BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Flying over the battlefields of World War II Italy, a tiny hero silently works to carry out its mission. With a strong instinct, he heads toward his destination with amazing accuracy. Hundreds of lives depend on him. This "GI Joe" has an important message to deliver. It is strapped to his leg, and he is a pigeon.
In a time before cell phones and e-mails, pigeons carried many messages. Carrier or racing pigeons have been used for centuries, dating as far back as Julius Caesar. They can fly up to 55 miles per hour and have been known to travel as far as six hundred miles in one day. During World War II, more than three thousand people were in the United States Pigeon Service. They took care of 54,000 pigeons. These racing birds, which held the rank of captain, were used in many ways. They carried messages to tell the location of troops or troops under fire or to request help for troops under fire. Some were specially trained for night missions and still others had cameras strapped to their chests to work as spies. Though enemy soldiers were shooting at them, over 95% of the United States pigeons arrived safely with their messages.
GI Joe was one of these heroic pigeons. He was one of twenty thousand racing pigeons working in Italy. A British brigade was supposed to attack a city there at 10 in the morning on October 18, 1943. The United States was supposed to bomb the city by air before the British troops went in. The city was abandoned earlier and the British troops went in. The bombing needed to be canceled or the bombs would be falling on the British troops. Radio messages failed. With a message to cancel the bombing strapped to is leg, GI Joe was released. He flew 20 miles in 20 minutes, about the same speed that cars travel on the highway! With only minutes to spare, he got to the US Air Command just as the planes were warming up Over 1,000 British lives were saved.
In 1946, GI Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry in London, England. He lived out his days in Detroit Zoological Gardens. In 2004, a war memorial was unveiled in England in honor of Britain’s Animals of War. Among those honored were the thousands of messenger pigeons that saved many lives during the world wars.