The Pigeons That Became War Heroes

ErikBrown by Christian Hernandez on Unsplash

This is going to sound crazy, but there are several pigeons who were decorated, war heroes.

Throughout the two World Wars, communication wasn’t as easy as it is today. Many times when soldiers were stuck far away from their bases, there was no way to relay messages. Radio technology could still be difficult at points, so living messengers were necessary.

You may curse and call them “rats with wings” when they leave calling cards on your vehicle, but pigeons were saving angels for soldiers with no hope in this period. A famous American pigeon even resides in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History right now. It even has a poem dedicated to it.

The creature you now see as a nuisance has been a savior to many. The British even developed a special award to honor birds within their service. You may think up a certain image or name when thinking of the term hero, but after reading this, the names Cher Ami, Princess, and Winkie may come to mind.

Cher Ami: Savior Of The Lost Battalion
Cher Ami — National Archives Via
Mon Cher Ami — that’s my dear friend —
You are the one we’ll have to send;
The whole battalion now is lost,
And you must win at any cost.
So with the message tied on tight;
I flew up straight with all my might
— Excerpt of Cher Ami by Harry Webb Farrington

In September 1918, the Meuse-Argonne offensive began. This attack against German forces was to be led by an American general and formed mostly by the new American army. As the Allied forces gained ground, a division of American soldiers pushed too far ahead and got trapped in the Argonne Forest. According to Adam Bieniek at the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, approximately 500 Americans were surrounded by superior German forces, taking nonstop fire.

If things weren’t bad enough, Allied artillery started hitting the American position killing thirty men. Radios existed at this point in history but were too large to be carried into battle. Laying wire necessary with people shooting at you also was far too dangerous. So, the division turned to their only saviors to call for help — carrier pigeons.

Bieniek mentions the US signal core had trained 600 of these pigeons to carry emergency messages back from the field. It may sound archaic to use a carrier pigeon, but these birds could hit speeds of 50 mph and would reliably return home when released. However, enemy soldiers recognized the messengers and had enough guns handy to shoot them down. So, these animals were in constant danger.

The Americans, in a desperate position, released bird after bird in an attempt to give their location and notify the allied guns to stop firing on them. Eventually, only one pigeon was left, Cher Ami, which means “dear friend” in French, according to author Robert Laplander. After some coaxing, the pigeon began its flight, and soldiers watched in horror as it was struck and hit the ground.

Miraculously Cher Ami quickly recovered and took to the air again. According to Bieniek, the pigeon made the twenty-five-mile flight injured and delivered its message. A handler checked the bird in its recovery coop and found it had a hole in its wing, was missing an eye, plus lost a leg — the message tube only attached by a tendon. An ominous blood-covered 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.”

The Allied barrage stopped and eventually remnants of the stranded soldiers were saved. While Laplander believes regimental commanders may have noticed the artillery blunder a few minutes before Cher Ami’s message was delivered, the division under fire gave the credit to their messenger.
Cher Ami And Trainer Capt. John Carney Circa. 1918 — World War One Centennial Commission

Bieniek explains Cher Ami was honored with the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious French military award. The Americans also paid to bring the bird home and treat it. Eventually Cher Ami retired and after her death was memorialized, and the bird now resides at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. As the Smithsonian mentions, this was only one of twelve important missions the bird conducted during her service time.

An Animal Medal Of Honor
Dickin Medal (2020) — Picture By Andrew69 Wikimedia Commons

As crazy as it sounds, Cher Ami was not the only example of a pigeon being awarded a medal for bravery. According to Ben Johnson at Historic UK, the British actually developed a type of Victoria Cross for animals. Created in 1943, the Dickin Medal has been awarded to 32 pigeons for feats of courage and delivering life-saving messages over incredible distances. The following are just four awarded to pigeons from WWII.

  • Winkie” won the award for flying 100 miles to alert the RAF a bomber crashed in the North Sea despite being covered in oil from the crash.
  • GI Joe”, an American pigeon, managed to cover 20 miles at about a minute per mile to call off a potential friendly fire attack. The message is thought to have saved 100 lives.
  • Kenley Lass flew back a concealed message from an agent in occupied France to England in 1940.
  • Princess” flew from Crete all the way to Alexandria in Egypt to deliver a special message. The bird conducted the flight of about 500 miles over mostly water.

So, think of this next time you see one of the many pigeons waddling around your town. Behind the mindless-looking stare, there’s a creature with incredible ability and stamina. It might even be a distant relative of a hero who saved lives, braving winds, and gunfire. They may leave a mess on your car but they’re always loyal enough to come home — no matter the costs.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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