War Bird

By Lucas Bernard

Pigeons, New York City’s flying rats. These days they loiter around America’s cosmopolitan hub, acting little different than their effete human counterparts. They flit amongst the towering skyscrapers, pilfering stray pieces of $15 avocado toast from trash cans, fluttering away at the slightest hint of danger. Just like us, there was a time when pigeons were made of sterner stuff, answering their country’s call to serve against all odds.

The concept of a military pigeon may sound strange at first, but they have a long and storied martial history. Before there were electronic guidance systems for bombs, many brave pigeons trained to make the ultimate sacrifice for Uncle Sam. Behavioral Psychologist B. F. Skinner led a program called Project Pigeon, using operant conditioning to train pigeons to pilot munitions towards their intended targets like little kamikazes. They were taught to peck at a target displayed on a screen by receiving seed whenever their aim was true. The screen was connected to a series of controls within the bomb; if it went off track, the image of the target would move off center. By pecking it, the pigeon would steer the bomb back towards its intended destination. Initially given a budget of $25,000, the project was eventually shelved in pursuit of other more uninspired research. Self-guided munitions systems today operate on similar principles, except they are powered by electronics rather than seed and good old fashioned American grit.

There is of course a more tried and true method of militarizing pigeons by utilizing their innate navigational abilities. To put it simply, once a pigeon’s nest has been established, it can be transported almost anywhere and will be able to find its way home once released by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field. They can fly for hours upon hours without ceasing, covering distances up to 700 miles at speeds ranging from 30 to 60 miles per hour. To make use of this unique skill, small messages can be attached to their legs to relay messages back to a command unit.

One could be forgiven if they assumed that this practice was relegated to the distant past, and for the most part it wouldn’t be incorrect. With the wondrous advances in communications technology made over the past couple of centuries, it seems downright archaic to rely on birds carrying tiny scraps of paper. However, the peculiarities of the Great War necessitated dusting off the pigeon coop. While field telephones were in their early stages, using electronic current to transfer audio over wire, other modern technologies rendered it a troublesome and unreliable practice. Incessant artillery fire shredded telephone lines close to the front and sending men out to repair them proved to be futile and costly. Pigeons offered a cheap and effective solution to this problem. Where fragile and static wires could not withstand the horrors of trench warfare, our brave birds could dart and dash through shellfire and fly high above dense and sluggish clouds of poison gas.

In early October of 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces were in the middle of what would become the deadliest campaign in US Army history, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Major Charles Whittlesey was in charge of some men from the 77th Division, and they were in trouble. The units on their flanks had failed to press the charge, leaving what came to be known as “The Lost Battalion” alone, cut off by the Kaiser’s men. For six days, the men maintained a desperate defense against charge after charge of the dastardly Hun. While they could keep the Krauts contained, there was one threat they were powerless against, their own artillery. Saving the men from the not-so-friendly fire became the responsibility of the last of their pigeons, the aptly named Cher Ami, or “Dear Friend.”

With a message tube tied securely to his leg, Cher Ami took flight in the face of all the brutality the War to End All Wars had to offer. While we can never know exactly what happened to him during his perilous and daring flight, the condition he arrived back in can give gruesome insight. A hole cut through his chest, piercing his little breastbone, and the message tube hung precariously from the mangled remains of his right leg. The message provided the exact location of Major Whittlesey and his men, along with a rather terse plea.

“Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.”

This allowed relief forces to suppress the Boche and free the beleaguered men of the 77th. Our Dear Friend was patched up, and subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre. After the much-anticipated armistice, he was “sent home in the charge of an officer, surrounded by all luxury possible” which one can only assume means a variety of exotic seed and large breasted female pigeons.  Upon disembarking the USS Ohioan, the press fluttered to hear of Cher Ami’s exploits, making the little feathered fighter famous across the world.

The grizzled old warrior was placed in a special loft in Potomac Park on orders by General Pershing. For the rest of his life, he reminisced upon wartime exploits with his fellow pigeon veterans while munching on all the seed he could eat, which served as his pension. There, he could cruise the skies surrounding the government he fought to defend, enjoying the peace that he risked his life to secure. 

After his death, Cher Ami was mounted and took a place of honor in the Smithsonian, where he can still be visited today. At great cost and against all odds, Cher Ami served admirably with courage and distinction. It is up to us to continue his legacy, to be dear friends and provide assistance to those we love, even if it means flying through hell.   

Editor’s note: The lead image for this story was created using AI because our in-house war pigeon switched from Camel Filters to ZYN pouches.

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