Somewhere in the endless collections of the Smithsonian Institution are the stuffed remains of Cher Ami, and in the case with them is a Croix de Guerre. The bird won the decoration in spite of himself, so to speak, for he was most reluctant to take off on his homing mission back to headquarters. Yet it is not an overstatement to say that Cher Ami saved the Lost Battalion. And when he finally wheeled out of the besieged pocket with Whittlesey’s last, desperate message, Cher Ami—who was about to become the most famous pigeon in history—was taking part in a military tradition that went back forty years.
The army bought its first homing pigeons in 1878, and packed them out to the 5th Infantry Regiment, which was on duty in the Dakota Territory. But the 5th never learned how effective pigeons could be, for large numbers of hawks in the area put a speedy end to the experiment. A decade later, however, the army established a loft at Key West, and when Pershing led his punitive expedition into Mexico in 1916 there were pigeons in the van.
Shortly after America entered the First World War, the birds were made an official part of the Signal Corps, and the AEF went overseas with a pigeon communication unit of four officers, 324 men, and more than seven thousand birds.
The first pigeons got to France in November, 1917, and were immediately put into service. By the time the Meuse-Argonne offensive was launched, there were only four mobile lofts available. “Though not sufficiently trained for the highest type of service,” says the Signal Corps with good military phlegm, “[the pigeons] acquitted themselves well.” The birds took 27 per cent casualties in their ranks, but they got through with four hundred messages during the offensive. Cher Ami was with them. He delivered twelve messages while he was on the Verdun front, but his most important flight was his last.
After he left the pocket, carrying Whittlesey’s plea to lift the American barrage that was destroying his command, Cher Ami was struck by a bullet that carried away one leg and shattered his breastbone. But he flapped on, and collapsed half an hour later on the roof of the loft at Rampont, twenty-five miles away. The vital message was still hanging from a torn leg tendon.
The division veterinarian dressed Cher Ami’s wounds and reportedly whittled a wooden leg for him. The bird recuperated quickly, and was in good shape when the French gave him the Croix de Guerre with palm (Citation à l’ordre de l’Armée). General Pershing saw Cher Ami off when the bird sailed home in triumph on the transport Ohioan in the company of other heroic pigeons, among them President Wilson, who was wounded on the Verdun front, and Spike, who had delivered fifty-two messages.
But Cher Ami did not have long to enjoy the fruits of peace and the rewards of glory. He died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 13, 1919.