Answer Man

Pigeons flew lofty mission in World War II

Men of the Army’s 21st Signal Loft release pigeons during the war on March 1943.
Men of the Army’s 21st Signal Loft release pigeons during the war on March 1943. National Archives

Q. I’ve read that homing pigeons were used in World War II to send messages, maps, etc. Can you tell me more about this? Wouldn’t the birds have just flown back to their original homes?

— Charles Naumann, of Dupo

A. Not when their earliest homes were purposely moved every day during training. Yes, pigeons may have bird brains, but their intelligence and speed helped save countless human lives with feats of courage most people today are likely unaware of.

Take, for example, perhaps the most famous pigeon of all, the blue-checked (and appropriately named) GI Joe. On Oct. 18, 1943, an American infantry division called for aerial bombing on German-held Colvi Vecchia, Italy. When the Germans withdrew unexpectedly, thousands of British soldiers marched in, unaware of the impending attack, according to the account told by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association in England.

The Americans finally saw the disaster in the making, but radio contact had been broken. Instead, GI Joe was let loose with a message to abort the bombing. He reportedly made the 20-mile trip in 20 minutes, arriving just as the bombers were about to take off. He later became the only American pigeon to be awarded the Dickin Medal, Britain’s highest honor given to an animal.

Of course if you want a real four-hankie story, you have to hear the tale of Blackie Harrington, who had been assigned to Guadalcanal near a place called the Catcher’s Mitt because so many bombs were dropped there.

Blackie was sent off to headquarters with details of the location of 300 Japanese troops. He delivered the vital information, but part of his neck and chest was blown away by shrapnel en route. He was so badly hurt that soldiers reported water draining out of his chest when he was given a drink. Still, he was patched up and spent the rest of his life breeding with Madam Murphy and the rest of her feathered harem, according to a story in the August 2007 edition of the magazine America in WWII.

Such heroics likely have been commonplace since the birds’ first documented use by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. Before the age of radio, the birds routinely carried messages in tiny capsules strapped to their legs because their homing sense is uncanny. They can return to their loft from 1,000 miles out, and they literally can fly a mile a minute over short distances.

In 1903, the New York Times bravely predicted, “No Further Need of Army Pigeons: They Have Been Superseded by the Adoption of Wireless Telegraph Systems.” But, of course, it wasn’t to be. Messages could be intercepted, and sometimes the location of the sender calculated. That’s why in 1917 General of the Armies John Pershing urged the establishment of a pigeon service, and the U.S. Army Signal Corps quickly complied.

So it was little surprise that just one month after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Signal Corps announced that it would pay $5 for young, healthy birds of either sex. Pigeon club fanciers flocked to help, contributing champions and the offspring of champions, some of which could cover 600 miles in a day. Donated birds arrived by the hundreds. At its peak, the pigeon service boasted 150 officers, 3,000 enlisted men and 54,000 pigeons.

The British used another quarter million, and the Germans employed them as well. The numbers were high because many were shot down or otherwise died performing their tasks. In fact, both the Germans and British reportedly employed falcons to chase after pigeons until they realized the falcons didn’t care which nation’s pigeon they attacked and abandoned the practice, according to a 2008 New York Times story.

The breeding took place at four bases — Fort Monmouth, N.J., Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Fort Benning, Ga., and Camp Crowder, Mo., near Neosho. The goal was to cross the fastest and strongest birds with those with the best homing instincts. They apparently succeeded in spades. While a World War I pigeon flew about 200 miles in a day, the World War II birds could travel 600 miles at cruising speeds of about 35 to 40 mph over long distances. Obviously, these were no sitting ducks.

Training took about two months. When a bird was about 4 weeks old, it was taken from its nest and placed in a mobile loft. These lofts were then moved daily for about two or three weeks as the birds flew short flights in the morning, noon and evening so it could get its aerial bearings. After proving it could fly 60 miles or more, it was ready for a real mission.

At the front, handlers reportedly coaxed more speed from the birds by withholding food or introducing another male to the bird’s mate. Hunger and jealousy produced faster returns.

Delivery systems became more sophisticated, too. In addition to those small tubes on their legs, small pouches could be looped over their backs. Paratroopers would jump out of airplanes with pigeons in the pockets of a vest designed by the Maidenform Brassiere Co. Eventually, the army developed a cage that could be dropped safely to give isolated troops a means of communication. These were used to scatter thousands of pigeons during the Normandy invasion so French civilians could send back information about German installations and troop movements.

But it’s their individual tales of gallantry that remain so amazing. In October 1943, a Royal Air Force Catalina flying boat was forced to ditch in the Hebrides. Weather conditions made a search impossible, so the victims let Night Vision fly off with their coordinates. The bird battled 25-mph headwinds and visibility reduced to 100 yards at times, but he made it to a base 60 miles away and the crew was saved. In all, the RAF estimated that one of every seven crewmen who were rescued at sea owed his life to a pigeon.

As you imply, however, there were limitations to the bird’s abilities. After a loft had been moved two or three times at the front, a bird could become confused, flying first to an older location before finding the right one. So veteran birds were retired for stud work.

But that certainly doesn’t lessen their impact on the war. Of 53 Dickin medals presented during World War II, 32 went to pigeons. And it wasn’t until 1957 when Col. Clifford A. Poutre, who was the chief pigeoneer from 1936 to 1943, let free the final bird when the Signal Corps Pigeon Service was closed. You can see Poutre, who died in 2008 at age 103, in film clips of “The Pigeoneers” at www.pigeonsincombat.com.

My name is mud: If you’d ask me on the street, I swear I’d tell you with hardly a second thought that Andrew Johnson succeeded Abe Lincoln as president. Unfortunately, I must not have been thinking at all while writing my Saturday column on Samuel Mudd. After typing “President Andrew,” my brain apparently slipped into autopilot mode and my fingers spat out “Jackson,” who (as I also know) was long dead by the time Mudd went on trial. I probably deserve a couple of whacks with an old hickory stick for that one. Thanks to the many astute historians who called me on the Oval Office carpet for my momentary lapse of sanity.

Today’s trivia

What common characteristic did four of the first six U.S. presidents share — and none since?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Fruit lovers traveling through northeastern Iowa will want to take a side trip to the tiny town of Strawberry Point (pop. 1,279) to see what is probably the world’s largest strawberry — a 15-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture in front of City Hall that dates from the 1960s.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465

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