Next time you're scraping hard white stuff off your windshield and cursing "rats with wings", take a moment to think about the noble history of pigeons that have saved hundreds of American lives in war with their bravery.
The story of Cher Ami, the most famous war hero pigeon ever is guaranteed to make you respect these birds a little more.
The Lost Battalion of World War I
It's late September of 1918 in northern France. The war will end soon on November 11, but one last massive battle, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive is raging on. It's one of the biggest conflicts of World War I, lasting 47 days until the Armistice. Over a million Allied soldiers are involved and over 25,000 Americans will die by the end of this battle.
A group of 500 American soldiers led by Major Charles Whittlesey were trapped in a small depression of a hill, surrounded by Germans. After the first day, only 200 of Whittlesey's "lost battalion" were left. To make the situation even more FUBAR, their fellow Americans didn't know their location and had begun firing shells at them.
Whittlesey sent out two messages by homing pigeon asking the Americans for help, but both pigeons were shot down. The friendly fire on them continued. A final pigeon named Cher Ami was released with a with a desperate plea:
"For Heaven's sake stop it."
As soon as Cher Ami flew up out of the brush, the Germans fired on him. It took him 25 minutes to fly through a rain of bullets the 25 miles back to Allied lines. When he arrived at his coop, he bad been shot in his breast and blinded in one eye. One leg was so badly shot it dangled by a tendon. The metal case carrying the life-saving message was still attached to that dangling leg. The Allies stopped firing shells at the Lost Battalion, and they were eventually able to break out of enemy territory to safety.
The surviving 197 men, whose lives had been saved by Cher Ami made sure that their little bird received the best medical care and carved him a tiny wooden leg to replace the one that was blown off. The French army awarded him their Croix de guerre medal for his bravery. Cher Ami became a famous hero, and he was personally seen off by General Pershing on his boat voyage back home to the states.
Cher Ami died less than a year later due to complications from his injuries. He was stuffed and is kept on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Major Charles Whittlesey received the Medal of Honor
In a different sort of honor, Rick Schroder played Whittlesey in a tv movie
A Monument to the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest, France shows Cher Ami:
Epilogue: Cher Ami's Military Animal Legacy
Cher Ami had been trained and donated to the U.S. by the British army. The British used pigeons so extensively that after World War II, they created a special medal of honor just for military animals called the Dickins Medal. 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, 3 horses, and one cat have been awarded the medal since 1943.
Simon, the only feline recipient of the Dickin Medal
A German pigeon equipped with a spy camera:
Pigeons in World War II
In World War II, British intelligence believed that The Nazis were training spy pigeons. According to documents released by MI5 about German pigeons, they had learned that the Nazi party had taken control of the sport, and only party members were allowed to own coops. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was a pigeon fancier as well as head of the German National Pigeon Society.
In 1942, the British had intercepted several pigeons that had blown across the Channel in bad weather carrying German messages, but the messages were standard training messages, not military secrets. In London, a small metal tube – the kind that pigeons wear to carry messages – was found, presumably it had fallen off a bird. Inside was a message written in German about the locations of British war ships.
MI5 believed the threat serious enough that they planned a three pronged attack. First, they recruited a falconer to train peregrine falcons to attack German pigeons out of the sky (no falcon-on-pigeon dogfights ever occurred, however).
The second part was classic spycraft. They turned the captured German pigeons into double agents: "both birds are prisoners of war hard at work breeding English pigeons." Then, they put fake German identification rings onto British pigeons, and sent the British pigeons back to Germany to sow disorder and confusion in the German coops. Pigeons were also used to send false messages to trick the Germans into thinking D-Day would happen at Calais instead of Normandy.
Lastly, local civilian British pigeon owners along the coastline volunteered for an organized plan to create a "loft screen". Since German pigeons who had just crossed the Channel would be tired and looking for any loft or coop to perch in, the locals opened their lofts at coordinated times, so that there was always an open British loft. That way, any German birds could be intercepted by civilian pigeoneers.
Of course, pigeons aren't really acting out of heroism; Cher Ami's dedication to completing his mission was more about behavior modification training rather than duty to flag and country. But I'm okay with suspending that disbelief for a little bit when considering a brave little one-legged bird.