In the Era of Electronic Warfare, Bring Back Pigeons
On April 16, 1919, the troop transport Ohioan docked at Hoboken, New Jersey. Among the various disembarking members of the American Expeditionary Forces was a small detachment of 21 men of the U.S. Army Signal Corp’s Pigeon Service Company No. 1. Pier-side newspaper reporters flocked around the officer in charge, Capt. John L. Carney, to ask about the exploits of the distinguished hero pigeons the Army chose to bring home. Foremost among the latter was an English-bred blue check hen named Cher Ami. As Carney told the story, it was Cher Ami who on October 4, 1918 braved shot and shell to deliver a message from the besieged men of a composite force surrounded in the Charlevaux Ravine of the Argonne Forest, forever known as “The Lost Battalion.” Cher Ami arrived at her loft with the intact message from the force’s commander, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey, albeit minus a right leg and with a wound clear across the chest cutting through the breast bone. Cher Ami survived her injuries and Whittlesey’s message provided the exact position of his force back to the regimental and divisional headquarters, information which contributed to the eventual relief of the men.
Cher Ami’s story remains legendary to this day, a testament to the bravery of animals in war. The story, although the records are uncertain if Cher Ami or another pigeon delivered Whittlesey’s message, often obscures the purposes underlying the use of homing pigeons by the U.S. Army. From 1917 to 1957, the Signal Corps maintained pigeon breeding and training facilities, and birds saw service in World War II and Korea. When the pigeon service disbanded in 1957, the Army contended that advances in electronic communications rendered the peacetime maintenance of pigeon breeding and training facilities unnecessary. The remaining pigeons were sold at auction, with a select few being donated to zoos around the nation. Today the use of homing pigeons is viewed as novelty, a quirky vignette of the early 20th century battlefield.
Over 60 years later, the military homing pigeon warrants reexamination. The electromagnetic spectrum’s influence extends throughout the systems and operations of the battlespace into the fabric of civil society. Offensive and defensive operations in the cyber space realm, combined with kinetic strikes on air, land, sea, or space-based infrastructure, could potentially disable or severely damage entire communication or power grids. Adversaries with electronic warfare dominance would then be positioned to control the battlespace and restrict the options presented to American or allied commanders. Reflecting on electronic warfare’s potential, some communications between the front lines of the battlefield and rear echelon command and control elements may need to rest on the legs or back of a feathered messenger when a human runner or more visible vehicle or aircraft may prove too vulnerable to interception or destruction.
In an era where military innovation may conjure up thoughts about futuristic weapons and high-dollar research, development, and acquisition, perhaps consider an innovation redux: the homing pigeon. A brief examination of the American military experience with homing pigeons offers insights into both the utility of the birds and their advantages in the modern electronic warfare battlespace.
Homing pigeons are relatives of the rock dove, Columba livia, which frequently conduct seize and hold or tactical air strikes on urban residents and residences worldwide. Homing pigeons, however, are more akin to race horses, carefully bred and nursed to maximize speed, endurance, and navigational prowess. As with race horses, loft owners do not shy from spending $1,000s to 100s of $1,000s for champion pigeons in hopes of breeding future generations of race success. The exact science is unclear, but theories postulate as to how the pigeons navigate, returning to their home lofts either through visual, magnetorepton, or olfactory means. The distances flown by homing pigeons can vary from 10s to over a 1,000 miles over unfamiliar terrain or open water, at speeds from 60 to over 90 miles per hour. A pigeon can sustain grievous injury in flight and continue on its journey home, as was the case with Cher Ami and other military pigeons in both world wars.
The use of pigeons for military purposes extends back centuries, but World War I introduced widespread battlefield use of the birds by both the Central and Entente powers Previously, pigeons saw use in the 1800s primarily in journalism, with military use only rekindled in the Franco-Prussian War during the Siege of Paris. Following American entry into World War I, French and British officials championed the value of homing pigeons after the experiences at Verdun and the Somme. In trench warfare, where artillery bombardments turned carefully laid telephone lines into confetti, pigeons proved the only reliable means of communication between the front trenches and the artillery and command elements in the rear. Neither bombardment, dust, smoke, poison gas, or fog grounded the feathered messengers. For the British at the Somme, pigeon liaison was “always . . . able to operate regularly. In many cases it was the only one which was able to resist the weather and the means of destruction of the enemy.” Thereafter, the Army Signal Corps wasted little time in establishing a pigeon service in July 1917, utilizing Allied experience with a proven technology to address communication issues. Work continued to refine and improve wired and wireless communication systems for the battlefield, but off-the-shelf pigeon technology ensured the men of the American Expeditionary Forces would not be caught ill-prepared in a communication blackout when electronic means or runners fell to enemy fire.
Pigeons demonstrated reliability as messengers and the ability for usage with a variety of forces. In World War I, the Signal Corps reported an overall message delivery rate of 95 percent. In 1944, the Army reported pigeon-delivered tactical message rates at 99 percent. After success with combat operations in Europe in World War I, the U.S. military employed pigeons in the Pacific, Europe, and North Africa in the second war. Messages evolved from small pieces of rice paper to sections of map grids to eventual exposed photographic film. In World War I, pigeons served in the Tank Corps, Air Service, and with naval aviation. In World War II, pigeons served everywhere with everyone. They took part in Operation Overlord with paratroopers in the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, and were carried up the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc with the Rangers in special containers. Other birds parachuted into Burma with members of the Office of Strategic Services, carrying messages behind enemy lines, while others found a home inside the confines of Sherman tanks. Thousands of birds found work aboard the heavy bombers of the Army Air Forces in raids over Europe. In the Italian campaign, pigeons proved invaluable in transmitting messages over rugged terrain to coordinate fire missions for aircraft or artillery. Much as pigeons can adapt and thrive in practically every environ on the planet, the same held true for military employment of the birds.
Beginning in 1917 and continuing with World War II, the Army’s pigeon force drew from the civilian racing pigeon community. In 1917, the American Expeditionary Forces’ Pigeon Service tapped two founding members of the American Racing Pigeon Union — John L. Carney and David C. Buscall — to receive direct commissions as first lieutenants to build up the pigeon force from scratch. Both men, coincidentally current or former non-commissioned officers in the Army and Marine Corps, respectively, brought with them the highly specialized knowledge and background required to acquire, train, breed, and distribute pigeons to forces in the field. Through their civilian contacts, the men acquired via purchase or donation large numbers of quality racing pigeons and helped recruit the non-commissioned officers necessary to staff and train pigeon handlers in Northern France. The necessity to build and field pigeons for the American Expeditionary Forces further demonstrated how the specialized nature of pigeon work put a premium on civilian pigeon knowledge within the ranks.
Postwar, the Army continued the pattern of working closely with civilian organizations, such as the American Racing Pigeon Union, in recruiting men from the pigeon racing community. When the Army needed to rapidly expand the pigeon force in World War II, the civilian community responded with donations of tens of thousands of birds and even World War I “retread” volunteers for the officer and enlisted ranks to tend and train the pigeons. Never a large or overly expensive force, Army “pigeoneers” ensured communication continuity for the fighting men at the front, albeit always as a secondary or emergency method of transmission. Regardless of its size or lack of panache, the men of the Pigeon Service represent a solid example of a civil-military partnership able to respond to a wartime necessity in an orderly, efficient fashion.
For the contemporary challenges of cyberwarfare and electronic warfare, Army Futures Command should examine the record of the Army’s disbanded Pigeon Service. From the experience of the two world wars, the pigeon effort took off through partnership with civilian organizations. Akin to the Cyber Direct Commissioning Program, by recruiting and providing advanced grade to pigeon specialists for their civilian training, the Army staffed the officer and non-commissioned ranks with knowledge and skills essential for rapid expansion at minimum cost in training and the associated infrastructure therein. Furthermore, the connections of these citizen-soldiers further provided entre into acquiring quality homing pigeon stock from the civilian community for the Army with minimal delay. The ability to then “surge” a pigeon force became possible, in part to the small peacetime Pigeon Service then in existence.
In the arena of technology, pigeons are decidedly mundane messengers yet proven and reliable. The use of off-the-shelf technology at a time of need in 1917 served the Army faithfully for half a century. A similar acquisition success is found in the Army’s “Big Five” acquisition. Col. David C. Trybula concludes that by incorporating mature or maturing technologies into the systems, the results proved “extraordinary and perhaps revolutionary” when compared to the systems being replaced. While not arguing that homing pigeon technology can replace the advanced communications technologies of today, there are advantages to contemplate in the electronic warfare environment.
As the fighting in the Donbass region of Ukraine and in Syria have demonstrated, electromagnetic security can be a matter of life and death, of light and darkness. Through electronic warfare methods, Russian-backed separatist forces have caused an array of difficulties for Ukrainian forces. In the current fighting in Syria, American forces have likewise come face to face with Russian electronic warfare technologies and tactics, an electronic warfare battlefield-turned-proving ground for future conflicts. Monitoring, jamming, or infiltrating electronic-based systems to enable or deny kinetic effects places a premium on protecting signal communication.
Pigeons are certainly no substitute for drones, but they provide a low-visibility option to relay information. Considering the storage capacity of microSD memory cards, a pigeon’s organic characteristics provide front line forces a relatively clandestine mean to transport gigabytes of video, voice, or still imagery and documentation over considerable distance with zero electromagnetic emissions or obvious detectability to radar. These decidedly low-technology options prove difficult to detect and track. Pigeons cannot talk under interrogation, although they are not entirely immune to being held under suspicion of espionage. Within an urban environment, a pigeon has even greater potential to blend into the local avian population, further compounding detection. The latter presumably factored into the use of pigeons to clandestinely smuggle drugs, defeating even the most sophisticated of walls.
Furthermore, pigeons provide an asymmetric tool available for hybrid warfare purposes. The low-cost, low-technology use of pigeons to transport information or potentially small amounts of chemical agents — or even coded cyber weapons — makes them a quick and easy asset to distribute among a civilian population for wider military purposes. During World War II, the British Confidential Pigeon Service of MI14(d) dropped baskets of homing pigeons behind enemy lines for espionage purposes, gathering invaluable military intelligence in the process from a wide array of French, Dutch, and Belgian civilians. Even as a one-way means of communication, the pigeon proved an invaluable military asset.
The ideas herein are not claimed to be unique or refined. Military pigeon forces are all but extinct, but yet the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and French Ground Army maintain small pigeon forces in the event that electronic warfare should disrupt or disable military communications. As for the American military, the only traces of its pigeon force can be found in artifacts or photographs in museums around the country. The use of military homing pigeons in the 21st century in similar or more creative ways is limited only by initiative and imagination — a statement true for most any battlefield innovation and the disrupting potential of electronic warfare.
CORRECTION:This article previously referred to Cher Ami as a black check hen. She is a blue check hen.
Dr. Frank Blazich is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This article does not represent the views of his employer.