The Pigeon Hero of World War I

Chuck Banner | April 14th, 2017

Most city-dwellers today consider pigeons a nuisance. Often referred to as “rats with wings,” they are a bird that people love to hate, and are generally considered to be unintelligent and dirty. During World War I, though, the lowly pigeon played a critical role in serving the Allied Forces. One of these birds was credited with saving close to 200 soldiers.

Before the advent and widespread usage of two-way radio, the military had to communicate via wire, which was not always possible on or near a battlefield. During WWI, carrier pigeons were used to courier important messages between planners behind the battle lines and commanders on the field. Messages would be attached to the legs of these birds in small canisters, and then the birds would fly “home” behind the lines to deliver the message.

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Cher Ami, which means “dear friend” in French, was the most famous of these birds. He flew 12 important missions over several months in 1918, before being wounded. His last mission, in September of 1918, was in the service of U.S. Major Charles Whittlesey. During the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Whittlesey and 500 of his men became trapped and surrounded by enemy forces. After the second day of their predicament, only about 200 of this “lost battalion” were left.

The other American commanders did not know where Whittlesey and his men were, and almost ended up killing the survivors of the group when they dropped shells nearby. Whittlesey sent out two pigeons with messages alerting the Americans to his location, but these birds did not make their deliveries, likely killed by the Germans.

Cher Ami was Whittlesey’s last pigeon. In a desperate last attempt to alert the Allies to his location, he sent the bird out with a message containing their location and a plea to stop dropping shells on them.

The Germans spotted the bird after he took off, and tried to shoot him down. Miraculously, Cher Ami was able to fly higher, outside the range of the enemy guns. He managed to fly 25 miles in 25 minutes, and the message was safely delivered. The lives of the 200 remaining men of Whittlesey’s battalion were saved.

When the bird was found, his true heroism became apparent. He had been hit by German gunfire and was severely wounded. He lost an eye, and the leg carrying the message was almost severed. The leg would not be able to be saved.

Medics worked to save Cher Ami, and the soldiers of the 77th Division carved a wooden leg for him. The French, who the Americans were fighting with during this battle, even awarded the bird one of their highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre. When he was able to travel home to the United States, General Pershing himself saw Cher Ami off on the boat that carried him home.

Cher Ami became a popular war hero, and was featured in newspapers and magazines the world over. Unfortunately, his wounds proved too severe, and he died less than one year after his heroic act. A taxidermist preserved his body, and he can still be seen at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., alongside the French medal that his bravery earned.

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