Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Birds of a Feather
In an age of GPS, smart phones, and wireless communication, it's hard to fathom that carrier or “homing” pigeons can be used to convey messages during life and death situations. But that's exactly what happened during World War II. Nearly every nation involved in the war had some sort of pigeon service.
Between the world wars technology improved significantly, and radios had becom the primary means of communication. However, there were times when radio silence was crucial to the success of a mission, or when the terrain made it difficult for signals to get through or to string wire. Because the U.S. Army Signal Corp had a pigeon service in place since 1917, they were ready to recruit handlers as soon as America entered the war after Pearl Harbor.
The birds averaged thirty-five to forty miles per hour and could travel 400-600 miles during a trip. Some flew as many as 2,000 miles. Messages were inserted into a capsule that was fastened to a pigeon's leg. Larger canisters that held maps, photos or reports were attached to a bird's back. Some birds carried cameras that snapped photographs of enemy positions. When the pigeon returned to its loft a buzzer would sound, indicating a new message had arrived-the army's version of “You've got mail.”
It is estimated that 95% of these winged couriers successfully delivered their packages. Myriad stories attest to the importance the birds. One pigeon named Yank delivered the news of the fall of Gafsa in Tunisia in 1943, and also carried an urgent note to General Patton 90 miles in 100 minutes. Another named G.I. Joe flew twenty miles to deliver a message calling off the mistaken bombardment of a British regiment in Italy.
The Army disbanded the Pigeon Service in 1957. The last 1,000 birds were offered for sale to the general public, and the more famous birds sent to zoos around the country.
Have you ever owned a bird? I'd love to hear your experience.
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A freelance writer for over twelve years, Linda Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit her at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com