We’ve talked about many kinds of war heroes here at The Campfire Chronicle. We’ve talked about brave men, indomitable women, fearless horses, and loyal dogs. This Memorial Day, we’re going to talk about a group of war heroes that is for the birds. Okay. Really, we’re going to talk about war heroes that actually are birds—the homing pigeons of WWII!
I can practically hear some of you asking, “Hey, Lequoia . . . have you lost your mind? What’s next? Heroic gerbils?” And to you I say, “If I find evidence of gerbils who served their country with honor, I will be happy to write about them.” But, for now, we’ll stick to the pigeons.
Birds of a Feather
The use of homing pigeons by the military did not originate with WWII. The Romans used them more than 2000 years ago. It wasn’t even a new idea for America, since the U.S. Army Signal Corps had established a pigeon service in 1917, thanks to General John Pershing’s vision. During WWII, the Allies and Central Powers alike made use of pigeons. The U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard each had their own well-trained birds.
Even though communications had improved drastically between WWI and WWII, pigeons still proved themselves to be invaluable. If an American GI had any experience as a pigeon handler, he was likely to get an assignment working with the birds. I can think of far less agreeable wartime positions than working with birds—such as being a bird flying into enemy territory!
It’s For the Birds
From the time a military carrier pigeon hatched, it took about eight weeks to train them. Good grief! It takes several weeks before new chicks can even fly. That was some lickety-split training! The basic training for a pigeon started with placing the bird in a mobile loft – – a truck that was outfitted with resting spaces for each pigeon – – at the age of four weeks. The loft was moved daily and the bird would go out for short flights several times a day. The bird would then have to find its way home to its mobile loft. To someone who has trouble finding their car in the WalMart parking lot, like me, that’s impressive, people! During week 8, the bird was trained to fly distances of 50 miles and farther. At that point, the bird was considered combat ready.
This was one time when being pigeon toed was not enough to keep a candidate out of the army! The birds were in such demand that patriotic pigeon owners were asked to register their birds for possible military use. The army, not wanting to actually draft the birds, offered $5 for each suitable pigeon. Oh, sure the birds were easily worth $10 a piece, but we were at war! Many pigeon organizations donated their finest to the cause. New York City sent one shipment of 52,000 prime pigeons!
For some missions, carrier pigeons were the only possible method of communication. They became so important to the armed forces that Pigeons became almost standard equipment on all American bomber planes, with one assigned to each paratrooper. A brassiere manufacturer even developed a sling for the military, which allowed a paratrooper to carry a pigeon on his chest when he jumped.
The most intense use of carrier pigeons was during the Normandy Invasion, when thousands of birds were dropped across the countryside. French citizens attached any information they had about the German troops to the birds, and sent them flying back to the American forces.
G.I. Joe Pigeon
One WWII Flying Ace pigeon’s legacy flies higher than any other, and that was G.I. Joe. He was an aptly named bird if ever there was one. In case you’re all up on the types of pigeons, G.I. Joe was a blue check splash. That means less than nothing to me, but I trust someone will find that bit of knowledge enlightening. But whatever his markings, he was one humdinger of a hero.
When communication equipment was down, G.I. Joe came to the rescue. On October 18, 1943, he saved the lives of the villagers of Calvi Vecchia, Italy, and the British troops who were occupying it. The plan had been that the British would move in as soon as the U.S. Air Force had bombarded the Germans. But, when the Brits showed up, they found that the Germans were more eager to high tail it out of town than fight. So, the British went ahead and took over the village. That would have been hunky-dory except for one thing—the USAF’s plan was already in motion. They were almost ready to bomb Calvi Vecchia and, but HEY, the radio equipment was not working! That made the immediate occupation of the village neither hunky nor dory!
G.I. Joe to the rescue! The winged rescuer flew twenty miles at slightly more than 60 mph to the base, with a lifesaving message strapped to his little bird leg. He made it just under the wire. It was a close call! The air raid was cancelled while the planes were already taxiing on the runway. Had the timing not been right, the U.S. Air Force would have obliterated more than 1000 British soldiers and villagers.
For his heroism, G.I. Joe was awarded the highest honor bestowed on a pigeon. And, no, I’m not talking about a carelessly dropped Krispy Kreme donut! G.I. Joe was the first non-British animal to be awarded the Dicken Medal. His medal citation read, “For prompt delivery of a message to XII Air Support Command, thereby preventing the bombing of advanced elements 56th (London) Division.” Medals are nice, but I sort of hope he was awarded a donut, too!
Following his heroic exploits, G.I. Joe lived at the Churchill Loft in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Later, he went to live at the Detroit Zoological Gardens, until his death in 1961. G.I. Joe was 18-yrs-old. He was taxidermied and his body returned to Fort Monmouth, until its closure in 2011. Currently, G.I. Joe’s body is in storage at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, awaiting a suitable display location. Until then, I can only hope G.I. Joe is at least being stored in a Krispy Kreme box because I think he would have liked that.
Just Don’t Call Them “Chicken!”
Although the U.S. pigeon service disbanded in 1957, let’s not forget that these fine-feathered war heroes faced every bit as much danger as their human comrades. Some pigeons were captured as POWs. And Germany and Japan issued some soldiers shot guns and told them to shoot any carrier pigeons seen flying overhead. They were also sometimes victims of friendly fire. Yet amazingly, it is estimated that of the 30,000 messages the U.S. military sent during WWII through carrier pigeons, an astonishing 96% of those messages reached their final destinations.
Here’s an interesting video of US Soldiers demonstrating the use of carrier pigeons during WWII.
So, on this Memorial Day, take time to remember the brave men, indomitable women, fearless horses and loyal dogs who have served our nation so well. Just don’t overlook our courageous war time carrier pigeons. They were anything but chicken!