World War II-era carrier pigeon found in chimney
(CBS News) Pigeons get more respect in Britain than in the U.S., perhaps because of their historical significance there. Carrier pigeons once played an important communications role in World War II, as messengers for the Allied powers.
CBS News has learned of one long-lost message borne by one of these flying couriers.
Bletchley Park, England, is perhaps the most secret location of World War II Britain. It's where the Nazi military codes were broken. Now it's at the center of another story of wartime heroism and sacrifice and intrigue -- and these birds.
Pigeons, in this case, are not the enemy-of-statues-in-the-park kind -- they are, in fact, best-friend-of-soldiers-who-used-them-to-send-vital-messages kind. Paratroopers carried homing pigeons on D-Day when radio silence was essential. Bomber crews used them to report where they were if they were shot down.
Pigeons braved snipers and hawks trained to kill them. Many made it through. Many didn't --including one found in the David Martin's chimney. Martin told CBS News he found the bird's remains when he was opening up what had been a boarded-up fireplace 30 years ago. It seemed a bird had used the top of his chimney as its last roost a long time ago.
Martin found something extraordinary on one of the bird's bones -- a red capsule that unscrews.
Martin explained, "When you unscrew it, it had a spindle there -- a spool -- slotted, and round that was a very flimsy piece -- bigger than a cigarette paper, but even thinner paper with a message on."
He's still got the message. It was clearly a wartime message, written in code, clumps of five letters that make no sense unless you can decipher it.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted," Martin said of his find. "I mean ... it was unbelievable."
Martin told the experts at Britain's main war museum about it, but they weren't interested. These things were common, they said. But lately, the people at Bletchley Park, now also a museum -- but where they know about wartime codes -- said they'd never heard of a coded pigeon message and he really should send it to the British Government Communications Head Quarters, or GCHQ.
The code hasn't been deciphered yet. But without knowing exactly which code book was used -- and there were many -- they say it can't be deciphered. Even though the message contains the name of the officer who sent it, where it was meant to go and has the registration number of the bird who carried it.
In his more conspiratorial moments, Martin said he thinks they may not want to make the message public. He said, "It could be that they have decoded it and it relates to British agents calling a bombing raid in France which killed a lot of civilians -- that might still be sensitive. It might relate to traitors detected in the French resistance and that again might be sensitive."
But whatever the reason, it's focused attention on the exploits of the pigeons who get their own section at the code-breaking museum.
And for good reason says pigeon fan Colin Hill. He said, "(The pigeons) were heroes."
Some pigeons were even given medals for their heroic service. But not Martin's poor pigeon, just another anonymous victim of the war.
Hill said they were "pigeon wars." He added, "It's unbelievable, really, when you read about it, just what really happened to the poor pigeons."
So a pigeon whose registration number appears on no war-time register. An officer whose name can't be found on any wartime roster and a code that some of the world's best code breakers say they can't break. You couldn't make this up, CBS News' Mark Phillips said on "CBS This Morning."
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