National Geographic : 1947 Apr
The Flying Telegraph BY JOSEPH F. SPEARS Lieutenant Colonel, Signal Corps Reserve, U. S . Army LWith Illustrationsfrom Official U. S. Army Signal Corps Photographs IN THIS DAY of such developments as radar contact with the moon and radio guidance of rockets and airplanes, it may surprise many to learn of the high place still held by one of the oldest forms of military communication-the homing pigeon. These silent messengers played their part in many campaigns of World War II. One such bird was Jungle Joe, a four month-old pigeon dropped in a parachute container with an American airborne patrol far beyond the Japanese lines in Burma. In the jump the radio operator was lost, and the unit was thus deprived of radio contact with headquarters. Jungle Joe spent seven days in a small bamboo container while the patrol collected valuable information on Japanese positions and troop movements. Then he was liberated with an urgent and secret message. Flying 225 miles through hawk-infested country and over lofty mountains, he delivered the fate ful bit of paper which led to capture of a large section of Burma by Allied troops (page 534). At another time, an Allied unit operating on the border of Burma and Siam was attacked by overwhelming Japanese forces. All radio codes were destroyed to prevent capture, and the Allied commander in the area lost contact with the retreating unit. A Mitchell bomber was dispatched with Burma Queen, a five-month-old blue-checked hen, and she was successfully parachuted to the open arms of the troops below. Released with a message at 6 a.m., the bird traveled 320 miles across the Burma mountains, arriv ing at her loft at 3 p.m. the same day (p. 535). Burma Queen proved a credit to the Signal Corps by accomplishing her mission despite the fact that she had had only 11 weeks of training and was released 120 miles off the course she had been trained to fly. GI Joe Saved a Thousand Lives Another pigeon, GI Joe, is officially cred ited with saving a thousand Allied soldiers' lives in Italy. The British 56th Infantry Division had requested air support to aid in breaking the German defense line at the heavily fortified village of Colvi Vecchia on the morning of October 18, 1943. As Allied planes were about to take off on a mission that would have bombed the town off the map, GI Joe arrived with a message stating that the vil lage had been captured by a British infantry brigade. The attack was canceled just in time. The time on the message revealed that GI Joe had covered the 20-odd miles in as many minutes. Now in retirement at Fort Mon mouth, New Jersey, he recently was taken to England to receive the Dickin Medal from the Lord Mayor of London. He was the first non British bird or animal to win the award, equal to a Victoria Cross for humans. On Guadalcanal a signalman received a message from an officer, folded it, tucked it into a plastic capsule, fastened the capsule to the leg of one Blackie Halligan, homing pigeon, Army of the United States, and re leased him into a fusillade of Japanese fire. Fragments of steel tore into the pigeon and knocked him down into the tortuous thorn and scrub land. The message failed to arrive on time; it should have taken twenty minutes. But five hours later, maimed and bloody, split down the middle, Blackie reached his trailer loft, still bearing his message. In French Morocco a blue-checked pigeon named Lady Astor flew 90 miles to deliver an important tactical message. When she dropped exhausted into a Signal Corps loft she had been shot twice through the crop and once through the wing. News by "Pigeongram" Members of the armed forces were not the only ones to recognize these winged couriers. War correspondents frequently used the birds when they lacked other means of communi cation. During the war, articles in daily newspapers sometimes bore the statement in the dateline, "via pigeon." Behind this terse notation was often a story as gripping as the news that was printed. In North Africa, David Brown, war cor respondent of the British news agency, Reu ters, sent the following pigeongram: ITALIANS STARTED EVACUATION OF GAFSA ONLY HALF HOUR POST FORMAL ATTACK UNDERWAY TEN O'CLOCK MOV ING TOWARDS EL GUETTAR AMERICANS MOVED INTO GAFSA AGAINST ONLY LIGHT REARGUARD RESISTANCE ABOUT ELEVEN O'CLOCK. SIGNED BROWN, REU TERS CORRESPONDENT.