During World War 1, telegraphs and field phones had only recently become a method of communication among soldiers and officers. To accomplish this communication; however, soldiers needed to string wire between the two places they wished to be in contact. This was a difficult task and many times was simply not possible.
The use of carrier pigeons had been used for hundreds of years before the war and was still a very reliable way to get messages among the ranks. Pigeons were trained to go from one point to another and would find these points even if they became blind or deaf.
In the fall of 1918, Major Charles White Whittlesey, of the US Army, was trapped with over 500 men behind enemy lines. During the first day of battle more than half of the men perished and by day two just over 190 men remained. They had no food or ammunition and had begun to be bombarded with friendly fire from allied troops unaware of their location.
With little else to do Whittlesey dispatched three pigeons to his commanding officers asking for assistance. Military snipers on both sides were trained to spot pigeons and became fairly proficient at shooting them down. Whittlesey knew the German soldiers would be looking for the pigeons so he could only hope that one would get through.
The first two pigeons were shot dead before they even made it out of the sight of Whittlesey and his men. The third and final pigeon they had was a female named Cher Ami. She took flight with this message:
“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.”
The German soldiers saw the pigeon rise into the air and began to fire bullet after bullet into the air around her. One bullet struck her directly in the breast and she fell to the ground. The Americans saw their final hope plummet from the sky into a plume of dust.
But to their surprise and complete disbelief she rose into the air again, flying through a storm of bullets past the German lines. She arrived 25 miles away in only 25 minutes, with a quarter sized hole in her breast, blind in one eye, and her right leg hanging on by a tendon. Yet she delivered the critical message to division headquarters, saving the lives of 194 men.
The Army medics worked on her as they would any solder and were able to save her life, though they could not save her leg. For her service she was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal. Cher Ami died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey on June 13, 1919. Her body was mounted by a taxidermist and can be seen on display at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.
Cher Ami means “dear friend.”