By Roger Dahlin
American school children of the 1920’s and 1930’s reportedly knew more about Cher Ami, the pigeon that saved “The Lost Battalion” than they did about Washington or Lincoln. A cover copy of my children’s book by Robert Burleigh entitled “Fly Cher Ami Fly ! The Pigeon that Saved the Lost Battalion” that details this story is shown.
The most celebrated story of the American participation in WWI was the Lost Battalion. It was headline news at the time that promoted several books and a silent movie released in 1919. Even as late as 2002 it was an exciting enough story to be made into a movie starring former child star, Ricky Schroeder as Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of this battalion who later received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In the final phases of the 1918 Meuse- Argonne Offensive General Pershing ordered the 77th Division, to push ahead “without regard of losses and without regard to the exposed conditions of the flank.” The 77th Division was primarily made up of men from New York City but included a contingent of men from Syracuse. My father who served with the 77th in the 306th Machine Gun Battalion attended a division convention held in Syracuse in 1936. A photo of a pin my father received at this convention is shown.
On October 2,1918 Whittlesey, in charge of a contingent of about 600 men that included members of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion, pushed ahead in fog and light rain through the Argonne Forest and were cut off and surrounded. The unit repulsed repeated German attacks. At one point the Germans sent a note to surrender to which Whittlesey reportedly replied, “Come and get us”. Far beyond radio range the only way to communicate with headquarters was by carrier pigeons that were easy prey for German marksmen.
On October 4, American artillery, by accident, started bombarding the Lost Battalion’s position. To halt this onslaught, Whittlesey responded with carrier pigeons. However, he and his men watched bird after bird fall from the sky torn by German fire. With supplies running out and mounting casualties Whittlesey sent out his last pigeon Cher Ami [French for ‘Dear Friend”] with a message containing his location and a plea to halt the bombardment stating – “For heaven’s sake-Stop it”. Cher Ami was now the last chance for the Lost Battalion to walk off this hill alive.
The brave little bird flew straight into German fire. The men watched in horror as Cher Ami fell to the ground after he was hit in the chest. Against all odds though, the little pigeon took flight again facing wave after wave of fire. He traveled 25 miles in roughly 30 minutes and arrived at the base severely wounded but alive. Army medics were able to save his life, but his right leg was barely attached, and he had lost an eye. For his part in saving the men of the 77th Division, Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre that is France’s highest military honor for gallantry in the field. General Pershing said, “There isn’t anything the United States can do too much for this bird”.
Cher Ami made it back to the States and died June 13th, 1919, at Fort Mammoth, New Jersey. His body was preserved and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute along with his Croix de Guerre medal. Like scores of other Americans my parents took me as a young boy to Washington to see this one-legged, one -eyed American treasure. My wife and I also took our four teenagers to the Smithsonian to underscore their grandfather’s connection to this famous WW1 story.
My father was a quiet man who did not talk about his experiences during WWI. However, my older siblings and I knew he was somehow connected to the Lost Battalion. My father, Carl R, Dahlin’s military records show that he served with the 77th Division as a machine gunner in the 306th Machine Battalion Co. “B”. My review of my father’s 1919 copy of the History of the 77th Division states the 306th Machine Gun Battalion Co. “D” was part of the “so called” Lost Battalion and that Company “B” that my father belonged to was part of the recuse effort. My father’s military records show that he was wounded on October 4, 1918, and he later received the Purple Heart. Because this date was during the Lost Battalion story it supports that he was wounded during the recuse effort.
Roger Dahlin is a historian, gardener and author based in Baldwinsville.