Why were the pigeons on board the first American aircraft carrier?
America’s first aircraft carrier was commissioned 100 years ago and on board was a crew of little winged comrades who proved their service to be invaluable in battle: the pigeons. These beaked creatures were bathed, trained and fed by a US Navy sailor whose job it was only to care for them.
Pigeons have a long history of military service
Pigeons provided invaluable service long before they were brought aboard the USS langley (CV-1). Their use as messengers dates back to ancient Rome, when they were used to deliver the rankings of chariot races. They also had previous naval careers, trained first at the Maryland Naval Academy and later through the Naval Pigeon Messenger Service. The latter was established in 1896 and saw pigeons carrying messages from ship to shore.
Wireless telegraphs were brought aboard ships in 1902, leading the navy to disband the Naval Pigeon Messenger Service and auction off the birds. However, when World War I began they were brought back into other capacities, flying rally missions with naval aviators.
A new naval role: Quartermaster (Pigeon)
The importance of having well trained pigeons within the Navy was evident in the creation of the “pigeon trainer” enlistment rate. Naval Air Station (later Naval Support Facility) Anacostia became the nation’s largest pigeon school, with some 300 birds being trained there, creating a job opening requiring skilled pigeon trainers.
The official title of these trainers was Quartermaster (Pigeon), but QM(P) sailors were more often known as “pigeons”. Training pigeon fanciers was serious business. Trainees had to complete six to 12 months of schooling before they could be considered for work in the dovecote of a naval air station.
They learned such things as when to bathe the birds, what to feed them, how to hold them properly and how to build relationships, as well as conducting regular inventories of pigeons – especially breeding ones. They also learned how to clean the birds’ roosts and nest boxes, which were well equipped with running water and electricity to ensure the comfort of the precious winged passengers.
On board the USS langley (CV-1)
In 1919, the USS langley was known as USS Jupiter (AC-3). That year, the decision was made to turn it into an aircraft carrier. It was equipped with large steel beams and a wooden flight deck, and overall it was rather ugly. The ship was nicknamed the “Covered Wagon” because it looked very similar to the one from the Wild West era.
Rear Adm. Jackson Tate, who served on langley early in his military career remembered the elaborate area where the pigeons could be found. He recalled how the dovecote was built on the rear side of the carrier – more specifically, between the ship’s 5-inch / 51 guns – and was fitted with components for food storage, nesting, training and trapping. The considerable effort to support these little passengers proved that they were a valuable part of the crew.
When the cannons were fired for testing, the loud sounds disturbed the birds. They became so upset that the QM(P) strongly pleaded for their protection from such distressing sounds, even though they may not have been successful in their efforts. However, the area that originally housed the pigeons was eventually rebuilt into the general manager’s quarters.
Pigeons go AWOL
The pigeons were released a few at a time to allow them to stretch their wings and exercise. Generally, birds knew how to return to their lofts, especially at sea. However, when the USS langley anchored, they tended to fly away. One day, the whole flock of pigeons was released while the aircraft carrier was anchored off the island of Tangier and none of them returned to the aircraft carrier.
All the pigeons returned to the Norfolk shipyard in Virginia, where they had been trained for langleyconversion. The dovecote was transported there and spent the night catching the birds. Following this, the pigeons were never taken back to sea again. However, this did not mark the end of their service in the navy, as they made a significant contribution to Allied efforts during World War II.
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Dovecotes were planned for – and built on – subsequent aircraft carriers Langley, including the USS Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3).