High Desert Hangar Stories A miracle and a savior: How a carrier pigeon became both

Come Christmas time, I always look for a story that keeps with the traditions of the season.

The subjects we usually cover in this publication are focused on the high-powered world of aerospace and military that makes up our world of knowledge when it comes to things that fly and fight.

Wanting to share some seasonal inspiration, I went looking for the story of a “savior” who, like the Christ Child, came to men who were trapped in the darkness of the world and delivered them to safety, at a great personal sacrifice.

Walking the halls of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, we marvel at all the amazing aircraft on display. We read all the stories of how hurtling pieces of machinery became famous and ended up in this National Museum of American pride. But one of the displays may seem a bit out of place when you first see it and you may just pass right on by it without giving it a second glance. It sure doesn’t carry the grandeur of the X-15 or the Wright Brothers plane. Heck, it doesn’t even have a motor or a cockpit — but it does deserve its place of honor among all the great history on display. For generations that knew his incredible story, the little lad became a national hero and, for 200 badly beaten and tired American soldiers, he became their savior.

Our tale begins during World War I, when the 77th Infantry Division led by one Major Whittlesey, a New York lawyer, found themselves in an unwinnable situation. The 500-plus Doughboys were given orders to take a German stronghold and were told that they would have additional support from other regiments on their flanks. On Oct. 2, 1918, American soldiers of the 77th Division pushed too far into the Argonne Forest and became trapped behind German lines on the slopes of a hill. Cut off from reinforcements and supplies, roughly 550 men from the 306th, 307th, and 308th Regiments under Major Whittlesey’s command held their ground against a far larger German force for several days. Far beyond radio range, the only way the Americans could communicate with their own lines was via carrier pigeon. However, it did not take long to realize that the skies were as dangerous as the ground. Trapped in a horrible meatgrinder of machine guns and rain, the Lost Battalion held their ground against vicious German attacks.

Little did they know that they were hung out to dry as, in a cruel twist, the promised reinforcements were pulled back the same day that the 77th moved on the German lines. With limited communications and runners being picked off by German snipers, all the 77th could do was keep fighting in the hopes that help would come. Pinned down and running out of supplies and hope, a break came when an observation plane spotted the lost battalion and managed to get some coordinates to an American artillery unit. The order was given to open fire on what was thought to be where the German lines were. Tragically, they ended up shelling the fox holes of the 77th, killing 32 of their own soldiers. In the middle of the bombardment, a desperate plan was hatched to save their lives and an unlikely hero arose in the form of a pigeon named Cher Ami, the last surviving carrier pigeon the unit had. In a desperate bid, Major Whittlesey wrote a message telling of the nightmare unfolding under his command, entreating for the shelling to be stopped. With the hopes of the surviving Americans on his wings, Cher Ami was released along with the prayers of the embattled soldiers, hoping he would find his way back to friendly lines.

Upon release, the brave little soldier became the target of German troops and the Americans’ hearts sank, as gunshots and feathers were marking the route of the last best hope for the besieged men. For many, it was felt that the little pigeon only lasted for a few moments of flight never to be seen again, as previous birds had fallen quickly to German gunfire.

Sometime later, a pigeon handler in the rear area noticed a badly wounded bird attempting to make its way into the receiving cage. He picked it up and saw that it had been shot in the breast and was missing a leg and an eye, with a message which was just barely hanging on to its severed leg. When the soldier read the communiqué, he went running to headquarters yelling to stop the shelling in the area of the 77th battalion. In doing so, he saved the lives of many soldiers who had pretty much figured they would not see another sunrise. Upon returning to his birdcages, he suddenly looked at Cher Ami and realized his best effort to save its life would be required, as a hero of this stature was just as important as saving any combat soldier. The bird handler enlisted fellow troops and medical staff to help with the effort and miraculously, the tiny bird pulled through.

The official story said, “The brave bird flew straight into the German fire, dodging bullets as he went. However, his luck did not last for long. Cher Ami was hit in the chest soon after takeoff, as American soldiers watched in horror as their last hope hit the ground. Against all odds though, Cher Ami got up again! Wounded but still alive, the little bird took flight again, charging head-on into wave after wave of gunfire. By the end of the trip, he covered 25 miles in roughly half an hour. He arrived at base heavily wounded, but alive.”

Because of Cher Ami’s delivery, the artillery stopped and took up new firing coordinates away from American lines. The next day, shells started to fall on German positions, relieving pressure on the bloodied 77th, and the battle turned in America’s favor. On Oct. 8, 194 men of the over 500 that started the battle made it back to the American lines, thanks to Cher Ami’s sacrifice.

For his part in saving the 77th Division, Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honors for his gallantry in the field. Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, said “There isn’t anything the United States can do too much for this bird.”

Cher Ami made it back to the United States in the care of his trainer, Capt. John Carney. On June 13, 1919, Cher Ami died at Fort Monmouth, N.J. However, Cher Ami’s body was preserved and presented to the American government with honor. It is difficult to say how many families owe their lineage to the sheer courage and self-sacrifice of one brave bird. Today, Cher Ami is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History to preserve his memory. Since then, his story has lived on in the hearts and minds of Americans across the decades, and his bravery will never be forgotten.

It is truly a miracle that even today, you can look at Cher Ami and realize that this small bird in your presence was a part of history on that day, with a sacrifice no less than any man that performed a heroic act during war time. Isn’t it funny how we look to things and people we call saviors, not realizing — in the long line of heroes who have filled those shoes — that the creatures God has blessed us with can at any moment bring hope to those lost and suffering when it looks like all hope is lost?

I hope the next time you visit all the shiny history at the Smithsonian, you take the time to look for a handful of feathers that we call Cher Ami and give thanks for an unlikely gift that reminds us of how special all God’s creatures are. Truly a treasure in the halls of American military history.

Merry Christmas, my friends and I hope you have a blessed New Year. For now, Bob out…

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