ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – On July 5, 1960, a Pigeon Memorial was dedicated at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey as part of the Signal Corps’ 100th Anniversary Celebration. The pigeon on the top of the memorial fountain was modeled on “G.I. Joe,” one of the greatest military pigeons in history. The plaque read, “A Memorial to Homing Pigeons in Combat: Courage, Loyalty, Endurance.”
The Army’s pigeon program, which began in 1917 under the orders of General John Pershing, was headquartered at Fort Monmouth under the Signal Corps from 1919 until its discontinuation in 1957.General Pershing set sail for Europe on May 28, 1917 and arrived in France on 13 June and set up the headquarters for the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris. In July 1917, impressed with the French and British pigeon services, Pershing requested that pigeon specialists be commissioned into the U.S. Army. In November 1917, the Signal Corps Pigeon Service received official authorization, and a table of organization for a pigeon company to serve at Army level was published the following June. The company comprised 9 officers and 324 Soldiers and provided a pigeon group to each corps and division. By the end of the war, the Signal Corps had sent more than 15,000 trained pigeons to the AEF.
The close fighting that was the feature of trench warfare meant that radio messages could be easily intercepted on the open frequencies. Thus, the Signal Corps built a measure of redundancy into its communications systems as insurance. Traditional communication methods, such as runners and mounted messengers, continued to perform their duties, with the use of motorcycle dispatch riders constituting a modern variation. Homing pigeons contributed another “low‐tech” but effective means of communication.
The success of the homing pigeons in war prompted the Army to perpetuate the service after the Armistice. The Chief Signal Officer established the Signal Corps Pigeon Breeding and Training Section at Camp Alfred Vail, NJ, which would later be renamed as Fort Monmouth. The officer in charge of the British Service supplied 150 pairs of breeders to the U.S. Army. They arrived at Camp Vail, without loss, in October 1919, and resided together with some of the retired hero pigeons of the World War in one fixed and 14 mobile lofts. At Monmouth, the pigeon experts devoted efforts to improving training, breeding, and equipment for the Pigeon Service. A World War I‐era joke suggested that the Corps was breeding pigeons with parrots so that messages could be transmitted by speaking.
One specialized area of training was night flight, which had proven difficult, but had been successfully trained as a pigeon skill from 1928 until 1930. New and revolutionary techniques were establishing the Monmouth birds as probably the outstanding stud in America. By the outset of WWII, the Fort Monmouth pigeoneers had perfected techniques for training two‐way pigeons. The first test was conducted in May 1941. Twenty birds completed the approximately 28‐mile roundtrip from Fort Monmouth to Freehold in half an hour. In 1943, an experiment to evaluate pigeons flying over water took place. This experiment is described in the 1944 Signal Corps Technical Information Letter. The experiment took place at Fort Meade, Maryland, and on the Chesapeake Bay, with the birds finally being released in an area where the bay was 14 miles wide. The generally accepted fact was that homing pigeons were averse to crossing large bodies of water; this exercise was also an effort to acquaint the birds with flying over water
In addition to new training techniques to expand the capabilities of pigeons, the pigeoneers of Fort Monmouth and the Signal Corps experimented with equipment, trying to improve methods of getting pigeons to the front. For such a basic “technology,” it’s amazing how much effort and time went into perfecting lofts, mobile lofts, carrying baskets and cages, protective gear, and pigeon parachutes.
These efforts paid off during WWII. The Pigeon Center at Fort Monmouth had an emergency breeding capacity of 1,000 birds a month. This represented about one-quarter of the Army’s anticipated requirement. American pigeon fanciers supplied approximately 40,000 racing pigeons voluntarily to the Signal Corps without compensation. These made up the bulk of the 54,000 birds that the Signal Corps furnished to the armed services during WWII. The Signal Corps used its authority under the Affiliated Plan of 1940 to recruit civilian specialists into the Army to fulfil specialized requirements such as pigeon experts.
During WWII, the birds were used on at least 20 different occasions during fighting in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations when they were the only means of communications. They proved valuable in sending information gathered in action behind enemy lines. In the Southwest Pacific area, pigeon communication proved effective with small ships as well as in jungle and mountainous terrain. In Burma, a loft was established behind enemy lines, and pigeons were put to use by agents as well as forward troops.
There were many hero pigeons that emerged from WWII. One of the most famous was “G.I. Joe,” credited with saving the lives of 1,000 allied troops at Covi Vecchia, Italy. The pigeon flew 20 miles in as many minutes carrying an order to cancel the scheduled bombing of the city. The action saved a British brigade, which had entered the city ahead of schedule. For this action, G.I. Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal by the Lord Mayor of London in 1946. The Dickin Medal was awarded to animals and was awarded to dogs, horses, 1 cat, as well as pigeons. G.I. Joe was presented to the Detroit Zoo on the discontinuation of the Pigeon Program, and was preserved upon his death, and is currently located at the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlise Barracks, Pennsylvania.
Fort Monmouth pigeons also served during the Korean War where they proved particularly useful to covert operatives in enemy‐controlled territory. Hundreds of pigeons were attached to the 8th Army and were sent with agents from 75 to 200 miles behind enemy lines. No messages were ever lost.
Despite significant fame and success, it was determined that the widespread use of radio in conjunction with the airplane to contact and supply isolated parties had rendered the use of pigeon communication nearly obsolete. Chief Signal Officer MG James D. O’Connell ordered the disbanding of the Pigeon Service at the end of 1956, and the service was finally discontinued in 1957 after 40 years. When news of the end of the pigeon program reached the public, protests filtered in from all over the country and made their way to the Pentagon. Many people cited the unreliability of radios in combat and the pigeons’ exemplary combat records. Despite such protests, the deactivation went forward. The 15 remaining living hero pigeons were donated to zoos across the country. The remaining birds, about 1,000, were sold to the public on a first‐come, first‐served basis for $5 a pair. The Public Information Office at Fort Monmouth received 1,500 requests for information on the pigeon sale, and people came from all over the country, and from as far away as Canada and Mexico, and stood in line for over 6 hours to purchase the birds.
As a final tribute to the program and its heroic pigeons, a monument in the form of a birdbath was placed on Fort Monmouth in 1960, the Signal Corp’s centennial year. It was a fitting tribute to the animals who had displayed courage, loyalty, and endurance over 40 years of service to the Army. The memorial no longer survives, but the history of the pigeon service lives on in CECOM history.