The Story Behind a Pigeon War Hero
On October 3, 1918, with WWI going on, Major Charles White Whittlesey and nearly 200 men found themselves trapped behind enemy lines. They had neither food or ammunition. Even worse, friendly fire from allied troops began to fire in their direction, with the latter not aware of their location. Surrounded by the Germans, many men were killed or wounded on the first day. By the second day, merely 194 remained alive and not yet captured. With his runners consistently intercepted or killed by the Germans, Whittlesey started dispatching messages by carrier pigeons. The first pigeon, carrying the message, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate,” was shot down, while a second was also shot down before it could deliver its message: “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?”
The artillery batteries supporting Whittlesey’s men attempted to provide some support on the Northern slope of the Charlevaux Ravine but had mistakenly believed he and his men were on the Southern slope. As a result, they inadvertently targeted the battalion. With so few options left, a third pigeon named Cher Ami was sent off with a note written on onion paper, in a canister attached to her left leg. The letter read:
We are along the road paralell to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.
With the battalion’s hope for survival hinging on a small bird flying out of an active battlefield, their hopes were almost dashed when Cher Ami was shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and almost losing one of her legs. Remarkably, despite the injuries, Cher Ami managed to take to the sky again and ultimately returned to her loft at division headquarters 25 miles away in 25 minutes. Her making it back subsequently saved over 100 lives, making her the hero of the 77th Infantry Division. Cher Ami was treated for injuries, though her leg was unable to be saved. After she recovered, Cher Ami was put on a boat to the United States, where General John J. Pershing saw her off.
Cher Ami was later awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her heroic service in delivering twelve urgent messages in Verdun. On June 13, 1919, she died from the wounds she received in battle and was subsequently inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931. The hero bird also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers in recognition for her service during WWI.
Cher Ami was later enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution and is currently on display in the National Museum of American History’s exhibit, “The Price of Freedom.”
Nicole Henley is a freelance writer and storyteller. An East-coast girl who’s obsessed with shows like The X-Files, Buffy and almost every crime procedural series under the sun. Writing the story is merely half the journey. When she’s not covering cold cases or mysteries, she’s watching movies or writing poetry, short stories, and flash fiction that may or may not be based on horror.