Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD:Yes, it is true; CECOM's early history was for the birds… pigeons to be exact. Pigeons were vital to military communications during war and in peacetime. While pigeons had been a part of nearly every European army since the 1880s, it was not until 1917 that the U.S. Army began relying upon them.
The Signal Corps used pigeons from WWI and into the Korean War. They were deployed to numerous locations during WWII. Consideration was even given to reactivating the program during the Vietnam War.
Of interest is a write-up on pigeons published in 1920 in Harper's Pictorial Library of the World War (Volume VIII) titled "Our Winged Couriers." Harper's notes that within one year of beginning the pigeon breeding and training program, the Signal Corps had pigeons and lofts in place in France. Harper's credited the pigeons with a 95 percent success rate for message delivery.
By 1925, the Pigeon Service had a breeding base of 75 pairs and lofts for a variety of uses. It boasted 30 long distance flyers, and was breeding 300 birds per season to fill requisitions from eighteen lofts scattered throughout the U.S. and its possessions. Pigeon training, a 12 hour course, had also been incorporated into the Reserve Officer Training Corps and in Signal School maneuvers.
An experiment to evaluate pigeon flight over water took place in 1944. An article in a Signal Corps Technical Information Letter described an experiment at Fort Meade, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay where pigeons were released in an area of the bay that was 14 miles wide. The generally accepted fact was that homing pigeons were averse to crossing large bodies of water and this exercise was an effort to acquaint the birds with water flight. The article indicates that when first tossed over water, the pigeons showed a marked nervousness they did not display over land. Eventually, liberations were made from greater distances on the bay, the nervousness had almost disappeared and the birds homed promptly.
The importance of the Pigeon Service and the feats of those gallant birds were recorded in news reports of their deeds. On 24 December 1943, an article titled "Bird Hero Wins Purple Heart in Saving Message" appeared in The Signal Corps Message. LT Harold L. Holmes of Fort Monmouth had recently returned from the North African Campaign and reported that "carrier birds" had been used extensively there. A pigeon fancier most of his life, Holmes spoke about the high success rate of the pigeons. Describing the pigeon's value to the war effort, the writer noted that during the climax of the African Campaign, over a five day period 45 "secret" and "urgent" messages were delivered by pigeons.
Instituting a pigeon program required efforts to ensurethe safety of these working birds and examples appeared in The National Humane Review in 1918. The article was a public information announcement titled "Do Not Shoot at Pigeons." It described complaints by the Signal Corps that people on hunting expeditions were shooting homing pigeons all over the country, interfering seriously with the Army's pigeon training, despite state laws prohibiting shooting pigeons.
During World War II, Britain so revered pigeons that the birds were protected by a Defense of the Realm regulation which threatened six months in prison or a £100 fine to anyone caught harming a pigeon. The regulation proclaimed that pigeons were conducting "valuable work for the government."
The Army's homing pigeon service, headquartered at Fort Monmouth since the end of WWI, was discontinued in 1957 due to advances in communication systems. Many courier pigeons were sold at auction, while "hero" pigeons with distinguished service records were donated to zoos.