By Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator
Nicknamed “rats with wings,” pigeons are often viewed as a nuisance. Historically for the military, however, pigeons were much more than “air rats.” They save lives, are brave and are incredibly smart. They deliver important messages and fly great distances at fifty to ninety miles per hour. Since first serving as messengers as early as 6 B.C., pigeons have played an important role in military history. Both sides of war used them to send and receive messages where communication was otherwise impossible.
Pigeons proved to be so important during World War I that the British Defense of the Realm Act made it illegal to kill, wound, or provide inadequate care for homing pigeons. The birds delivered tens of thousands of messages for the Allies and the Central Powers. By the time the war ended the U.S. Navy had over 1,500 pigeons at twelve different stations in France. One of those stations, Pauilac, was home to one of the most celebrated and accomplished pigeons, Peerless Pilot.
Peerless Pilot began carrying messages at only fifteen months old. In the last year of the war alone he delivered almost 200 messages from the sea. Naval Aviators would take pigeons with them in their planes and then release them in-flight for increased speed. These pilots were specially trained on how to release the birds so they would not be harmed by the plane itself.
One of, if not the most, notable pigeons is the WWI Army pigeon Cheri Ami. During the Battle of the Argonne in October 1918 she saved the lives of soldiers in the 77th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Lost Division” due to their unknown whereabouts. They were trapped behind enemy lines for days, surrounded by Germans, and under friendly fire from Allied forces that killed most of the division’s 500 troops.
Desperate, Major Charles White Whittlesey dispatched two pigeons that were both shot down by German forces. Whittlesey then released Cher Ami hoping she would survive. His message read,
“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.”
She too was shot- in the breast, in one eye leaving her blind, and in her right leg leaving it attached only by a tendon. Cheri Ami gathered her strength and raced to Allied headquarters twenty-five miles away in only twenty-five minutes, saving the lives of the division’s surviving 194 soldiers.
Army Medics saved her life but were unable to save her torn leg, however she was so well-loved, however, that they made her a wooden prosthetic. Cher Ami became the hero and mascot of the 77th Infantry. When she had recovered enough to travel she came home to the U.S. where she became the mascot for the Department of Service. Her bravery earned her France’s Croix de Guerre medal and a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers. Cheri Ami is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where visitors can learn about her strength and valor.
Interested in learning more about animals’ contributions in World War I? Check out the National Museum of American History’s article How did animals (even slugs) serve in World War I? at http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/how-did-animals-even-slugs-serve-world-war-i
Visit the National Museum of the American Sailor to learn more about messenger pigeons and other Navy working animals and mascots like dogs, dolphins, and goats in our Navy Tails: Animals and the U.S. Navy exhibit opening on April 27, 2018.
You can learn more about animals and the U.S. Navy by reading the article E-3 Cindy on the museum’s blog. E-3 Cindy tells the story of how a stray dog became a ship’s mascot and a E-3 Sailor.
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