On May 13, 1918, Second Lieutenant Ray Delhauer (1885-1952) arrives at Camp Lewis to command the Army Pigeon Service training program, which uses homing pigeons (also known as carrier pigeons) as a means of transmitting messages. The army base, located in Pierce County south of Tacoma, has two pigeon lofts with about 60 birds and is one of two major training sites on the West Coast. Its handlers, or "pigeoneers," are recruited from pigeon clubs and soldiers in the camp with experience in pigeons. At Camp Lewis the birds are used in field exercises replicating how they might serve on the battlefield. In the first field exercise that includes pigeons, Captain Charles Z. Sutton (1890-1988), making an intelligence-gathering flight, releases a pigeon from his airplane to carry a message with "enemy" location and strength numbers to headquarters. The Camp Lewis pigeoneers train units in the proper use and care of these messengers. In three wars, pigeons will achieve great success in transmitting crucial messages across enemy lines during combat, saving many lives.
Delhauer Trains the Pigeoneers
On May 13, 1918, Second Lieutenant Ray Delhauer arrived at Camp Lewis, which had opened the previous year soon after the U.S. entered the fighting in World War I, to command the 8th Service Company pigeon-training center. Delhauer, from Ontario, California, had extensive civilian homing-pigeon experience and was recruited by the Army Signal Corps for duty in the Pigeon Service. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he served in the so-called "Mexican punitive expedition" that the U.S. launched against Pancho Villa (1878-1923) in 1916, and then at Camp Lewis. As commander of the camp's pigeon program, he supervised the operation of two pigeon lofts and ran a training course for the soldiers in the use and care of pigeons.
In France, General John J. Pershing (1860-1948), Allied Expeditionary Force commander, had recognized the valuable role of pigeons in communications. Pershing witnessed pigeons getting the message through when communication wires were broken by artillery fire, enemy action, or the weather. Homing pigeons were able to deliver messages quickly with a 95 percent effectiveness rate. They were critical in the Battle of Verdun, where they delivered many of the messages.
In February 1918, homing pigeons were shipped from the United States to France and the U.S. itself would employ 15,000 of the birds. In one offensive, the October 1918 Meuse-Argonne battles, 572 birds served. On October 5, 1918, a pigeon named "President Wilson" became a hero. In support of an infantry unit that day, pigeon President Wilson delivered a request for artillery support, flying some 24 miles. During the flight the bird came under heavy German attack but made it through, and an artillery barrage followed.
Stateside pigeon-training programs were set up in 110 army camps. Each camp had a pigeon loft and a detachment that managed it and was trained in care and use of pigeons. Additionally, there were major training and breeding programs -- two located on the West Coast, one at Camp Lewis and one at Ross Field in Arcadia, California. Two pigeon lofts were erected at Camp Lewis, each with about 30 pigeons. The majority of the birds came from the Seattle Pigeon Racing Club, with pigeon fanciers such as Seattle's John B. Lukens (1885-1922) supplying young pigeons for Camp Lewis. Additional pigeons came from the Oregon Racing Pigeon Club.
To fill out the training programs, the Army Signal Corps contacted pigeon associations for experienced pigeon men, who were called "pigeoneers." At Camp Lewis word went out for drafted troops who had been pigeon fanciers before the war. These were transferred to the 8th Service Company to operate the training center, where they maintained the two lofts, bred birds, and trained troops in the pigeons' care.
Second Lieutenant Delhauer trained the camp units, giving the soldiers one-day instruction on pigeon care and use. One of the more sensitive tasks was attaching a message to the bird without injuring it. A message was written on a thin piece of paper that was placed in an aluminum cylinder and fastened to a leg. Soldiers had to be careful in attaching the message so as to not injure the bird. Troops were also taught feeding and care of the pigeons.
Pigeon Program Takes Flight
During large-scale 91st Division field training in the vicinity of Roy on the south side of Camp Lewis, pigeons carried messages between the field and headquarters. During the first training exercise in which pigeons were used, Captain Charles Z. Sutton, a field artillery spotter, went up in a plane to locate "enemy" forces. When he found them he noted their position and strength and prepared a report for his regimental commander. He could either send his intelligence report by mounted messenger or by pigeon. For mounted messenger, he could drop the report in a friendly troop area and a soldier would carry it on horseback to headquarters. But Sutton had brought along two pigeons in a basket, the proper method of carrying pigeons in the field. He attached his report to a pigeon and released it at a height of 4,500 feet. Flying at more than a mile a minute, the pigeon was at camp headquarters in several minutes. This was much faster than by an orderly on horseback, proving the value of carrier pigeons. Similar success had been seen on the French battlefields, with the birds flying through enemy gunfire. Pilots also had another use for pigeons: to deliver rescue messages should they crash.
Civilians had a strong interest in the pigeon program, so Camp Lewis trainers took their pigeons to local events. Attendance was high, and the public had many questions about how the pigeon-message system functioned. A typical show was the one held on August 3, 1918, at Olympia's East 4th Street, near the courthouse. Signal Corps pigeoneers answered questions and then released birds for a flight back to Camp Lewis. When released, the pigeons circled two or three times and then headed to camp.
The most serious problem encountered at Camp Lewis and other pigeon services was hunters shooting down the birds. The United States Congress responded with a law providing a maximum $100 fine and six months imprisonment for killing, trapping, or in any manner possessing pigeons owned by the United States.
Breeding success at Camp Lewis made it possible to send birds to other posts, with some pigeons going to the loft at Fort Worden at Port Townsend in Jefferson County on the Olympic Peninsula. In August 1918, Fort Stevens in Oregon opened a loft with birds from Camp Lewis and from the Oregon Racing Pigeon Club. At both forts, pigeon associations also donated or sold birds to the army at below market value. By the fall, message-delivery times had been dramatically improved. On September 1, 1918, a Camp Lewis carrier pigeon flew from near Seattle to the camp in 31 minutes over a distance of 40 miles.
Delhauer was promoted to captain and left Camp Lewis in April 1919 to serve at Army Pigeon Service headquarters. He would become its head as a civilian in 1923, serving until 1925. During his tenure Delhauer worked on improving breeding strains, perfecting two-way flights, and night flights. He stepped down in 1925 and returned home to Ontario, California, to teach at Chaffey High School, which had a pigeon program as part of its vocational education. In addition to teaching, Delhauer continued his interest in military pigeons and in 1940 bred a line of mottled pigeons to be camouflaged messengers.
Cher Ami Saves the Day
Following World War I Camp Lewis retained its pigeon training center until 1925, when the activity was moved to Fort Monmouth in New Jersey and to Louisiana. A smaller program remained, however, with the strong support of the camp commander, Brigadier General Robert Alexander (1863-1941). Alexander had commanded the 77th Division in World War I when the war's most famous pigeon heroics took place.
A battalion of the division found itself surrounded by German forces and under American artillery bombardment. The battalion had taken heavy losses from enemy and friendly fire. The surrounded troops could not send a messenger through the lines and had no means of contacting the American artillery to stop the firing. Their last hope was to deliver a message by pigeon. They attached a message to pigeon "Cher Ami." Released, Cher Ami immediately came under fire, was hit, and fell to the ground. The shocked and saddened soldiers watched in horror as the bird fell out of the skies. Then Cher Ami rose, continued his flight, and successfully delivered the message that brought an end to the rain of artillery. The pigeon had saved nearly 200 men.
Cher Ami had been hit in the chest, lost an eye, and had an injured leg. He received national attention for his heroism and became the subject of books and documentaries. Cher Ami died of his wounds in 1919. On August 1, 1926, in commemoration of Cher Ami's heroic flight, 30 pigeons were released at Vancouver Barracks in Clark County for a flight to the University of Washington Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) loft in Seattle. The birds carried a message of greeting from Brigadier General Alexander.
Pigeons in World War II and Korea
The Army Pigeon Service also functioned effectively in World War II. In another example of heroic flight, in October 1943 the American bird "G.I. Joe" saved a British brigade by flying 20 miles in 20 minutes with a message to call off the bombing of a just-captured city. The brigade had entered the Italian city of Calvi Vecchia early, and the city was scheduled for aerial bombardment. The bomber command had to be alerted to cancel its raids. Brigade radio messages failed, but the soldiers attached a message to G.I. Joe's leg, and it reached the bomber command only minutes before takeoff.
In the Pacific theater, where laying wire in the jungle was difficult, pigeons were often used to provide communications. Pigeons served in the Korean War too, but as electronics improved they were no longer needed. In 1957 the pigeon service was ended, although not without citizen protest.
Remembering the Pigeon Service
Nothing remains of the pigeon facilities at Camp Lewis, now Lewis Main of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. At Fort Stevens, the pigeon loft that was located at the water tower above the fort has disappeared without a trace.
Pigeon heroes Cher Ami and G.I. Joe survive as stuffed exhibits. Cher Ami can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and G.I. Joe is on display at the U.S. Army Communications and Electronics Museum at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. These were only two of the many pigeons who, despite being wounded, flew on to deliver their messages. They aided the war effort and saved soldier lives.