Many Americans risked their lives in the First and Second World Wars to transmit high-priority messages to friendly forces in the war zone. But only a few are taxidermied and on display today in the nation’s capital.
Much has been written about the ingenious methods used to communicate when interception or decryption meant mission failure or the death of troops in harm’s way. Famously, Native American Code Talkers in the Marine Corps employed Navajo and other indigenous languages to send uncrackable messages in World War II – and were credited, among other things, with securing U.S. victory in the crucial Battle of Iwo Jima. Other efforts employed world-class code-makers and code-breakers, and the most sophisticated encryption technology of the time, such as the ECM Mark II, or SIGABA, cipher machine, which looked like a hulking typewriter, weighed nearly 100 pounds, and cost nearly $32,000 in today’s dollars.
But another sensitive message delivery system had none of the fancy technology and little of the fame – and still managed to reach recipients safely over 90% of the time. It was the United States Army Pigeon Service, also known as the Signal Pigeon Corps.
This actual military unit was populated by more than 54,000 birds, some of whom hazarded wing and limb and even earned medals for bravery in the course of their service during World Wars I and II. But if you’re imagining a brigade of the fat and untidy garbage-eating winged waddlers that dive-bomb for French fries in city parks, think again.
The military’s pigeons were similar to their urban scavenger cousins in size and appearance, but they were Belgian-bred Racing Homers, genetically developed to cross unbelievable distances at top speeds with one objective: return to their point of origin. Racing pigeons have been clocked at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, and they’ve been known to average 60 mph over distances of 600 miles or more. They rarely get distracted or spooked, and they can be trained to execute multiple missions a day between two designated points. Any land-based courier service, no matter how professional, would be hard-pressed to keep pace with these indefatigable birds.
When the U.S. Army stood up its pigeon unit in 1917, it was already late to the game. Records of military pigeon employment date back to Ancient Rome, but French and British pigeons had already been serving in World War I for years when American birds arrived on the scene. But not unlike the United States’ own appearance in the war, the Army pigeons lost no time making an impression.
Take President Wilson, for example. This hero bird, who shared a name with the 28th commander in chief, was born in France in 1918, where then-Col. George S. Patton commanded the brand-new Army Tank Corps in theater. Wilson’s first glimpse of combat came in the September, 1918 St. Mihiel Offensive in which U.S. and French troops commanded by Gen. John J. Pershing joined ranks in an attempt to retake the city of Metz from the Germans. The objective was not realized, but it was an important outing for the tanks of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, many of which had just completed training under Patton and ended up entering the battle earlier than planned as the infantry faltered.
Wilson was launched from the turret of an Army tank and assisted the 326th and 327th Tank Battalions by carrying messages identifying German machine gun nests, which gave allied cannons the opportunity to take them out before footsoldiers advanced. While service in that battle alone would be an impressive combat credential for any pigeon, Wilson’s best days weren’t behind him yet.
That same year, Wilson found himself reassigned to an infantry unit, which Army historians say was likely the 78th Division, and staged near Grandpré, close to the northeast border of France. The unit was engaged in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a tactical push that, with 1.2 million Americans in the fight, was the largest and most deadly in U.S. history. The offensive spanned the Western Front and concluded with the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.
Wilson was the bird of the hour on Oct. 5, when his unit was staggered by an enemy attack and in need of aid. The pigeon was loosed with a request for artillery backup and made a journey of 40 kilometers – nearly a marathon’s distance.
According to the U.S. Army’s History Division:
“[Wilson] 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 twenty-five minutes — a record for speed — unmatched in the American Expeditionary Forces. When he landed, his left leg had been shot away and he had a gaping wound in his breast.”
Wilson would survive, and enter a quiet retirement until his death at age 11. While the Army never pinned a combat medal on Wilson’s downy breast, it did right by him. Originally taxidermied and given to the Smithsonian, Wilson was reclaimed by the Army in 2008, which now displays him in a place of honor at the Pentagon, just outside the office of the Army Chief of Staff.
Ultimately, every U.S. military service would employ messenger pigeons, though none as extensively as the Army. Many of these birds braved enemy fire to accomplish their mission, and a number can still be seen on display today. Cheri Ami, a bird donated to the U.S. Army by France, saved the lives of more than 200 men during the Meuse-Argonne offensive by carrying a plea for help from the 77th Infantry Division, which was pinned down and taking friendly fire from a clueless artillery element. Two pigeons had been dispatched before Cher Ami, and both had been shot down by the Germans.
Cheri Ami survived, but was missing a leg, blinded in one eye, and wounded in the breast. He would receive the French Croix de Guerre with palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her bravery. Today, he is on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Mocker, another Army bird employed during World War I, flew an astounding 52 missions and was the last pigeon to die in the war, hit by an enemy shell in France after successfully delivering a message about the location of enemy heavy machine gun batteries. He now holds a place of honor at the brand-new National Museum of the U.S. Army in Virginia.
And in World War II, the pigeon G.I. Joe became a hero in 1943, carrying a desperate message calling for the arrest of a planned U.S. air raid on the village of Calvi Vecchia, Italy, which would have resulted in some 100 friendly fire casualties. G.I. Joe was presented the British Dickin Medal, honoring animals that display “conspicuous gallantry” in war. He now has a permanent home at the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Museum at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
Notably, these American hero birds were most often decorated by allied forces, and not the U.S. Army itself. It wasn’t until 2019 that an American woman, Robin Hutton, created an “Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery,” intended to be the American version of the Dickin Medal. G.I. Joe, then dead for nearly 60 years, was one of the first recipients.
Pigeons served the U.S. Army honorably until 1957, when the U.S. Army Pigeon Service was disbanded, and the unit’s remaining birds sold or donated to zoos. But some think the U.S. should bring back this low-tech and low-cost, but remarkably reliable form of military communication.
“Pigeons are certainly no substitute for drones, but they provide a low-visibility option to relay information,” Dr. Frank Blazich, a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian, wrote for War on the Rocks in 2019. “Considering the storage capacity of microSD memory cards, a pigeon’s organic characteristics provide front line forces a relatively clandestine means to transport gigabytes of video, voice, or still imagery and documentation over considerable distance with zero electromagnetic emissions or obvious detectability to radar.”
Pigeons have certainly served the U.S. military well – and perhaps someday they will be asked once again to answer their country’s call.