This New York Times story tells about one of the last surviving men serving with my ancestors in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Richard Topus, who died December 5. Richard Topus sounds like he was a wonderful man, but the part of the article I personally found most interesting was this:
Pigeons have been used as wartime messengers at least since antiquity. Before the advent of radio communications, the birds were routinely used as airborne couriers, carrying messages in tiny capsules strapped to their legs. A homing pigeon can find its way back to its loft from nearly a thousand miles away. Over short distances, it can fly a mile a minute. It can go where human couriers often cannot, flying over rough terrain and behind enemy lines.
By the early 20th century, advances in communications technology seemed to herald the end of combat pigeoneering. In 1903, a headline in The New York Times confidently declared, “No Further Need of Army Pigeons: They Have Been Superseded by the Adoption of Wireless Telegraph Systems.”
But technology, the Army discovered, has its drawbacks. Radio transmissions can be intercepted. Triangulated, they can reveal the sender’s location. In World War I, pigeons proved their continued usefulness in times of enforced radio silence. After the United States entered World War II, the Army put out the call for birds to racing clubs nationwide. Tens of thousands were donated.
In all, more than 50,000 pigeons served the United States in the war. Many were shot down. Others were set upon by falcons released by the Nazis to intercept them. (The British countered by releasing their own falcons to pursue German messenger pigeons. But since falcons found Allied and Axis birds equally delicious, their deployment as defensive weapons was soon abandoned by both sides.)But many American pigeons did reach their destinations safely, relaying vital messages from soldiers in the field to Allied commanders. The information they carried — including reports on troop movements and tiny hand-sketched maps — has been widely credited with saving thousands of lives during the war.
Mr. Topus enlisted in early 1942 and was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, which included the Pigeon Service. He was eventually stationed at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, one of several installations around the country at which Army pigeons were raised and trained. There, he joined a small group of pigeoneers, not much bigger than a dozen men.
Camp Ritchie specialized in intelligence training, and Mr. Topus and his colleagues schooled men and birds in the art of war. They taught the men to feed and care for the birds; to fasten on the tiny capsules containing messages written on lightweight paper; to drop pigeons from airplanes; and to jump out of airplanes themselves, with pigeons tucked against their chests. The Army had the Maidenform Brassiere Company make paratroopers’ vests with special pigeon pockets.The birds, for their part, were trained to fly back to lofts whose locations were changed constantly. This skill was crucial: once the pigeons were released by troops in Europe, the Pacific or another theater, they would need to fly back to mobile combat lofts in those places rather than light out for the United States. Mr. Topus and his colleagues also bred pigeons, seeking optimal combinations of speed and endurance.