Wartime History

Throughout history, pigeons have been used as messengers for over 5,000 years. However, none of the various types of pigeons used as the early message carriers were capable of flights much farther than 40 miles.  In the 12th century, they delivered communication between Iraq and Syria, and reported, to England, Napoleon's defeat in the battle of Waterloo.  Nevertheless, by the middle of the twelfth century A.D., a well-organized pigeon post, with post office and postmasters, was being maintained.  By 1819, however, the homing pigeon was developed sufficiently to fly 200 miles in a day, and at that time when the principle mode of travel was either by foot or horse, 200 miles was a great distance.  For centuries, because Homers were the fastest and most reliable means of communication, leading newspapers of many countries used them to carry news of importance.  In the early nineteenth century, Homing Pigeons were used in many Belgium cities to bring news of stock exchange quotations from London across the English Channel.

Even the dove that Noah sent forth from the Ark to bring back the message of dry land, is said to have been a European Rock Dove, which is the common pigeon we see in parks today.

World War I

In both World Wars and the Korean war, military pigeons were carried on airplanes and warships.  They flew with cameras to take pictures of the enemy, and delivered messages when damaged radios failed. They found their way from different lofts, through darkness, bad weather and showers of bullets, and 95% of them completed their missions even when badly wounded.

Pigeons were used extensively in World War I.  Man-made communication systems were still crude and unreliable, so dogs and pigeons were used.  Pigeons would have been found just about anywhere on the Western Front.  At the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, French troops stopped the German advance on Paris.  As the French troops advanced and pushed back the Germans, so their pigeons advanced with them.  In the heat and disorientation of battle, pigeons proved to be the best way of sending messages to the French headquarters.  At the Marne, the French had 72 pigeon messages and could never have known where their loft had moved to.  Incredibly, all the pigeon at the Marne returned to their lofts - despite the fact that they would have flown "blind" not knowing where their loft was located.

This ability to get home was vital for those who used them as messengers.  A pigeon's great strength was not only its extraordinary homing instinct but also the speed at which it flew. Shooting one down would have been all but impossible.  In many senses, a pigeon would always get through.  The only natural way to counter them was to bring birds of prey to the front line and let one of nature's great battles occur. A falcon could bring down a pigeon but a marksman most certainly could not.

In October 1918, as the war neared its end, 194 American soldiers found themselves trapped by German soldiers.  They were cut off from other Allied soldiers and had no working radios.  The only chance they had of alerting anybody about their desperate situation was to send a pigeon with their co-ordinates attacked to its leg.  The pigeon's name was Cher Ami. When released it flew 25 miles from behind German lines to the Americans headquarters.  Cher Ami covered the 25 miles in just 25 minutes.  The pigeon was, in fact, shot through the chest by the Germans but continued to fly home.  It is doubtful that the 194 servicemen of Major Whittlesay's "Lost Battalion" complained when Cheri Ami reached his loft. The registered black check cock arrived, shot through the breast, with a message capsule dangling from his shattered leg.  Due to this loyal bird's courage and determination,these soldiers were rescued and safe behind American lines in a few short hours.  Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm for its astonishing flight.  As with other pigeons, it would not have known where the American's nearest headquarters was - its natural homing instincts took over.

World War II

A thousand British ground troops, in World War II, rejoiced in their victory over an Italian village, only to learn that Allied planes were scheduled to bomb that same village within the hour. Fearing for their lives, they attempted to radio a message to the rear to cancel the mission. The radio failed. Heroically, GI Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes delivering the message just moments before warplanes were to take off, thus saving a thousand lives. GI Joe was a pigeon.  As a result of their heroic efforts, many Homing Pigeons received medals and honors. One United States Homing Pigeon, called "G.I. Joe," was awarded the Dicken Medal for bravery by the Lord Mayor of London for saving over 100 British soldiers in World War II. "G.I. Joe" is the only bird or animal in the United States to be given this high award.

In 1957, United States Signal Corps transferred two hero pigeons to the National Zoological Park, located in Washington D.C. Anzio Boy and Global Girl completed sixty-one missions between them.

Mocker flew 52 missions and was wounded on his last mission.  He was awarded the "Distinguished Service Cross," as well as the French "Croix De Guerre."  This pigeon, in splendid time, on the morning of September 12, 1918, from the vicinity of Beaumont, France, arrived bearing a message of great importance, which gave the location of certain enemy heavy batteries.  This information enabled the American artillery to silence the enemy's guns within twenty minutes.  Mocker is the last WWI hero pigeon to die (1937).

Spike delivered messages between combat squads in the heat of battle.  He flew 50 missions without being injured and earned the Distinguished Service Medal.

Korean War

Pigeons were used during the Korean War.  As part of the R&M Co. 51st Signal Battalion, who built their pigeon breeding house in 1952.

In 2003, the Austrian army was reported to have lost patience with the ability of enemy troops to listen in on its radio communications and decided to reactivate its corps of carrier pigeons.  After having been retired from use for years, Homing Pigeons are once again utilized to get messages back from the frontline.

As in the past, Homing Pigeons have provided a successful way to deliver messages when satellite communications go down, computer links are broken or the enemy intercepts radio communications.

Austrian Army Colonel Walter Buchmayer noted that, "Pigeons never stop working when there's a power cut, can't be bugged or tapped, and are not dependent on complicated software."

Though several European armies are said to be considering reintroduction of the use of Homing Pigeons as message carriers, Austria has become the first to begin the buildup of highly-trained birds. Army personnel will receive training on the skills of handling the pigeons.

War in Kuwait

In March 2003, U.S. media reported that Marines stationed in Kuwait received an avian force - a company of pigeons.  Meant to be the equivalent of a canary in a coalmine, the pigeons rode with their caretakers to detect chemical attack.

Chemical warfare specialist Lance Cpl. Thomas Conroy of the U.S. Marines holds a pigeon used to help detect chemical attacks.  The U.S. military believed that pigeons meant the difference between life and death. Though the $12,000 sensors provide advanced technology, anything mechanical can fail or give wrong readings. Therefore the military placed just as much trust in the bird as the sensor.  The First Marine Regiment was given 40 birds to be fed and cared for by their Marine handlers.

Many more pigeons performed heroic feats during war times. Spike flew 50 missions and was never injured. Snow White successfully completed a mission in Berlin during heavy bombardment. The Mocker, a beautiful speckled pigeon flew 52 missions, wounded on the last one, losing his left eye and part of his cranium. A military pigeon named President Wilson continued his mission, wounded, and saved many American infantrymen. Scotch-Lass was dropped with a secret agent in the Netherlands in 1944. He accomplished his mission all the way to England, wounded, to deliver important micro-photos. Another English pigeon, Mary, was wounded 22 times in five years of flights and then was killed in action.

Mocker flew 52 missions and was wounded on his last mission.  He was awarded the "Distinguished Service Cross," as well as the French "Croix De Guerre." This pigeon on the morning of September 12, 1918, from the vicinity of Beaumont, France, arrived bearing a message of great importance, which gave the location of certain enemy heavy batteries.  This information enabled the American artillery to silence the enemy's guns within twenty minutes.  Mocker is the last WWI pigeon hero to die (1937).  Spike delivered messages between combat squads in the heat of battle.  He flew 50 missions without being injured and earned the Distinguished Service Medal.

War memorials in Belgium and France stand in remembrance of military pigeons and their fanciers who gave their lives in war. Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" with Palm. He died in 1919 and was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers. His body is to be displayed at the National Museum of American History in the Armed Forces History Hall. The Dickin Medal for Valor, a distinguished animal award, was bestowed upon 31 World War II pigeons, including GI Joe and White Vision.  For a view of the most decorated pigeon war heros, please visit the section titled Wartime Pigeon Heros.

Today, in remote areas, pigeons still make life-saving deliveries of medications. In cities, they contribute a touch of nature. Their antics and cooing have a calming effect on spectators as they clean up waste and eat weed seeds. Mating for life, they are very affectionate and attentive to their mate and share the care of their young; quite a role model for society.

Throughout history, these flying heroes have been used in mankind's wars, yet they remain a symbol of peace.

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