WWII pigeon duty wasn’t for the birds

WWII pigeon duty wasn't for the birds by Bob Karolevitz World War II was bad enough, but I could have done pigeon duty.

I learned from the Elks magazine that something like 8,000 men � and no women ��were involved with 54,000 pigeons in the massive conflict.

Boy, I was lucky! I only had crawling in the mud, bayonet drill, dirty fighting and anti-tank guns to contend with.

Instead of taking my basic training at Camp Wolters, TX, with the luck of the draw I could have been shipped to Fort Monmouth, NJ, where they had coopsful of homing pigeons trained to be message-carriers.

I could have gone to school there where they taught guys to be pigeon-handlers. I can just hear my daughter asking:

"What did you do in the war, Daddy?"

And I would reply:

"Oh, I spent my time as a caretaker for a bunch of birds, that's all!"

Don't get me wrong, however. I'm not pooh-poohing the servicemen who got stuck with those avian chores. Somebody had to do it.

And there were pigeon heroes, too � like Jungle Joe, Yank, Lady Astor, Black Halligan and others who carried crucial messages when radio contact failed.

I always thought homing pigeons were only used in World War I because I had written about Cher Ami who saved the Lost Battalion of the 77th Infantry Division. He's now stuffed in his one-legged glory at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where people ogle at him and the message capsule he carried on that historical mission.

(The reason why he's got just one leg is because the Germans shot him, that's why.)

Of course, I'm not talking about the ubiquitous bobble-head which all of see too much of these days. I mean the homing type which fly hundreds of miles and always (with a few exceptions) come back to their loft.

Nobody knows for sure why they do it. There are lots of theories, of course ��sex, food, the positioning of the sun, the earth's magnetic fields, etc. ��but unless some scientific wizard comes up with a definite solution, instinct will have to do.

Speaking of street pigeons, they are everywhere. Folks have tried lots of ways to get rid of them. You shoot a couple, and 10 more take their place.

That didn't happen to the passenger pigeons, though. There were billions of them at one time in the early 1800s, but indiscriminate hunting ��for food, sport and hog feed � led to their extinction. They were also dumb.

The last one � named Martha � died at a Cincinnati zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. Passenger pigeons, in case you wanted to know, were bigger than the ones we see today. And they were good eating, too � especially the squabs ��so that's part of the reason why they're extinct.

But we don't eat pigeons now ��at least in great numbers like our forefathers did � so they proliferated � on ledges, window sills and dozens of other places where you wouldn't think a bird could propagate.

So, except for Martha and her clan, today's pigeons are survivors.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the U.S. Signal Corps got rid of their last birds in 1957, after using them with limited success in the Korean War.

Yup, if the ball had bounced differently, I could have ended up as a pigeon-sitter. I never thought I'd say it, but thank goodness for the Infantry!

© 2005 Robert F. Karolevitz

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