The Navy’s use of homing pigeons is not well known, despite the long period these first “naval aviators” were in use. Naval officers were considering the usefulness of homing pigeons at least as early as 1889 and had a specialist rate for pigeon trainers until 1961.
Over that 70-plus years, the uses of pigeons in the Navy shifted as the technological landscape evolved. The need to coordinate widely separated ships drove the Navy’s initial foray into pigeon husbandry prior to radio’s invention. During World War I, homing pigeons served as both alternative to, and backup for, heavy and unreliable aircraft radio sets. During World War II, the Navy utilized pigeons to send communications instead of radio to avoid alerting the enemy. In each of these eras, pigeons retained advantages over alternative forms of communication.
Prior to the 1880s, the Navy’s fleet operated primarily as independent vessels. However, changes in technology and the Navy’s expected role led to the first exercises operating a modern squadron of steam-powered ships. These efforts revealed numerous shortcomings, not least in communications. Line-of-sight methods resolved some issues; however, these were only useful for ships operating in formation. As war with Spain appeared increasingly imminent, the Navy faced a different problem: how to coordinate between dispersed scouts and quickly concentrate them into a fleet once the enemy was spotted.1
‘Connecting the Fleet and the Coast’
In 1889, Lieutenant Richard Wainwright published “Naval Coast Signals” in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, arguing the need for a network of coastal signal posts and outlining how they should work. The posts would be connected to each other and to inland command centers by telegraph, with each station also able to visually communicate with ships at sea. Additionally, some stations would have pigeon lofts for receiving messages from ships beyond visual contact and as a backup in case an enemy cut the telegraph lines.
Wainwright confidently stated that pigeons already were used by militaries in “almost every country in Europe,” though only Germany and France had experimented with pigeons in a naval role, and only France had developed “a system for connecting the fleet and the coast” via homing pigeons. The French also had experimented with pigeons for ship-to-ship communications, with limited success. Nevertheless, Wainwright optimistically concluded that pigeons could send information from shore back to the fleet when beyond the range of visual signals.2 It was not yet understood that pigeons home to a geographic point: Move the loft too far, and the birds will not go looking for it unless first acclimatized to the new location.
In his October 1895 Proceedings article “A Messenger-Pigeon Service for Naval Purposes,” Ensign Edward W. Eberle noted that U.S. Naval Academy Professor Henri Marion already had established a flock at the school and published his own Proceedings articles on pigeons in 1892 and 1893. The article included a copy of a report to the Academy Superintendent describing the results of experiments releasing pigeons from ships as far away as 50 miles off the southern tip of New Jersey—all successful.
Eberle reported naval pigeon services in France, Spain, and Italy as well as a single British station at Gibraltar. He then suggested the Navy should establish its own service, proposing a network of pigeon stations very similar to Wainwright’s signal stations on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. A ship leaving port for a coastal cruise would receive baskets of pigeons from the various stations along the route, with the ship’s pigeon loft divided into sections for each station. Thus, as the vessel sailed along the coast, a pigeon from the nearest station could be quickly selected to deliver a message.
Where Wainwright had merely noted the general usefulness of coastal signaling stations with pigeons as just one means of communication, Eberle focused exclusively on pigeons. He described how a proposed pigeon service would work in tracking an enemy fleet approaching the U.S. coast. Acknowledging potential threats, Eberle’s hypothetical example featured a fleet from an unnamed “European power” approaching from northeast of Nova Scotia, though he noted that similar actions would apply to a hostile fleet leaving Havana, a raid on Puget Sound from Vancouver Island, or an assault across the Great Lakes.3
It is clear that Eberle was primarily considering an attack by the British Empire (from either the British Isles or Canada)—an extension of much Navy wargaming/planning of the era against the best navy in the world, rather than an assumption of likely hostilities. The inclusion of Havana on the list, however, reflected increasing tensions with Spain.
How Fast and How High?
Marion had returned to the Naval Academy by July 1896, when he delivered a lecture to the Naval War College, “Homing Pigeons for Sea Service.” He described the French naval messenger pigeon service, with birds trained to return to their home lofts from up to 300 miles offshore—a significant distance given that pigeons dislike flying over water. The French kept pigeons at five major naval stations, trained to fly toward Paris as well as the other military ports.
While much of the lecture was devoted to experiments that attempted to address how (and how well) homing pigeons home, and how fast and high they fly, Marion informed his audience that Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Russia, Denmark, and Belgium all had naval pigeons. Even Britain’s Royal Navy was experimenting with them. Marion recommended that the United States acquire Belgian breeding stock to develop its own naval pigeon service, saying that the Belgians had “brought pigeon flying to the highest state of perfection.”
Marion then outlined the origins of American experimental lofts roughly six years earlier: one under his own direction at the Naval Academy and another by Lieutenant F. W. Nichols at Newport, Rhode Island. He told his audience that the Secretary of the Navy had authorized the establishment of lofts at Boston, Newport, New York City, Norfolk, Key West, and Mare Island. The year after this lecture, the Navy sent Marion to visit Belgium to learn more about how they managed their naval birds. Both Marion’s lecture and Eberle’s article were published by the Senate in 1898 in support of a bill (ultimately unsuccessful) for establishing a pigeon service in the Navy.4
Eberle published another Proceedings article in 1897 that mirrored what he had said in 1895, only this time adding two more scenarios contemplating war with Spain: one where the main Spanish fleet was already in Havana, and a second with a “relief squadron” sailing from Spain to Puerto Rico. Once again, scouts, sending messages rapidly via pigeon, could quickly inform Washington of the movement of enemy fleets, allowing the U.S. fleet to assemble at the proper location.5 Eberle offered a solution to the problem of needing to disperse the Navy to quickly locate the Spanish fleet and concentrate it against the latter once located.
The Bureau of Equipment already had established some of the pigeon stations Eberle proposed in 1897, but few were operational in time for the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. In fact, the war started and ended so suddenly that few plans of any kind for prosecuting the war were in place. Navy Secretary John D. Long ordered the establishment of a Coast Signal Service on 15 March 1898 along the lines outlined by Wainwright, though the actual form came from an October 1897 board. This service stood up on 9 May 1898, a few weeks after the U.S. declaration of war, only to be disbanded on 30 September. While the 1897 board had stressed homing pigeons as the best method for getting messages from ship to shore, the service operated without pigeon lofts since the vessels that might use them for communications lacked facilities to keep pigeons on board.6
When Radios Are No Help . . .
In 1899, the Navy belatedly published the Manual for the Care and Training of Homing Pigeons. This coincided with the Navy’s first experiments with shipboard radio, but it would be about a decade before radio became established in the service. Senior officers resisted radio on board ships, since the ability to send messages from shore to ship threatened to erode the traditional autonomy of a ship’s captain at sea—something the one-way homing pigeon did not. The Navy also had concerns about using a communications medium (radio) that would allow anyone to listen in, as well as the problem that the early spark gap sets broadcast on all frequencies simultaneously, making it impossible to use more than one radio at a time.7 Pigeons did not present the same problems.
While there is no definite evidence that pigeons were regularly carried on board ships at this time, at least some stations had pigeon flocks. This was despite a 1901 Navy board recommendation to discontinue the pigeon service once the Navy had settled on a standard wireless telegraphy system, and the Chief of the Bureau of Equipment’s proposal to eliminate the pigeon service immediately, “since it does not appear to be of any practical use at present.”8 On the other hand, initial success in sending wireless from a Navy airplane in 1912 led the head of naval aviation to talk of “no more homing pigeons,” suggesting pigeons still were serving a role at that time that aerial radio might replace.9
Regardless, the Navy’s reliance on pigeons was not yet at an end. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, aircraft radio sets ran off a wind-driven generator, meaning that the radios became worthless once an airplane landed. British and French seaplanes, patrolling for German submarines, carried homing pigeons as an emergency backup to their radios. Since the airplanes never flew further from the coast than the pigeons could fly, aircrew could use the birds to report their location and predicament should they be forced down. The birds also could be used while still in the air if the radio was not working.
The wartime weekly aeronautics newsletters make clear that naval aviators were unfamiliar with using pigeons. The “News Notes from Abroad” section for the week ending 29 December 1917 stated: “Pigeons are carried on many of the aircraft, and in several instances machines at sea, after accidents or forced landings, have been recovered through their use.” The tone implies that naval aviators (at least domestically) were completely unfamiliar with the practice.
Service in World War I
In summer 1917, the Navy agreed to operate aerial coastal patrol stations in France and Ireland. To speed the Americans into service, the French and British turned over several existing stations with all equipment (including the pigeon flocks). Naval aviators in Europe made their first patrol flights that November. The first pigeon-assisted rescue possibly occurred on 22 November: A seaplane from Naval Air Station (NAS) Le Croisic, France, crashed at sea in foggy weather. The crew released their pigeons with messages describing the situation and estimated location, facilitating their rescue.
Calling for rescue was not the only use, however, and apparently not even the main use: A 1919 report stated that some 800 pigeons at the various naval air stations in France had delivered nearly 11,000 messages in a single year, and only 219 of those were from airplanes that had landed.10 Some of these flights were likely merely to keep the pigeons well trained, but others were probably because of problems with the airplane’s radio.
In the United States, however, naval aviation was slower to adopt the practice. On 20 March 1918, the Office of Naval Aviation issued “Instructions on Reception, Care and Training of Homing Pigeons in Newly Installed Lofts at U.S. Navy Air Bases.” These were written for people with no prior experience with birds, and indicate that ten lofts already were established, all of them on the East Coast except for San Diego.
There remains some question as to when these stations received birds for their lofts. Aviation newsletters from September 1918 imply that two of the stations reported as having been established in the “Instructions” had only recently received birds. NAS Cape May stated that training of their birds was proceeding nicely, with the longest single flight to date of 45 miles—much shorter than the 150 miles reported by Marion with his Naval Academy flock in the 1890s, or the 300 miles reported for French birds at that time. NAS Miami stated that they had only started training pigeons ten days prior and were up to 16-mile training flights. There is no mention of where the birds came from or when.11 By Armistice Day, the Navy had 2,500 carrier pigeons in the States, and another 900 at the various European stations.
Pigeons remained in service with naval aviation after the war. By 1919, pigeoneers had their own rating in the Navy personnel manual: Quartermaster (Pigeon). NAS Hampton Roads reported in February 1919 that it had received five French mobile pigeon lofts as well as 800 birds, “the best of French, English and Belgian blood,” from decommissioning naval air stations in France. The 28 April 1919 newsletter reported training of new birds, some apparently hatched on location from the existing flocks: NAS Chatham reiterated the need to train pigeons specifically for naval use, to overcome their aversion to flying over open water.12
From the First U.S. Carrier to World War II
When the Navy converted the collier Jupiter (AC-3) into the experimental aircraft carrier Langley (CV-1) between 1920 and 1922, the modifications included a large pigeon house on the stern under the flight deck. Decades later, Alfred Pride offered his own memory of the pigeons, noting that they had been “carried on all Navy flights during and after the war, and it seemed the thing to do to carry them in the Langley’s planes.” The flock had been raised and trained in Norfolk during the ship’s conversion. When the birds were released a few at a time for exercise, they returned to the ship, but one day the entire flock was released while the ship was in the Chesapeake Bay. It immediately returned to Norfolk. The birds never again went to sea, and the house on the Langley was turned into the executive officer’s quarters. Still, early plans for the Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) conversions included pigeon lofts.13
Meanwhile, pigeons remained at the naval air stations: In December 1924, as part of the commissioning of the airship USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) at NAS Anacostia, the airship’s sponsor, First Lady Grace Coolidge, in lieu of breaking a champagne bottle, released pigeons from the Anacostia, Hampton Roads, and Lakehurst stations bearing messages announcing the christening.14
In 1929, the Navy declared that radio was reliable enough that the service could dispense with pigeons. The lofts at Lakehurst and Guam, however, remained.15 The pigeons at Lakehurst were used in free balloon flights, an important first step for airship pilots. Pigeons were more convenient than other methods for reporting where the balloons landed.16 A 1941 Navy filing manual listed codes for pigeon service, pigeon racing, pigeon lofts, pigeons and equipment for aircraft communications, and the pigeon-training school at Anacostia.
By 1942, the Navy had issued orders to expand the flocks, and established the “Specialist (X) (PI)” rating for pigeon trainers sometime in 1942–43. This time, the birds were used to send messages under radio silence. During World War II, the Navy used blimps for coastal antisubmarine patrol and coastal convoy escort. While the blimps could carry torpedoes, their slow speed made it difficult to get close enough to attack it before the sub noticed the airship and dove to safety. In fact, despite being armed, standing orders were not to attack the subs but merely report the sighting. Any radio transmission might warn the submarine, allowing it to escape. Pigeons could carry the contact report without alerting the submarine. Of course, not every base had a pigeon flock, so not every blimp carried birds. But at minimum, the headquarters bases at Lakehurst as well as South Weymouth, Massachusetts, and Santa Ana, California, did, with Weymouth reporting a 364-bird flock during the war, and Santa Ana some 200.17
The Pigeoneers’ Twilight
With the end of the war came the end of the need for pigeons. When the Navy reorganized its rating structure in 1948, the Specialist X rating for Pigeoneers became an Exclusive Emergency Service rating (ESX) 87200 and later ESX-9792. Any Pigeoneers still on active duty were transferred into one of the general ratings, though it is unclear whether the Navy still had any pigeons at this time. In 1961, the Navy disestablished most of its ESX ratings, including that for pigeon trainers. The justification was that there was no written requirement for the specialty, implying that there was no one training or managing pigeons for the Navy at that point.18
Over the course of some 70 years, the Navy maintained an interest in homing pigeons, though the reasons changed over time. Proposals in the 1890s were an attempt to solve the problem of communicating beyond visual range. The Navy’s interest peaked in the late 1890s as war with Spain seemed increasingly likely: Pigeons offered a solution to the dilemma of needing to disperse the fleet to find the inbound foe, but then concentrate again to defeat it. The invention of radio promised an end to the need for homing pigeons, but it took some time for radio sets to become a reliable method of communications, especially from aircraft. The Navy took its cue from its World War I allies, using pigeons as both a second and an emergency form of communications in its aircraft. When aircraft radios became sufficiently reliable, the birds hung on in a niche role: reporting the landings of balloon training flights so that balloonists and their equipment could be recovered. The pigeons’ last hurrah was during World War II as an alternative to radio, permitting blimps to report contacts without revealing their presence to enemy submarines. The end of the blimps led to the end of the era of Navy pigeons, as there was no longer a role for them to fill. The original “naval aviators” finally were retired.
1. Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa, Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), ch. 1.
2. Richard Wainwright, “Naval Coast Signals,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 15, no. 1 (January 1889).
3. E. W. Eberle, “Messenger-Pigeon Service for Naval Purposes,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 21, no. 4 (Winter 1895).
4. “Homing Pigeons for Sea Service,” Senate document no. 388, 55th Congress, 2nd Session, 7 July 1898.
5. E. W. Eberle, “Homing Pigeons as Messengers of the Fleet,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 23, no. 4 (Winter 1897).
6. SecNav Annual Report 1898, Appendix H “Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Signal Service.”
7. Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 31–32, 107–10.
8. SecNav Annual Report 1901, 380.
9. Turnbull and Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949), 24–5.
10. Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) Weekly Newsletters for weeks ending 29 December 1917 and 10 February 1919.
11. BuAer Weekly Newsletters for weeks ending 16 and 30 September 1918.
12. BuAer Weekly Newsletters for weeks ending 10 February and 18 April 1919.
13. A. M. Pride, “Comment and Discussion, ‘We Rode the Covered Wagon,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 105, no. 1 (January 1979): 89.
14. BuAer Weekly Newsletter, week ending 2 December 1924.
15. James Nevin Miller, “The Passing of the Carrier Pigeon” Popular Mechanics 53, no. 2 (February 1930): 194.
16. Althoff, USS Los Angeles, 66
17. Vaeth, Blimps & U-Boats, 65; Photo Caption 80-G-K-5489.
18. “Pigeons in the Navy” The United States Navy’s World of Work: Nearly 200 Years of Evolution.