Due to their homing ability, speed and altitude, pigeons have held an important role in war -- beginning their war service as early as the late 1800s and serving the world’s militaries through the late 1950s. They were used as message carriers (with tiny capsules attached to one of their legs), as well as for early surveillance (with a camera on the chest, strapped around the neck and underneath the wings). The U.S. Army Signal Corps trained and employed 600 birds in France during World War I. This famous pigeon, Stumpy John, is on exhibit in the Early Years Gallery. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Homing pigeons were used in World War I to deliver messages when other means such as telephones, telegraph, radio or dispatch riders were unavailable. They proved their value carrying messages from front line outposts to pigeon lofts at command centers, which they returned to by instinct and training.
This homing pigeon was hatched in January 1918 in a dugout just behind the lines in France. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he was one of the most active pigeons in the Army, and his barrage-dodging skill was apparent in many exciting flights from the front line trenches to divisional pigeon lofts.
On Oct. 21, 1918, at 2:35 p.m., this pigeon was released at Grandpre from a front line dugout in the Meuse-Argonne drive with an important message for headquarters at Rampont, 25 miles away. The enemy had laid down a furious bombardment prior to an attack. Through this fire, the pigeon circled, gained his bearings and flew toward Rampont. Men in the trenches saw a shell explode near the pigeon. The concussion tossed him upward and then plunged him downward. Struggling, he regained his altitude and continued on his course. Arriving at Rampont 25 minutes later, the bird was a terrible sight. A bullet had ripped his breast, bits of shrapnel ripped his tiny body, and his right leg was missing. The message tube, intact, was hanging by the ligaments of the torn leg. Weeks of nursing restored his health but could not give back the leg he lost on the battlefield. The pigeon became a war hero and earned the name "John Silver," after the one-legged pirate in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. He was retired from active service and in 1921 was assigned as a mascot to the 11th Signal Company, U.S. Army Signal Corps, Schofield Barracks, Honolulu, Hawaii. John Silver died Dec. 6, 1935, at the age of 17 years and 11 months.
Thereafter, on each Organization Day of the 11th Signal Company, the name John Silver was added to the roll-call. When his name was called, the senior non-commissioned officer present responded, "Died of wounds received in battle in the service of his country." The Army Signal Corps presented John Silver to the museum on Dec. 19, 1935.
Since at least the mid-1930s, many people have called this one-legged pigeon "Stumpy" John Silver. The nickname, however, has been a matter of contention. The Signal Company commander of the Hawaiian Division at Schofield Barracks (John Silver's commanding officer at the time the bird died) felt it was disrespectful and is reported to have said in 1961 that anyone who called the bird "Stumpy" would have been summarily thrown out of the area. Nonetheless, a 1937 Signal Corps Headquarters document states that "'Stumpy' John Silver was on display at the Army Aeronautical Museum, Wright Field, Ohio, which later became the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.