In the World War I section of the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, near the memorabilia of Frank Luke, Eddie Rickenbacker, and other famous aces, is a display about another of the famous flyers of that “war to end all wars.” His real name is John (nmi) Silver. However, the information placard calling him “Stumpy” John Silver should be corrected. Here’s why:
Silver had no rank, yet he flew many important courier missions over the front lines for the Allied forces. He received no pay, yet he served with the Army Signal Corps for almost eighteen years. He never received any formal flight training, yet he was respected throughout the Army for his extraordinary feats of airmanship and devotion to duty. He lost a leg while on a vital mission over enemy lines, yet received no compensation or awards and was never fitted with an artificial limb. When he died, he received no military funeral, yet his valor was memorialized in the Congressional Record.
We know that the Air Force isn’t being ungrateful in the case of John Silver. John was only a homing pigeon, but the most outstanding homing pigeon the services ever had. His body has been perfectly preserved and has been on view at the museum for many years.
But there’s the matter of that nickname, so let’s review his service record.
Into the Air, Junior Birdmen!
John was hatched in January 1918 in a pigeon loft behind the lines in France. He spent his first few weeks learning the gentle art of takeoffs, landings, and “homing.” He learned to carry a small, metal message tube strapped to his leg and to fly unerringly back to his loft despite gunfire, low ceilings, and poor visibility. After his training was completed, he was assigned to an infantry unit at the front for courier duty. His first messages were relatively unimportant so that if he became confused and fell into enemy hands, no vital information would be lost. When his company commander was satisfied that John had made the transition to combat duty satisfactorily, he was given more important messages.
From the beginning, it was noted that John possessed an exceptional talent for dodging artillery barrages. When the shelling was especially heavy during a mission, he always got through. On several occasions, he was the only survivor.
On October 21, 1918, at exactly 1435 hours, John was released from a front-line trench at Grandpré and flew into history. The Meuse-Argonne drive had just begun, and the rear headquarters at Rampont, forty kilometers away, had to be notified of the rapidly changing battle situation. Enemy forces were laying down an intense artillery barrage in preparation for a massive assault, and the American unit desperately needed help.
When the message tube was strapped to his leg and John was released, the American soldiers watched anxiously. John fluttered briefly along the ground, started toward the enemy lines for a few feet, then reversed his course and turned toward the rear at treetop level. The troops below shouted encouragement, but gasped when they saw a shell explode near him.
The blast threw John upward amid a shower of earth and feathers. He plunged downward momentarily, but flapped wildly and managed, somehow, to regain flying speed and continue on his way. To the men who saw him, it seemed that he had been hit and would probably not make it back to his loft. There were no other pigeons available to carry a duplicate of the message.
A half hour later, John flopped onto his loft, more nearly dead than alive. A machine-gun bullet had pierced his breast, small shell fragments had ripped mercilessly into his body, and his right leg was missing. The message tube was dangling from what remained of his torn stump. The message was quickly relayed to headquarters, and troops being held in reserve were rushed to the front to save the day.
The men of John’s signal company nursed him back to health. The stump healed, and he could still fly. His gallantry became an inspiration, and the men refused to let him be destroyed. They named him John Silver after the one-legged pirate of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
An Inspiration to the Others
After the war, John was assigned to the 11th Signal Company at Schofield Barracks, near Honolulu, Hawaii, where he became the special charge of Pigeon Sgt. Clifford A. Poutre, later a Signal Corps colonel.
“We kept John Silver in comfortable retirement in his later years,” Col. John A. Ballard, then a major and commander of the company, told the author. “He was one of 240 pigeons we had in the lofts, but we didn’t give him any duties and didn’t let him fly. I couldn’t say positively, but I think he was an inspiration to the other pigeons and gave them encouragement when we were pioneering in the training of night-flying birds.”
John Silver remained in Hawaii until his death on December 6, 1935, at the age of seventeen years, eleven months—a remarkable age for a pigeon.
“I know how an old cavalryman felt when his horse died,” Ballard said. “Losing John was like losing an old service buddy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the company when the news got around, because we loved the old gentleman more than we realized.”
Colonel Ballard had John Silver’s body preserved by a local taxidermist. On January 1, 1936, he signed an order that stated in part: “The courage and devotion to duty displayed by John Silver and, above all, his will to accomplish his mission and reach his objective are attributes worthy of emulation by every soldier of this company.
“Hereafter, on each organization day of the 11th Signal Company, this order will be read and the name of John Silver will be added to the roll call. When his name is called, the senior noncommissioned officer present will respond, ‘Died of wounds received in battle in the service of his country.”‘
A few months later, a visiting congressman from Pennsylvania, impressed with John’s war record and the tribute paid by his comrades, inserted the order in the Congressional Record.
The records are not clear as to what happened to John’s body during World War II, but when Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold ordered the establishment of a permanent museum at Wright-Patterson, John Silver was presented to the museum by the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, and John was one of the first items displayed.
“There’s one thing I want to correct as far as the record of John Silver is concerned,” Colonel Ballard said. “He should not be referred to as ‘Stumpy’ John Silver in any citation. I want to go on record as stating that the dignified mien of the old gentleman was certainly not conducive to calling him that. We never referred to him by that sobriquet, and I feel sure that if a visitor to the lofts had ever addressed him as that, that visitor would have been summarily thrown out.”
The writeup on John Silver’s display states: “Innumerable pigeons have been killed in line of duty. ‘Stumpy’ John Silver will symbolize their long and honorable service to the races of mankind.”
So, to the Air Force Museum director and staff, now that you know the rest of the story and knowing of your passion for accuracy, I respectfully request that the placard be corrected and that the nickname “Stumpy” be removed from all records and informational handouts.
C. V. Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer, a magazine editor, and the author of numerous books. His by-line most recently appeared here with the September ’88 issue feature “Prelude to Total Force.”