Retrotechtacular: Air Mail For The Birds

Today, if you want to send a message to a distant location, you’ll probably send an e-mail or a text message. But it hasn’t always been that easy. Military commanders, in particular, have always needed ways to send messages and were early adopters of radio and, prior to that, schemes like semaphores, drums, horns, Aldis lamps, and even barrels of water to communicate over distances.

One of the most reliable ways to pass messages, even during the last world war, was by carrier pigeon.  Since the U.S. Army Signal Corps handled anything that included messages, it makes sense that the War Department issued TM 11-410 about how to use and care for pigeons. Think of it as the network operations guide of 1945. The practice, though, is much older. There is evidence that the Persians used pigeons in the 6th century BC, and Julius Caesar’s army also used the system.

You wouldn’t imagine that drawing an assignment in the Signal Corps might involve learning about breeding pigeons, training them, and providing them with medical attention, but that’s what some Signal Corps personnel did. The Army started experimenting with pigeons in 1878, but the Navy was the main user of the birds until World War I, when the U.S. Pigeon Intelligence Service was formed. In World War II, they saw use in situations where radio silence was important, like the D-Day invasion.

The Navy also disbanded its earlier Pigeon Messenger Service. It then returned to avian communications during the World Wars, using them to allow aviators to send messages back to base without radio traffic. The Navy had its own version of the pigeon manual.

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