During WW11, pigeon extraordinaire number 139 was based at Madang in New Guinea.
Along with the rest of his attachment, number 139 served with the Australian Corps of Signals Pigeon Service. Their members were a hush-hush unit with superior navigation skills. They were able to fly at a moment’s notice and at a high altitude.
Usually, the birds went about their business silently and mostly they remained undetected as they breasted the tough and muddy trails and high mountains of Papua New Guinea. Their main job was to send and receive messages and maps that reported the position and movement of enemy troops. Sometimes the Pigeon Postmen were detected and brought down by enemy fire - sometimes killed. There were those who were intercepted by the enemy and used for counter espionage by sending false messages back.
One of the drawbacks of being a pigeon: Quite a few would have been posted as lost while serving their country – but alas, some of those would have been dished up as a tasty meal for hungry allied soldiers and enemy soldiers alike! Not many survived to pass on the tale of the cooking pot I would imagine.
Several thousand homing pigeons served with the British in WW1. Far fewer were needed during WW11 due to the improvements made in radar, radio and telephone communications, approximately a quarter of the amount.
Still, it was a lot of pigeon power, and it would be fair to say that, generally, the pigeon postmen were a brave and fearless unit that made a significant contribution to winning the war. Reports show that the birds flew with bullets lodged in their bodies and wings, trying to complete the tasks they were trained to do until they could go no further and fell out of the sky.
Pigeon 139’s unit was especially suited for marathon flights since Australia and its war zone had wide open spaces of sea and land that need to be covered quickly. They are truly power-packed birds. Pigeons can manage a mile a minute and sustain the pace for hours on end, apparently without any stress. Previous to his award winning dash, pigeon139 had clocked up over a thousand miles during 23 operational flights without fraying a feather.
Pigeon 139 joined the army in 1943. Bred by pigeon expert, Gordon Whittle, he was one of several birds recruited by George Adams from the Yarraville pigeon club and donated to the Australian fighting services, where he shared mobile quarters in an uncomfortable, but portable bamboo cage when he wasn’t as base or on the wing. This was probably carried on a man’s back. It was a far cry from the spacious loft accommodation with views over the rooftops that he’d left behind in Yarraville.
So how did pigeon number 139 win his medal? He was in a boat running much needed stores. The weather in the South Pacific was unpredictable on his tour of duty and there was a heavy tropical storm brewing. The boat’s crew was dismayed when in heavy seas the engine failed and their craft was washed ashore on Wadou beach in the Huon Gulf, leaving them in a vulnerable position.
Pigeon 39 did his utmost to carry out his duty to the letter. Taking to the air he flew through the storm, travelling the 50 miles back to base in 40 minutes, the mayday message secured in the little canister attached to his leg. It advised the recipient that the boat was carrying ammunition, stores and much needed equipment. The engine had failed in heavy seas and they desperately needed help. The boat and its crew survived to deliver their cargo safely, and it was all due to one little pigeon.
For his valiant rescue effort in 1943, Pigeon 139 was honoured with the
* “Dickin” medal. This medal is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. It was one of two awarded to Australian Pigeons.
I can find only limited information about the second awarded pigeon, Q879. He was bred in Elwood, Victoria by A.J. Flavell and donated for war duty. It appears he was attached to the US forces.
Q879’s brave feat of endurance took place in 1944 and his story was similar to that of 139, I imagine. The award was made for gallantry after the plucky little Aussie bird carried a message through heavy gunfire to fetch help for his beleaguered human compatriots. Surrounded by enemy fire they had no other means of communication to draw on at the time.
Both medals were awarded in 1947 and the heroic birds’ bodies returned to Australia, where they now have a special place of honour in the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.
*The Dickin Medal is a British award supported by The People’s Dispensary for sick animals. The citation advises that it is awarded to “animals that display conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while serving or associated with a branch of the armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.”