During World War I, U.S. Troops stationed in Europe used homing pigeons to carry messages. One such female was named “Cher Ami,” which means dear friend in French. She saved the lives of almost 200 soldiers during the Battle of the Argonne. Here is her story.
How were Homing Pigeons used in War?
Homing pigeons have been used in war since at least the 6th century B.C., when they carried messages for King Cyrus of Persia. They were valued for their homing ability, speed, and altitude. These remarkable birds have an average speed of 60 mph, and they have been known to fly over 1000 miles.
During World War I, pilots used them to send for help if they crashed, and troops took them behind enemy lines. When released, they’d fly back to their home coop and trigger wires that sounded a bell or buzzer. This alerted the soldier on duty that a message had arrived.
Was this Dangerous?
It was very dangerous. They had to fly long distances without rest and were often shot by enemy snipers or attacked by predators such as hawks.
Cher Ami, the Savior of the Lost Battalion
On October 3, 1918 , during the Battle of the Arbonne, Major Whittlesey and over 550 troops were trapped behind enemy lines without food or ammunition. Not only were they surrounded by Germans. This “Lost Battalion” was also being hit by friendly fire since their allies did not know their location.
Over time, many were killed, captured, or wounded. The situation was so grim that by the time they were rescued, only 194 were left.
At first, Whittlesey had sent out human runners, but they were all either killed or captured by the Germans. In desperation, he began to send his pigeons. The first was shot down, as was the second. Only one pigeon, Cher Ami, was left.
At this point, things became even grimmer. Because they did not know the battalion’s location, allied artillery that were trying to support them caused even more casualties. Could Cher Ami deliver a note to save the remaining men?
A canister was attached to her left leg with a note inside. Written on onion-skin paper, the note said “We are along the road parallel [sic] to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.”
Flying Through Bullets
Unfortunately, as Cher Ami rose in the air, the Germans spotted her and opened fire. As the brave pigeon flew through a hail of bullets, she was shot down. She was hit through her breast, blinded in one eye, and one of her legs was nearly torn off. Yet, somehow, this remarkable pigeon took off again!
Covered in blood, she desperately flew the 25 miles to her home loft. Despite her injuries, she never gave up. The amazing Cher Ami delivered the message that saved the lives of the 194 survivors of the Lost Battalion!
She was hailed as a hero. Army doctors frantically tried to save her life. They could not save her leg, which was at that point, hanging by just a tendon. A small prosthetic leg was lovingly carved for her from wood.
Cher Ami received the French Croix de Guerre medal for her heroism. In addition to her courageous final flight, she had delivered 12 other crucial messages during the war. After she had healed enough to travel, General John J. Pershing personally saw her off from France to the United States.
Unfortunately, her wounds proved too much for her, and Cher Ami succumbed on June 15, 1919. Posthumously, she received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers to recognize her service. She was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931. Her handler, Enoch Clifford Swain, also received an award.
How Cher Ami continues to be remembered
To many American schoolchildren growing up right after the war, she was also known as many human war heroes. There were poems and children’s books written about her. In more modern times, she is even mentioned in video games. For example, Battlefield 1 features a codex entry that describes how she saved the Lost Battalion.
In 2019 she became one of the first winners of the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery. Her body is currently on display in the Smithsonian Institution, in the “Price of Freedom” exhibit. She was mounted by a taxidermist with only her one leg so visitors can fully appreciate her sacrifice and courage.