Winged warriors

Robert Sheehy and fellow flyer Brian Bennett with 103-year-old World War II veteran Arthur Eggett OAM in 2021. File photo

AFTER covid clipped the wings of his first launch in 2021, Robert Sheehy and his pigeon racing mates will be releasing a flock on Anzac Day in memory of the birds little-known contribution to our war efforts.

Under the auspices of Amalgamated Melville Homing Club, the pigeons will take to the sky at South Mole in Fremantle at 7am after the Anzac Dawn Service on Monument Hill.

The release was the brainchild of Yangebup bird fancier Robert Sheehy, who became fascinated by the pigeons’ wartime service after taking up the sport two years ago and discovering a reference in a pigeon racing book.

“And when I read that book, I thought about the people saying they are rats with wings, that they shit everywhere, and I think they should get a bit more respect,” Mr Sheehy said.

Homing pigeons were used to carry messages by both sides of the conflict, particularly during World War I when telegraph cables were easily cut and wireless radio messages simple to intercept.

Mr Sheehy says that put the birds high on the Germans’ most-wanted list: “In Europe the Germans used to go into the towns looking for them, to knock ‘em off, and in northern France they helped to save a lot of American lives.”

In fact, one particular pigeon, Cher Ami, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm for his heroism delivering 12 important messages across the Western Front.

Cher Ami’s body is now preserved at the Smithsonian Institute whose catalogue highlights the risks he faced: “On his last mission, October 4, 1918, he was shot through the breast and leg by enemy fire but still managed to return to his loft with a message capsule dangling from the wounded leg.”

The message alerted Allied command to a “lost” platoon stuck behind enemy lines who were subsequently reunited with their comrades.

The Anzacs had their own winged troopers, with Mr Sheehy saying 13,000 were donated by the pigeon racing fraternity. 

During World War II, a pair of Aussie pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal – the animal equivalent of a Victoria Cross created by British animal rights activist Maria Dickin.

Mr Sheehy said with Japanese troops marching across New Guinea, there were grave fears Australia would be invaded, so the pigeons’ important role in pushing them back should see them recognised as heroes.

“In parts of New Guinea [Anzacs] had radios, but they didn’t work because of electrical storms or when they got down in between mountains, but they could rely on the pigeons and they saved a lot of Yankee boats up there.

Although he/she lacked a romantic name like Cher Ami, DD.43.Q.879 earned the Dicken after being the only survivor of three pigeons released to warn of an impending counter-attack at Manus Island. DD’s success in getting through led to reinforcements being sent in and the Japanese being repelled.

“Thousands of people today wouldn’t be running around if it wasn’t for the pigeons saving their ancestors,” Mr Sheehy said.

He hopes the releases will also add a special symbolism to the sombre ceremonies, as the pigeons flying off could be seen as reflecting the lives of the thousands.

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