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    Army Sells Its Last Homing Pigeon

    Army Sells Its Last Homing Pigeon

    Photo By Erin Thompson | Signal Corps officer displaying a message tube attached to a pigeon’s foot, 1919....... read more read more



    Story by Erin Thompson 

    U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence

    by Erin E. Thompson, USAICoE Staff Historian

    23 MARCH 1957
    On 23 March 1957, the Army sold its last homing pigeon. Since the earliest recorded history of battlefield communications, homing pigeons—or war pigeons—have consistently been praised for their intelligence, reliability, and agility in relaying messages across long distances. The U.S. Army used these birds with successful results during the World Wars and in Korea. However, the advent of electronic warfare and 1950s technological advancements made homing pigeons obsolete.

    The first record of the U.S. Army using pigeons is in aerial experiments performed by the Army Signal Corps in 1878. The Army’s enterprise with pigeons ended a few years later, when it transferred this responsibility to the Navy. The Navy used ship-to-shore pigeon messengers frequently in the 1890s. The Signal Corps again experimented with homing pigeons during General John J. Pershing’s 1916 Punitive Expedition in Mexico, but these efforts failed to impress Army commanders.

    On the eve of America’s entrance into World War I, radio and telephone technology remained underdeveloped. The new realm of trench warfare further hampered the ability of military personnel to communicate with one another. Once again, the Army entertained the idea of using homing pigeons. Luckily, two men in the Signal Corps—1st Lt. David C. Buscall and Capt. John L. Carney—already had military and pigeon experience. Well-connected within the pigeon racing community, the pair quickly assembled a team of specialists known as “pigeoneers” to form the U.S. Pigeon Intelligence Service. By 29 October 1917, Lieutenant Buscall, six noncommissioned officers, and 800 pigeons traveled to France aboard the USS Agamemnon, arriving on 12 November as the Signal Corps Pigeon Service. The Army began deploying pigeon messengers in late December, though they did not appear on the frontlines until March 1918.

    Pigeons became reliable means of communication during World War I. One estimate of the First World War indicted no more than ten percent failed to deliver their messages, and numerous pigeons continued to carry messages while wounded. The most famous homing pigeon during the war was “Cher Ami,” who was severely injured delivering an urgent plea for rescue from Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion.” The bird was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm oak leaf cluster and the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery for his work in rescuing the stranded troops during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October 1918.

    Pigeons played a valuable role in intelligence in the World Wars. In World War I, “Mocker” received a citation for gallantry when he lost an eye mid-flight while delivering “a message of great importance which gave the location of certain enemy heavy batteries” to Americans near Beaumont, France, in September 1918. In November, “President Wilson” lost a foot delivering to Allied commanders a message that reportedly saved the lives of numerous Americans on the frontlines. In World War II, Lt. Harold L. Holmes of Fort Monmouth reported pigeons played a crucial role in collecting and disseminating “secret” and “urgent” intelligence in the North African campaign in late 1943. In a separate instance, “G.I. Joe” delivered intelligence of the capture of Calvi Vecchia, Italy, to the Allied XII Air Corps, which intended to bomb the village later that day. The speed and promptness of “G.I. Joe” saved the lives of over one hundred soldiers of a British brigade and, as a result, he received a Dickin Medal.

    The contributions of carrier pigeons to the Army led to numerous postwar projects designed to capitalize on the accuracy and efficiency of the birds. Renowned behaviorist B.F. Skinner worked with the U.S. Army to develop pigeons’ homing capabilities for piloting missiles. The Central Intelligence Agency also worked with pigeons, patenting photography equipment specifically for these birds to capture aerial footage.

    By the end of the 1950s, technology advanced enough to allow the Army to retire its pigeons. While some well-known pigeons found new homes at zoos across the country, the Army’s last pigeon was sold at auction on 23 March 1957, thus ending the legacy of war pigeons in American military conflict.



    Date Taken: 03.23.2023
    Date Posted: 03.22.2023 11:23
    Story ID: 440930

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