May 7

Carrier Carrier Pigeons

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 12:01 AM

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Letting the carrier pigeon loose from the seaplane while in air. U.S. Naval Station, Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

Letting the carrier pigeon loose from a a seaplane while in the air. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Admiral Alfred Melville Pride‘s early interest in aviation was followed by his enlistment in Naval Reserve for World War I in 1917, aviation training, and brief overseas duty in France. In 1922, Pride joined the commissioning crew of the United State’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1), as one of her aviators.

Pride recalled many years later one of the little-known facts about the earlier carrier—that when the Langley was built equipped with a carrier pigeon loft. Admiral Pride explains why in an edited excerpt below.

Up to the time the Langley was commissioned, every naval air station had carrier pigeons we used to take with us on flights. Before we took off, we went over to the pigeon loft and got a little box with four pigeons in it. Then, if we had a forced landing, of which we had quite a number, we wrote out a message and stuck it in the capsule that was fastened to the pigeon’s leg and let it go. The pigeon flew back to the air station, and they knew where we were, presumably. This had been going on for a long while in the early days of aviation.

Carrier pigeons in pigeon box being handed up to pilot in plane before leaving, U.S. Naval Air Station, Anacostia, Washington, D.C. February 12, 1919.

Carrier pigeons in pigeon box being handed up to pilot in plane before leaving, U.S. Naval Air Station, Anacostia, Washington, D.C. February 12, 1919. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The pigeons were kept on the fantail of the Langley in a large room, the pigeon loft. During shakedowns, the pigeon quartermaster—there was such a fellow—would let his pigeons out, one or two at a time, for exercise. They’d leave the ship and fly around, and usually stayed in sight. Pretty soon, they’d come back and land on a little platform connected to a little alarm bell outside the coop. The bell would ring, and the pigeon quartermaster opened the door, and in they’d go.

 Inside view of an up to date Pigeon Loft, Navy's Main Loft at the Naval Air Station, Anacostia, Washington, D.C

Inside view of a Navy Pigeon Loft (Naval History and Heritage Command)

One beautiful morning, while in the Chesapeake Bay, anchored off Tangier Island, Commander “Squash” Griffin said to the pigeon quartermaster, “Let them all go.” The pigeon quartermaster demurred a little, but Squash said, “Go ahead, let them all go.” The pigeon quartermaster opened the coop and let all the pigeons out at once. They took off, heading for Norfolk, since they had been trained while the ship was in the Norfolk Navy Yard. All at once, we had no pigeons on the Langley. Pretty soon we got a dispatch from the Navy Yard. I don’t know how Norfolk knew they were ours, but they said, “Your pigeons are all back here. We haven’t got any appropriation for pigeon feed.”

Group of overseas pigeons feeding (French birds). U.S. Naval Air Station, Anacostia, Washington, D.C. February 5, 1919.

A group of carrier pigeons in training ca. 1919. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

We put the pigeon quartermaster in a plane and flew him down to Norfolk. He found them all roosting in the crane where we’d been fitting out. After dark, the quartermaster climbed up in the crane and picked them up—it can be done after dark—and took them over to the Naval Air Station. That’s the last we ever saw of pigeons on the Langley. They made the pigeon coop into the executive officer’s cabin, a very nice one, incidentally.

DT-2 landing on the USS Langley (CV-1), 16 January 1925

The USS Langley (CV-1) was the United States’ first aircraft carrier. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

The Lexington and Saratoga, meanwhile, had been laid down as battle cruisers, each with a nice, big compartment up on the main deck (which was the deck below the flight deck) set aside as the pigeon loft. The Navy deleted the pigeon loft from the plans of the Lexington and Saratoga and made them into berthing compartments. The pigeons were expendable since, by then, our aircraft were carrying wireless. The flying boats had wireless all through World War I, and the ones we used for flying off the battleships had radio in them the first year to transmit our locations. We didn’t get voice on the planes until after World War I.