal. But it was. Also known as the Signal Pigeon Corps, it was a unit of the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II. Its assignment was the training and usage […]

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by Tom Clavin

67 years ago, the U.S. Army Pigeon Service closed. You might think that couldn’t have been much of a big deal. But it was.

Also known as the Signal Pigeon Corps, it was a unit of the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II. Its assignment was the training and usage of homing pigeons for communication and even spying purposes. During World War II, the force consisted of 3,150 soldiers and 54,000 “war pigeons,” which were considered an undetectable method of communication. Over 90 percent of U.S. Army messages sent by pigeons were received.

For most of its existence, the U.S. Army Pigeon Breeding and Training Center was based at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. By the beginning of World War II, the U.S. Army had approximately 54,000 pigeons working in the Signal Pigeon Corps. As these birds became more frequently used over the course of the war, the U.S. Army Veterinary Service had to dedicate a unit to the protection of pigeon health, the preservation of their physical efficiency, and to safeguard against introducing or disseminating pigeon-borne diseases affecting other animals and humans.

These objectives were obtained by furnishing professional services and supervisory assistance in the care, feeding, housing, and transporting of pigeons; conducting laboratory diagnostic and investigative studies on pigeon diseases; establishing controls against the diseases of pigeons by quarantine procedures; inspecting and reporting on factors having a bearing on pigeon health; and giving technical assistance in the training of pigeoneers. As many as 36,000 pigeons were deployed overseas.

Although there were several factors of interest to the Army Veterinary Service bearing on the health of signal pigeons, the more common ones included their feed supply and housing. Balanced feed and good feeding practices were essential to the well-being of the signal pigeons and had a direct bearing on their homing proficiency. The feed was procured by the Signal Corps; unfortunately, large quantities of it, packed in burlap bags, were found deteriorated or unusable after arrival in the overseas theaters. The bags were torn by rough handling or were readily eaten into by rodents, and the grain contents became damp, moldy, or vermin-infested.

Proper housing for signal pigeons was also a problem, particularly in the overseas theaters. Though lofts of standardized design accompanied the units arriving from the U.S., some were remodeled to meet the variable climatic conditions that were encountered in the Central Pacific Area, and open-front lofts were constructed. Emphasis was placed on having lofts that were exposed to sunlight, dry, and draft-free, and on keeping the lofts clean.

A few of our feathered fighters achieved hero status.

During the Italian Campaign in World War II, “G.I. Joe” was a pigeon who saved the lives of the inhabitants of the village of Calvi Vecchia and of the British troops occupying it. Air support had been requested against German positions at Calvi Vecchia on October 18, 1943, but the message that the British brigade had captured the village, delivered by G.I. Joe, arrived just in time to avoid the bombing. G.I. Joe flew this 20-mile distance in an impressive 20 minutes, just as the planes were preparing to take off for the target. For his efforts, G.I. Joe was presented the Dickin Medal for “the most outstanding flight made by a United States Army pigeon in World War II.”

“Cher Ami,” meaning “Dear Friend” in French, was a homing pigeon initially donated to the Signal Pigeon Corps by France. She spent several months on the front lines in 1918 and over the course of World War I delivered 12 messages in total. However, the most important mission she flew was on October 4, 1918, when she ultimately ended up saving the lives of over 200 men. The French awarded Cher Ami a Croix de Guerre for her actions.

Born in France, a pigeon by the name of “President Wilson” was assigned to the U.S. Army’s newly formed Tank Corps during World War I. He first saw action delivering messages for the 326th and 327th Tank Battalions commanded by Colonel George S. Patton in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Assigned to the forward-most squad in the advance, he was released from the turret of a tank to fly back with the locations of enemy machine gun nests. Artillery could then be brought to bear before the infantry advanced. Following this action, President Wilson was in support of an infantry unit, the 78th Division, who were conducting operations in the vicinity of Grandpre, France, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On the morning of October 5, 1918, his unit came under attack and was heavily engaged in a firefight with the enemy. President Wilson was released to deliver a request for artillery support, flying back to his loft at Rampont forty kilometers away. He drew the attention of the German soldiers who fired a nearly impenetrable wall of lead blocking his path. Despite this, President Wilson managed to deliver the lifesaving message within 25 minutes. When he landed, it was found that his left leg had been shot away and that he had a gaping wound in his breast. The gallant pigeon survived his wounds and was retired to the U.S. Army Signal Corps Breeding and Training Center, where he eventually died in 1929.

By 1957, alas, the services of the Pigeon Service were no longer useful, with new technology replacing the messengers’ unique abilities. Some of the remaining pigeons were donated to zoos and as many as a thousand were sold to the general public.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

Tom Clavin
Photo Credit:
Gordon M. Grant

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—as well as Blood and Treasure, The Last Hill, and Throne of Grace with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

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