Communication between soldiers on the battlefield and commanders in the rear is essential. The progress of military communication technology starting in World War I was slow. Rudimentary wireless communication was inconsistent and unreliable. The danger of stringing telephone or telegraph lines on the battlefield, and the lines being damaged in battle if they did, made that a risky option that few commanders wanted to take.
According to Fort Meade archivist Barbara Taylor, in the book “Fort George G. Meade, The First 100 Years,” other means were tried, such as signal lamps for sending Morse code, canine messengers and human messengers on foot. All proved either dangerous or unreliable.
But the Army had a reliable and effective option that dated back at least as far as Caesar’s conquest of Gaul: pigeons. Pigeons were so dedicated and reliable that many of the birds received military decorations in the World Wars. Their flying speed varies from 25 to 60 miles per hour.
Pigeons at war
In the summer of 1917, shortly after America’s entry in World War I, the Army started a carrier pigeon service at 74 training camps and posts, including Camp Meade. (Camp Meade became a permanent fort in 1928.) The U.S. Army Pigeon Breeding and Training Center headquarters was at Fort Monmouth, NJ.
The training camps together housed over 10,000 pigeons, with another 15,000 trained birds sent to Europe for service with the American Expeditionary Forces. The Army bird trainers were known as “pigeoneers.”
The Army Pigeon Service grew to over 3,000 servicemen and 54,000 birds during World War II. The pigeons were so valuable to the war effort that the U.S. Army Veterinary Service had a unit dedicated to caring for the birds. The 828th Signal Pigeon Replacement Company was formed at Fort Meade to train new pigeoneers, as well as continuing to train the birds.
According to the Fort Meade Post, “all inductees are asked at reception centers if their hobbies include pigeon training. Quite a number of competent pigeoneers have been found this way.”
The life of a pigeoneer at Fort Meade was described in the book, “Courageous Couriers, Memoirs of a Pigeon Soldier,” by Jerome J. Pratt. “Pigeoneers were a different kind of soldier. Their morale was above average because they were doing a job that had been their hobby in civilian life. The birds had to be cared for seven days a week.”
Pratt recalled enlisting a professor from the University of Maryland to teach an evening course on poultry husbandry, somewhere in Laurel. About 20 soldiers were trucked to Laurel two evenings a week for the course.
The Fort Meade Post also described the meticulous training and care of the birds.
“Each of the birds has his Army serial number. A sick book is kept on them, but few of the pigeons go on sick call. … Teaching pigeons to operate from airplanes is part of their specialized advanced military training. The main instrument used in releasing pigeons from fast, high-flying planes is an ordinary paper bag. The bag is wrapped around the pigeon so that the slip stream of the plane won’t tear the feathers off. The bag must be ripped down one side before it goes over the pigeon so that the bird will be free for flight as soon as it has cleared the slip stream.”
The 828th also conducted experiments in the field. In 1943, in conjunction with the War Dog Training Program, the pigeoneers from Fort Meade ran tests to prove that pigeons could be transported by dogs over difficult terrain to isolated units, presumably in custom-designed baskets. In 1944, they released birds from the Chesapeake Bay to determine how accurate their homing instincts were over large bodies of water. The result was the birds were just as accurate as over land.
A different sort of pigeon experiment was undertaken by psychologist B.F. Skinner during the war. Skinner developed a pigeon-guided nose cone for missiles. Supposedly, three pigeons in the nose cone would peck at an image of the target, which somehow would direct the missile. The military initially showed enough interest to award a contract to Skinner, but eventually they dismissed the idea as impractical.
A major advancement in training during WWII schooled the birds to return to their starting point after delivering a message. Before, the birds had to be transported back to the starting point to deliver more messages.
Due to the advancement in electronic communication, pigeons became obsolete as a method of communication and the Army Pigeon Service was shut down in 1957.
Pigeons distinguished themselves in both World Wars. A War Department memo from WWII stated: “In Tunisia, it was found that pigeons, when well trained, can compete with, or beat, all other means of communication when flying distances less than 15 miles.”
A pigeon named Cher Ami was the most famous of them all. The rescue of almost 200 men from “The Lost Battalion” during the Meuse-Argonne offensive of World War I was due to Cher Ami.
The American battalion was trapped inside enemy lines and was taking on artillery shelling from U.S. forces, who were unaware of their location. After the first two pigeons with messages for the rear were shot down by the Germans, the battalion’s last bird, Cher Ami, was released with a message in the canister attached to her leg. “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
The bird managed to get through the German fire, but when she delivered the message she was covered in blood from a bullet hole in her breast and was blinded in one eye. Veterinarians had to amputate half of one leg. The French military awarded the Croix de Guerre to the bird, who was stuffed and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Another pigeon named President Wilson was assigned to Col. George Patton’s tank battalion in World War I. The bird was released from a tank turret with messages about enemy locations or requests for artillery support. He also saw action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, delivering a message through a wall of German bullets in record speed. When he arrived, his left leg had been shot off and he, too, had a bullet wound in his breast.
A pigeon named G.I. Joe was with Allied forces in Italy in 1943. British troops captured the village of Calvi Vecchia, which was scheduled to be leveled by Allied bombers. G.I. Joe raced 20 miles in 20 minutes with a message notifying command of the British capture, which then cancelled the bombing run. G.I. Joe was credited with saving over 100 men. For his efforts, G.I. Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal in England, which was awarded to animals serving with “gallantry” in military service.
The effectiveness of the training program at Fort Meade, as well as the birds’ incredible instinct, were displayed in June 1943. Fort Meade’s pigeoneers would take baskets of the birds and release them in Laurel as part of their training to find their way back to the loft. After one such exercise, all the birds had returned by sundown except one, who was named Clarence.
According to the Fort Meade Post, “at 3 p.m. the next day, Lt. Walter Schmidt was gazing down the company street in the direction of Laurel. There was Clarence strutting sedately down the road toward his home loft. It seems that Clarence had fallen in oil. His feathers were plastered so closely to his body that flying was out of the question.”
So he walked home.