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Team C4ISR History is for the Birds

Team C4ISR History is for the Birds: Hero Pigeons

by Chrissie Reilly and Floyd Hertweck, Staff Historians

Pigeons were vital to military communications during war and in peacetime. While pigeons had been a part of nearly every European Army since the 1880s, it was not until 1917 that the U.S. Army began relying upon them.

The Signal Corps used pigeons from WWI, and into the Korean War. The Pigeon Service was part of Fort Monmouth until 1957, when the service was discontinued. There was even consideration given to reactivating the program during the Vietnam War. They were deployed to numerous locations during WWII.

Of interest is a write-up on pigeons published in 1920, in Harper’s Pictorial Library of the World War (Volume VIII), titled “Our Winged Couriers.” Harper’s notes that within one year of beginning the pigeon breeding and training program, the Signal Corps had pigeons and lofts in place in France. Harper’s credited the pigeons with a 95 percent success rate for message delivery.

By 1925, the Pigeon Service had a breeding base of 75 pairs and lofts for a variety of uses. It boasted 30 long distance flyers, and was breeding 300 birds per season to fill requisitions from eighteen lofts scattered throughout the U.S. and its possessions. Pigeon training, a 12-hour course, had also been incorporated into ROTC training and in signal school maneuvers.

An experiment to evaluate pigeons flying over water took place. In the 1944 Signal Corps Technical Information Letter, an article explained an experiment at Fort Meade, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, where they released the pigeons in an area where the bay was 14 miles wide. The generally accepted fact was that homing pigeons were adverse to crossing large bodies of water, and this exercise was also an effort to acquaint the birds with flying over water. The report indicates that when first tossed over water, the pigeons showed a marked nervousness that was not seen when liberated over land. By the time liberations were being made from the greater distances from the opposite side of the bay, the nervousness had almost disappeared and the birds homed promptly.

The importance of the Pigeon Service and the heroism on the part of those gallant birds was reinforced by news reports of their deeds.

On 24 December 1943, an article titled “Bird Hero Wins Purple Heart in Saving Message” appeared in The Signal Corps Message. LT Harold L. Holmes, of Fort Monmouth, had recently returned from the North African Campaign and reported that “carrier birds” had been used extensively there. A pigeon fancier most of his life, Holmes spoke about the high success rate of the pigeons. Describing the pigeon’s value to the War effort, the writer noted that during the climax of the African Campaign, over a five day period, 45 “secret” and “urgent” messages were delivered by pigeon.

Instituting a pigeon program required efforts to ensure the safety of these working birds, and examples appeared in The National Humane Review, published in 1918. The article was a public information announcement titled “Do Not Shoot at Pigeons.” It described complaints by the Signal Corps that homing pigeons trained all over the country were being shot by people on hunting expeditions, despite state law prohibiting shooting pigeons, interfering seriously with pigeon training being undertaken by the Army.

During World War II, Britain so revered pigeons that the birds were protected by a Defense of the Realm regulation which threatened six months in prison or a £100 fine to anyone caught harming a pigeon. The regulation proclaimed that pigeons were conducting “valuable work for the government.”

The Army’s homing pigeon service, headquartered at Fort Monmouth since the end of WWI, was discontinued in 1957 due to advances in communication systems. Many courier pigeons were sold at auction, while “hero” pigeons with distinguished service records were donated to zoos.

Note: This article first appeared in the July 2011 issue of the CERDEC Monthly View Publication.

Posted in From the Archives, Pigeons.

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