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Cher Ami: The Pigeon Who Received a Medal of Bravery During WWI

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 11, 2024 3:04 am

Cher Ami: The Pigeon Who Received a Medal of Bravery During WWI

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 11, 2024 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, experience the gripping drama of the front lines as a valiant pigeon becomes the last hope to stop a brutal friendly-fire barrage! Historian Frank Blazich, from the National Museum of American History, shares the story of the use of homing pigeons during WWI.

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Subscribe now to Variety Confidential, wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories. And up next, we have a history story from Frank Blazich, a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. During World War One, Europe began to look to homing pigeons as a means of communication.

Trench warfare was no place for radio or wired lines that were easily tapped or damaged. And so they turned to pigeons. Here's Frank Blazich with the story. Why pigeons of all things?

Well, ancient history is a bit sketchy and about how accurate it is. We do know that in the 19th century, pigeons could be used to reliably send small messages from essentially point A to point B. This was most notable in the siege of Paris and the Franco-Prussian war from 1870 to 71, where the French were able to, in some cases, move pigeons out of Paris by balloon. And then the pigeons could transmit, they would actually carry essentially early microfilm messages from outside Paris back into Paris and vice versa. And so the French used us to get around the German siege with some success. After the siege was over, a lot of the world's militaries took note of this and said, hmm, we might want to develop this capability, if you will, for our uses. And so you see a number of governments in Europe begin to develop homing pigeon effort, offices, programs and so forth within their militaries. The United States doesn't.

We begin to kind of play around with pigeons, experimenting at best. But long story short, we just don't really develop the capability until in 1917, the German government informs Wilson that they're going to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans finally say one of the only ways that we're going to begin to really knock Britain out of the war or severely curtail their war effort on the Western Front is to sink the merchant ships that are bringing food and supplies and other aid to the British home miles. And so they'll unleash their U-boats to do unrestricted warfare. And President Wilson will go to Congress, request the declaration of war, which Congress grants. The United States enters the war on April 6th, 1917. We're bright eyed and bushy tailed, so to speak, in entering the war.

But again, we don't have any pigeons. When the first American troops, officers will begin to head overseas to England and France in June of 1917, they have this massive learning curve to get caught up with the conflict itself and the various technologies that the combatants have been engaged in over the previous few years. Good example of this. When the first American troops will actually arrive in France, they don't have helmets. We don't have what we think of today as something very commonplace. We don't actually have steel helmets in use for our soldiers.

They come ashore wearing felt campaign hats, something you'd see in the American West. The U.S. Navy, the first time we sent ships overseas in May 1917, they had never seen a depth charge before, which had only recently been developed to basically combat German U-boats. This is all completely new to the U.S. military.

So the learning curve is quite steep. And that includes pigeons. And when the U.S. Army's signal officers, particularly Colonel Edgar A. Russell, he's the chief signal officer to General John J. Pershing, commanding the American Expeditionary Forces. When he begins to meet with his counterparts in the British and French armies, they basically say you need to get pigeons.

These work, they're proven. And in this kind of fighting in the trenches with the risk of your communications being cut by artillery or other means, pigeons are really the best option in a pinch to get your information from A to B. So in July of 1917, the call is sent from Russell to Major General George O. Squire. And he's the chief signal officer of the entire United States Army. And he basically says we need pigeons.

We need to set up this service. And General Pershing will then request two officers, as well as I think about a dozen enlisted men, to come over to France and set up a pigeon service for the U.S. Army. We have about 2,500 birds, roughly, when we start. The English, the British Expeditionary Force, they have had, they've been using pigeons for years now. And in May of 1918, they will actually give the United States Army 600 young pigeons. So that's how the bird that we now know as Jeremy will first come into the U.S. Army on May 20th, 1918, arguably conscripted, so to speak, or selected to join the United States Army.

So in terms of the training of the pigeons, the pigeons are usually about four to six weeks old. And at that point, they're moved into what are called mobile lofts. And the best way to describe, I like to refer to the mobile loft as a pigeon RV.

It's basically a large wooden kind of like boxcar that's put on a truck frame, which has leaf spring suspension, so forth. So you can move it. You can actually move the loft with the movement of the armies. And that loft is really the home. That is where the birds are going to eat. That's where they're going to sleep. In some cases, that's where they're going to find their mate and breed.

And that is what they're going to return to at all points in time. And so once the birds are in the loft, you're training the bird that if it wants to eat, it has to come home to the loft. If it wants to return to its mate, be it a male or female, I should pause and say pigeons mate for life. So the birds want to return to their partner.

In whatever case, the birds have this desire, understandably, to get back home. Cherami in July of 1918 is assigned to mobile loft number 11. That bird, as well as loft number 11, will find itself in September of 1918, preparing for the launch of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And this is still the bloodiest operation in American military history. And we had something like 559 Americans killed in action every single day for 47 consecutive days.

So it's an incredibly costly, costly offensive, but it's really the culmination of America's involvement in World War I on the battlefield. And pigeons will absolutely play a major part of this. These pigeons, for mobile loft number 11, as well as mobile loft number 9, will support soldiers of the 77th Infantry Division. And now they're going to be fighting through the Argonne Forest.

The 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Division is commanded by a Major Charles W. Whittlesey. And Whittlesey is going to receive orders to essentially advance to what is known as the La Vergette-Ouillon de Charlevo-Binnerville Road. directly through the forest. And he's told that once he reaches the road, he's to halt and wait for reinforcement. Whittlesey gets to the road.

He then basically sends a message back, I'm here. The problem here is Whittlesey has essentially advanced faster than the units on its flanks. And this leaves him dangerously vulnerable to encirclement by the Germans.

And unfortunately on October 3rd, that is absolutely what will happen. At that point, Whittlesey, his runner posts, where he's basically had soldiers running messages, you know, they've been cut by the Germans. So the only way Whittlesey can communicate at this point is using one of the eight homing pigeons that he had men carry with them when they advanced. And you've been listening to Frank Blasich, a curator at the National Museum of American History, telling the story of the role homing pigeons played in World War I. Can you imagine telling Black Jack Pershing?

And that, of course, was the man who was the general of the armies in World War I. We need more pigeons. And meaning it, and of course we did. And when we come back, we're going to learn more about the role these homing pigeons played in saving American lives and helping win a war here on Our American Stories. We get our weekly groceries delivered through Instacart because once football season starts, game time is family time. I can get everything my family needs for the week, from reliable staples to specialty ingredients, all delivered right to my door in as fast as one hour.

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At Navy Federal Credit Union, our members are the mission, insured by NCUA. And we continue here on Our American Stories. Historian Frank Blasich from the National Museum of American History has been telling us the story of the use of homing pigeons during World War I. Major Charles Whittlesey was leading a battalion through the Argonne Forest during the bloodiest and largest operation of World War I. He and his men had advanced quickly and were now surrounded by the Germans. His communication lines had been cut and the only means of communication he had left were those pigeons.

Back to Frank Blasich. Beginning on October 4th, the Americans are still trapped there on the side of the Charleville Ravine. The Germans are still in force surrounding them. Back at the 77th Division Headquarters, the senior leadership is trying to figure out, well, where exactly is Whittlesey? Can't really find him beneath the forest canopy.

How do we support him? And what they're going to do is they're going to decide to fire an artillery barrage on the slope of the ridge south of Whittlesey's position. And the hope here is that they're going to hit the Germans kind of behind Whittlesey.

Unfortunately, they have the Whittlesey's position incorrectly documented and instead of dropping the shells around the Americans, they actually begin to drop them on their own men. At that point, there's only two pigeons left and this is about 3 p.m. on October 4th. Whittlesey finds his pigeon ears and he calls for a bird and he writes a very simple direct message that reads, quote, We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.

For heaven's sake, stop it. When the pigeon ear prepares to remove one of the two birds from its protective basket, the bird basically breaks free of his of his grasp and flies away. I should pause and remind the listeners, all this time there's artillery, friendly artillery, falling around the Americans. At this point, Whittlesey kind of glared at this pigeon ear and, quote, uttered an uncharacteristically rude word. We can use our imagination to say what he said. His young private apologized and at that point, he grabbed the last pigeon and held that bird firmly in his grasp. They attached the message to the pigeon and released the bird to hopefully fly up and out. But the pigeon didn't fly up and out. The pigeon actually rose into the air and circled two or three times and then it landed a short distance downhill on the limb of a tree.

And it appeared to clean its feathers, clean itself. Whittlesey apparently turned to his pigeon ear and said, Can't you shoo it away? Can't you make the bird move? And if you can believe this, literally all these men cowering for their lives in these foxholes doing what they can to fight honors, they suddenly begin yelling, boo, and they're throwing rocks and sticks at the pigeon, screaming at it.

Anything to get it to move and fly away. And the pigeon answers by hopping to a higher branch. At this point, the pigeon ear, and I haven't mentioned his name, his name is Omer Richards.

Omer Richards is already under the gun, so to speak. He lost the first pigeon. This is now his last pigeon. He gets up out of his foxhole and kind of runs down to the tree where the pigeon is in under fire.

He begins to climb up the tree trunk and he's shaking the tree as he goes. And finally, he reaches the branch where this pigeon is perched and he shakes it and the bird finally flew away. At this point, the Germans who realize what's going on here, that the Americans are trying to get a message out, they open up on the pigeon with a small arms rifle, pistol shot, possibly machine guns. At one point, one American remembered that a artillery shell exploded beneath the bird. And he said it killed five of our men, but that it seemingly stunned the pigeon or hurt the pigeon and the bird fluttered kind of near the bottom of the ravine. Seemingly, the last hope had been shot out of the sky.

So that was it. All the men could do at this point was just sit and hope that the artillery fire would stop. Which it did. At 3.45 PM, the American leadership suddenly realized that they had the position incorrect for Whittlesey and that they were shelling their own men. The word went out, you know, cease firing, cease firing. Shortly after the shelling ceased at about 4.05, this last pigeon arrived at loft number 11. They found the message tube hanging just from the remains of the bird's right leg, the ligaments. And that there was a deep wound that cut across the breast of the bird.

They removed the message. They immediately relay it to the headquarters by telephone and they're able to bandage up the bird's wounds, but they'll have to amputate the one leg that's essentially no longer connected. Now Whittlesey and the men of this force that is now known as the Lost Battalion, they have no idea if the message from the pigeon made it back to headquarters. They have to spend the remainder of that afternoon into the evening all through the cold of the night questioning their fate, if you will. On the morning of October 5th, the Germans begin to fire on them again. They're still surrounded. And at about 10 AM, there's another American artillery barrage.

Suffice to say, those who experienced the horror the previous day are assuming, well, great, here it comes again. However, in this case, the barrage crept up on their position, but then stopped and began to hit the Germans on the other side of them. And to Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry, they recorded after the event that, quote, this was proof that the position of the command was understood by the troops fighting forward to make the relief. The last pigeon message had got through to its destination. So they knew that the American leadership finally understood exactly where they were to try to move forward to rescue them. And on the afternoon of October 7th, and that evening, the Lost Battalion was rescued.

Of the roughly 687, I've seen figures into the 690 men who entered the ravine, there were only 194 who could walk out under their own power. In terms of the pigeons' involvement, what bird was the bird that saved the Lost Battalion? Or as people like to claim today, there really is no mention of pigeons until later in the media coverage of the Lost Battalion. And eventually it will come out in the press that yes, pigeons were used, but the birds are nameless, right? The humans are named, but the birds are nameless.

But after the armistice of November 11th, 1918, the Army's initial plan is, well, let's sell all the pigeons, don't bring any of them home. But Captain Buskell, in charge of the pigeon service, says, you know, we should save some of these pigeons. We should certainly save the pigeon that brought in its message of its leg almost shot off and this incredible feat of bravery, but we need to bring that bird home. At some point, then, the pigeon is named.

The one name is Big Tom and later the name is changed to Cher Ami. So they're saying this bird lost its leg, took serious wounds in the course of delivering its message, but none of the records say that this pigeon was involved with the Lost Battalion. But that will all change April 16th, 1919, when Captain Carney is the senior officer escorting these hero pigeons home. There's lots of reporters there at the dock in Hoboken, New Jersey, and he basically holds up Cher Ami and says, you know, this is the bird that saved the Lost Battalion. And the press picks this up that the Lost Battalion and so many American heroes is saved by the humblest of creatures, the simple pigeon. And that's really when the Cher Ami story goes from questionable fact to just absolute gigantic legend. And it's that story from this dock in Hoboken, New Jersey.

That's the first time this has ever come out. The problem is, unfortunately, while Cher Ami, whatever Cher Ami did, and where, and exactly when, there's no question based on the bird's injuries that it did an incredibly heroic act, you can't definitively link it to the Lost Battalion. Whatever the case may be, Cher Ami becomes this darling of the American public and the U.S. Army. Little Cher Ami will die, most likely on June 13, 1919.

Quite frankly, the wounds, particularly that chest wound, is so severe that the bird is just not able to recover from it. But because Cher Ami was thankfully saved and taxidermied, the physical object in some respects serves as a memorial, not just to the heroism of pigeons and the heroism of animals in World War I, but in a way the heroism of the Lost Battalion. And even veterans of the Lost Battalion would come to the U.S. National Museum, as it was known at the time, prior to it becoming the National Museum of American History, and they would show their children and say, that little pigeon is the reason that I survived today, if you owe your life to that little pigeon. The power of the myth is such, no amount of research or publication will probably ever overcome this public desire to link Cher Ami to the Lost Battalion. But I like to look at Cher Ami as this kind of amazing representative of the power of even the smallest participant and more to make a difference.

And a great team effort on the production, Madison, Robbie, and Faith. And also a special thanks to historian Frank Blazich from the National Museum of American History. By the way, in 1931, Cher Ami was inducted into Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame. And in 2019, an inaugural recipient of the Animals in War and Peace Medal of Bravery.

The story of homing pigeons in World War I, here on Our American Stories. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself. Underneath it lies a shroud of mystery. From Variety, Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and iHeart podcast, comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracy Patton. And in season one, we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-11 04:37:55 / 2024-01-11 04:47:28 / 10

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