An unlikely hero.
During the First World War homing pigeons were used widely to transport communications between front line units and commanders in the rear. When the United States Army landed in large numbers on the Western Front in the summer of 1918, British pigeon fanciers donated 600 birds to them, one of which was a hen, soon to be named Cher Ami - French for ‘dear friend’.
On 3 October 1918 she, with Major Charles Whittlesey and more than 500 men, became trapped in a small depression on the side of a hill as an offensive was halted by German forces. There behind enemy lines, in dense woodland, food and ammunition quickly ran low and friendly fire began to rain down from allied guns oblivious to their location. After the first day just 194 men remained alive. Two pigeons were sent up with messages for aid but both were quickly shot down by German soldiers atop the hill. With just Cher Ami left, the following note was attached to her leg and she was released with the lives of 194 men dependent on her survival:
We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.
Rising into the treetops she met a hail of fire, taking a round to her breast (her punctured sternum is shown on the left in the photograph) she began to bleed profusely. Another severed her the right leg leaving it hanging by a single tendon and yet another blinded her in one eye. She fell from the sky, only to pick herself back up and fly 25 miles in just 25 minutes. Her message was received and a push was made to rescue the 194 men of the lost 77th Division.
Army medics worked hard to save the life of Cher Ami and succeeded in doing so. A small wooden leg was crafted for her stump and once sufficiently recovered she was put on a boat to the United States, with General John J. Pershing personally seeing her off as she departed France. On 13 June 1919 she died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, from the wounds she received in battle. She had been awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her heroic service, delivering 12 messages during fighting at Verdun and also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers. She was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931.
Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s Cher Ami was as well known to American school children as any human World War I hero. Her body mounted by taxidermists, she currently sits in the National Museum of American History’s ‘Price of Freedom’ exhibit, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.