They called him a bird-brain, but it wasn’t an insult. He was known to fly from battle, but no one called him a coward. He spent the entirety of his military service stark naked, but no one thought that odd. When he saved nearly 200 men despite being heavily injured, everyone agreed his heroics should be honored, even though he wasn’t even human.
During World War I, the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France used everything from state-of-the-art technology to age-old communications techniques. Among its retinue were 600 carrier pigeons, used for sending important messages where contemporary means were not practical.
One of those carrier pigeons was a Black Check cock carrier pigeon named Cher Ami. His name means “Dear Friend,” and he proved himself true to that name. He is credited with delivering a dozen important messages within the area of Verdun. This fact alone would earn him noteworthy mention, but it was his last mission that stands out as the crown jewel of his heroic service.
On October 4, 1918, the U.S. 77th Infantry Division found itself in dire straits. It had been cut off from the rest of the American forces during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. As a result the 194 soldiers found themselves without access to supply lines or any support whatsoever. They became known as the “Lost Battalion.” Regaining communications and relief was of utmost importance.
Major Charles S. Whittlesey tried to send word by carrier pigeon. The first pigeon was sent out with the message, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.” The bird was immediately shot down. A second bird was sent with the message, “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” That pigeon also was shot down. By now, the men were not only cut off, but they were also under fire from their own countrymen, who mistakenly thought they were shooting at the enemy.
Cher Ami was chosen for one last desperate attempt to find relief. The brief communication was written out and placed in a small capsule and attached to Cher Ami’s leg: “We are along the road paralell [sic] to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.” Without fanfare, the heroic bird took flight, carrying not only the message but the hopes and dreams of nearly 200 desperate soldiers.
No sooner did Cher Ami take to the skies than he came under enemy fire. He took one shot in the leg that held the critical message. All but severed, his leg and the message capsule hung on by merely a strand of a tendon. Another round struck the bird in the chest, severely hindering his ability to fly and draining him of life-sustaining blood.
Had Cher Ami given up, no one would have blamed him, but the thought did not cross his mind. Valiantly, the critically-wounded bird flew on and did not stop until he arrived at his destination. The bloodied message was retrieved and read. Shortly thereafter, the Lost Battalion was found. The 194 survivors returned safely behind American lines, cheering Cher Ami, the unlikely hero of the day.
For Cher Ami, the war was over. He was placed on medical leave and returned to the United States for treatment. The poor bird’s injuries were severe, but with the same heroism displayed under enemy fire, Cher Ami fought to regain his health. For eight months he lived at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, trying to overcome his severe injuries. He took his last flight, departing from this mortal coil, on June 13, 1919.
Cher Ami’s bravery was recognized well beyond the ranks of those whose lives he saved. The nation of France honored him by awarding the pigeon Croix de Guerre with palm. Posthumously, he was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931, and he received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of his extraordinary service.
Even more than a century after Cher Ami’s extraordinary service, he continues to receive honors. In November 2019 he became one of the first winners of the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery, bestowed on her posthumously at a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Today, Cher Ami’s body and extraordinary story are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. It was there that one more extraordinary piece of the story was discovered. As the taxidermist worked to preserve Cher Ami’s body, he made the startling discovery that one of the bravest heroes of World War I had been guarding a secret. Cher Ami was actually a female.
Read about more animals that shaped history.
Read more fun facts about World War I.