Two pigeoneers release birds at Camp Crowder during a 1940s exercise to train the pigeons to speedily find their way several miles back to the roost. (Signal Corps photo)
By Mike O’Brien
NEOSHO – Camp Crowder was for the birds.
Oh, sure, the sprawling military installation at Neosho is best known for preparing more than 200,000 soldiers for World War II in the early 1940s. At the same time, however, Camp Crowder also was the world’s largest training base for homing pigeons.
One pigeon in particular – a sort-of POW from World War I — became a national celebrity while he roosted in the Ozarks. His name was Kaiser. More about him later.
The use of pigeons as military messengers dates back to the ancient armies of Greece, Egypt and Rome. The modern U.S. Army didn’t get into pigeon breeding and training until World War I when American officers observed how their German, British and French counterparts employed birds to communicate between frontline troops and commanders at the rear. Following the 1918 Armistice, the Army Signal Corps imported some pigeons that had been trained by those European armies.
Camp Crowder was established in 1941 with a primary mission of training soldiers in the latest electronic communication systems of that day – radio, teletype, telephone, etc. Adding an old-fashioned pigeon outfit into that high-tech mix may seem ironic. However, the U.S. War Department’s 1944 official “Signal Pigeon Manual” listed justifications that read as if lifted from the Boy Scout Handbook.
Pigeons are swift, cruising at up to 60 mph in favorable winds. Pigeons are hardy, able to travel up to 600 miles with little or no rest. Pigeons are rugged, unaffected by typical rain, snow, heat or cold, nor by harsh terrain. Pigeons are silent and stealthy, able to overfly enemy territory without raising suspicion. And pigeons are dependable, with a 98-percent success rate in completing courier flights.
The Army’s Signal Pigeon Company was stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in the 1920s and ’30s, tending a flock of a few hundred pigeons. However, that base lacked the wide-open spaces needed for the tens of thousands of birds that the Signal Corps suddenly was tasked with training at the outbreak of World War II.
Auxiliary breeding lofts were established at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia. But after Camp Crowder’s boundaries were expanded to encompass 66,000 acres of Newton County, Army brass decided in 1942 to move its main pigeon operation to Missouri.
Civilian pigeon-racing hobbyists around the country contributed their best birds to help ramp up the Army’s breeding program. Camp Crowder’s roosts held as many as 13,000 pigeons in peak periods and were the greatest contributors to the total of 50,000 birds in the Signal Corps’ program during the war.
Newly-hatched chicks – called “squeakers” – spent their first four weeks maturing in the nest. Then Army bird specialists – called “pigeoneers” – placed the young birds in mobile lofts, which were enclosed trailers that had multiple exterior openings to allow entry to and exit from interior compartments. Male and female pigeons were paired, and each couple set up housekeeping in a compartment.
The lofts were towed by Jeep or truck to different locations around the vast Camp Crowder acreage every couple of days. After a brief opportunity to become acclimated to the mobile roost’s new location, male birds were transported ever-increasing distances away – a mile or two at first, eventually 50 or 60 miles – then were released to wing their way back.
How do homing pigeons navigate to, well, home? That’s a mystery that hasn’t been entirely solved.
Pigeons have extraordinary eyesight, and they may recognize some landmarks from aloft. The birds also seem to steer by the position of the sun in daytime situations. However, most scientists are convinced that pigeons are able to sense Earth’s magnetic fields in conjunction with an internal biological compass. And recent research indicates that the birds’ keen sense of smell also may aid their uncanny ability to return to the roost.
Toward the end of the meandering month-long distance training, each pigeon had a lightweight metal tube, about the size of a child’s pinky finger, securely attached to one leg. The tube was hollow, with a removable cap on one end. Slips of paper, on which messages had been written, were tightly rolled and inserted into the tube as the courier’s cargo. When a pigeon returned to the loft and entered its compartment, a bell or buzzer was triggered to alert pigeoneers that a message had arrived.
A trailer outfitted as a mobile loft used to train carrier pigeons to “home” to their roost. (Signal Corps photo)
So, what was in it for the birds? For one thing, good food. While soldiers incessantly griped about bland Army chow, the pigeons were treated to a tasty diet of choice grains and seeds. Food sometimes was withheld prior to a bird’s departure from the roost, in the hope that hunger would spur his return.
Sex also was used as a lure. Pigeons tend to be monogamous, with mates often remaining couples for life. However, pigeoneers were known to try to make a male jealous just before a mission by putting another male close to the compartment containing the departing male’s female partner. The theory was that the worried male would hurry home before his mate could be wooed by the newcomer.
Remember the aforementioned Kaiser? He was a legend when it came sex, among other things.
Officially known as “17-0350-47” when hatched in Germany in 1917, after homing training the young pigeon was assigned to an Imperial Army unit engaged in trench warfare in France’s Argonne Forest. When American forces overwhelmed the German unit in a 1918 battle, among the captured booty was a cage containing a half-dozen pigeons. Soon 17-0350-47 was dubbed Kaiser by the Doughboys.
Brought across the Atlantic to Fort Monmouth, Kaiser far outlasted a pigeon’s usual 10-year lifespan, and fathered some 75 offspring during his first two dozen years in the New Jersey breeding lofts. When the Signal Corps decided in 1942 to concentrate its pigeon program at Camp Crowder, Kaiser was moved to Missouri, even though some thought he was too old to be of service.
A U.S. Army Signal Corps “pigeoneer” holds Camp Crowder’s most celebrated courier pigeon, Kaiser, during the bird’s four-year residency at the training facility at Neosho during World War II. (Courtesy of the Associated Press)
Kaiser dispelled the doubters by continuing his productive ways. A New York Times feature story – which jokingly described Kaiser as “a traitor to the Imperial Crown of Germany” and “a soldier of fortune” – reported with astonishment that Kaiser begat seven youngsters in a single year at Camp Crowder.
Some predicted that Kaiser’s advanced age would result in weak offspring unsuited for military messenger duty. That talk was silenced when, according to the newspaper, one of those seven outraced some of the Signal Corps’ best feathered fliers in winning a 320-mile contest from Dallas, Texas, back to Camp Crowder.
While at Crowder, Kaiser and the most recent of his many mates, Lady Belle, were pampered like royalty. They were housed in a special private loft that was equipped with an electric heater during cold weather. Special accommodations continued after Kaiser returned to Fort Monmouth in 1946 following the war’s end.
By 1948 the old bird had become so famous around the country that he was included among “honored guests” invited to Washington for President Harry Truman’s inaugural festivities.
“The old boy enjoyed the trip,” Pvt. Willard Worley, an Army pigeoneer who cared for Kaiser during the 11-day excursion, told the Associated Press. “He didn’t meet the president, but a lot of important people came over to the Signal Corps exhibit to meet him and ask about him. Kaiser was a hit at the capital.”
During his service with the Signal Corps, Kaiser outlived at least a dozen wives and many of his children, grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren. By the time he died on Halloween of 1949 just shy of his 32nd birthday, Kaiser had been credited with fathering some 100 squeakers as well as with helping train several hundred courier birds.
“He was an enigma to pigeon experts all over the world,” said Maj. Otto Meyer, supervisor of the Signal Corps’ pigeon training program at the time. “His long life, his amazing health and his intelligence were remarkable.”
Col. Clifford Poutre, longtime “chief pigeoneer” of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, releases one of the last U.S. military messenger pigeons at the closing of the Army’s pigeon program in 1957. (Signal Corps photo)
The Army’s Signal Pigeon Company was disbanded in 1957.
However, taxidermists with the Smithsonian Institution preserved Kaiser. The prolific pigeon can be seen today in a lifelike pose at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington as a tribute to the winged courier corps that is a lesser-known but important part of the legacy of Camp Crowder.
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“Signal Pigeon Company Handbook” (Field Manual 11-80), The United States War Department, 1944.
“Birds and the War,” by High Gladstone, 1919.
“Portrait of a Pigeon,” by Wilson P. Dizard, the New York Times, Feb. 24, 1946.
“Pigeons of War,” by Joe Razes, the American Pigeon Museum and Library, Oklahoma City (theamericanpigeonmuseum.org).
“Kaiser, Veteran Pigeon, Makes an Inauguration Hit,” by the Associated Press, published Jan. 26, 1949, by the Long Branch (N.J.) Daily Record.
“Kaiser, Carrier Pigeon, Dies; Was Veteran of Two Wars,” by the Associated Press, published Nov. 1, 1949, by the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.