Back in World War I, the so-called Great War, aeroplanes/airplanes were making a big splash as a viable war-making tool. It was epic, with the daring-do of the pilots flying over enemy territory while guns below and other aircraft in the air tried to take them down.
And yet, one of the most celebrated at the time, and now largely-forgotten aerial missions of the war did not involve a dirigible or an aircraft.
It concerns a homing pigeon named Cher Ami (which unless my French has completely failed me, means “Dear Friend“).
And, for the brave soldiers of then U.S. 77th Infantry Division trapped behind enemy lines during the Battle of Argonne in France, they certainly never had a dearer fine feathered friend.
On October 3, 1918, 500 plucky American soldiers had become stuck in enemy lines while battling the Germans, hunkering down in trenches with a hillside providing scant protection from the barrage.
If that doesn’t sound horrific enough, the American soldiers were running out of ammunition and food, AND their own forces—unaware of their position—were also firing upon them. There sure isn’t anything friendly about friendly fire.
Taking damage from the front and from the rear, the men of the 77th lost OVER half their men by the time the second day, October 4, dawned.
For the 77th, whose radio’s were no longer functioning, their only hope of survival rested on a wing and a prayer.
With a mere 194 soldiers remaining, commanding officer Major Charles Whittlesey decided to use their three reamaining homing pigeons in order to get help from U.S. forces. While at wit’s end, he was anything but witless.
These homing pigeons—and sometimes dogs—were used to deliver messages between the front and HQ, owing to the fact that radio communication was still fairly crude and unreliable. I believe the French were the first to utilize the birds as communications messengers during a war.
In fact, it was during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, when Paris was surrounded by Prussian troops, the French military used hot air balloons to transport homing pigeons past enemy lines to the city.
In Paris, these homing pigeons would then be released with messages and would fly back to London… now knowing their destination, they could fly back to Paris.
In this manner, over 1-million messages were sent during the four-month war.
A successful ploy, it was used again during World War I. In fact, some 100,000 homing pigeons with little messages tied to their leg were used over the course of World War I by both sides, achieving an astounding 95% success rate of mail delivery.
Of course, by 1918, with the German’s also using their own homing pigeons, they knew that their enemies were too, and would should at the tiny aviators with impunity.
After Major Whittlesey sent off the first bird with a note attached:
“Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.”
it was quickly shot down by the Germans.
The second pigeon was sent up with a note attached:
“Men are suffering. Can support be sent?”
It too, was quickly shot down by the Germans.
Down to his last homing pigeon and last chance, Major Whittlesey composed the last message and attached it to the pigeon—Cher Ami.
The note, a rather chilling one, reads:
“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.”
Releasing Cher Ami, the pigeon took off for its home coop.
The German’s quickly spotted her, and opened fire.
The bullets whizzed around her as she flew higher and higher through the dark, smoky haze until—
a bullet ripped through her!
Horrified and despondent American soldier saw her being hit! The bird wasn’t the only one feeling pain.
The bullet pierced her breast, blinded her in one eye, and nearly severed one leg that was hanging on by a tendon.
She plummeted to the ground.
In the true spirit of a war hero, the badly wounded Cher Ami, with that innate desire to return home, rose up from the ground and began flying again.
Cher Ami flew the 25 miles back to the division headquarters in a little over one hour—65 minutes .
The attached note was read, and the friendly fire was halted immediately, saving the lives of the remaining 194 American soldiers, as the U.S. then launched a rescue party.
This was to be Cher Ami’s 12th and final mission.
Army doctors worked extremely hard to save the pigeon, even going so far as to carve a new wooden leg for her.
She healed and survived another six months before passing, though it is suspected that the wounds she suffered that day led to her early demise.
As with many soldiers receiving horrific wounds, Cher Ami was sent back to the United States via boat, with none other than U.S. General John J. Pershing seeing the bird off as she left France.
Upon her return, Cher Ami became the mascot for the United States Department of Service.
Later, she was decorated as a war hero, presented France’s Croix de Guerre medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her role in saving the lives of the “Lost Battalion” and 11 other messages in her other missions.
Cher Ami dies at Forth Monmouth, New Jersey on June 13, 1919.
Posthumously, Cher Ami was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers for her service during the war.
An interesting fact of Cher Ami, however, is the fact that until her death, everyone though she was a he.
Talk about a cock-up!
The male pigeon is known as a cock, the females a hen.
Cher Ami, upon registration in the military, was described as being a Black Check cock.
It was only during her taxidermy procedure—so no, they didn’t eat her, they just stuffed her—that it was discovered that she was a ‘she’.
She was also discovered to be a Blue Check.
It’s also why her name, Cher Ami, utilizes the French masculine form, rather than the feminine.
Until the 1930’s, Cher Ami was well-remembered by the public.
Stuffed and placed within the Smithsonian Institution, now in the National Museum of American History in the “Price of Freedom” exhibit, she is still erroneously displayed as a cock.
If you’re looking for her, she’s right beside the stuffed U.S. Sergeant Stubby… don’t worry, it’s not what they do to all heroes. Sergeant Stubby is a Boston Bull Terrier dog, the most decorated war dog of World War I.
That implies there are other decorated dogs. Stubby, by the way, was a Sergeant in nickname only – not in rank.
As for just how or why a homing pigeon homes… they have a built-in GPS (Global Position Signal) that allows them to know where their loft or coop is… even is said coop was moved, as often happened when troops moved around during the war.
Some scientists think that homing pigeons are able to detect the Earth’s magnetic field, which helps them find their way home. On top of a pigeon’s beak there are a some iron particles that essentially aligns north like a compass. Knowing where north is apparently allows the bird to find its destination… though that would still imply the bird has to memorize where it traveled from.
You might also enjoy reading about G.I. Joe, a U.S. war pigeon that saved over 1,000 lives: HERE. G.I. Joe and Cher Ami might certainly have been the inspiration for the Dastardly and Muttley In Their Flying Machines cartoons of 1969-70, a personal favorite, where they try in vain to shoot down Yankee Doodle Pigeon, a U.S. homing pigeon, during WWI.
Despite the success of the war pigeon, they have not been utilized officially since World War II.
Regardless… keep’em flying boys and girls.