High-flying war heroes

PIGEON English - no, not Pidgin English - took on a meaning all its own for the Australian Army in New Guinea in the Second World War.

The Australians made extensive use of pigeons in New Guinea and the Pacific islands, some of them trained at the back of a drill hall in Conway St, Lismore.

Alf Lindsay from the Lismore Pigeon Racing Club was a lad of 14 going to technical college in 1943.

"The Army had about 50 birds there behind the tech college," Mr Lindsay said. "Two chaps looked after them full-time.

"I met one of them in Sydney a few years ago and he said he had boarded in Cathcart St."

Mr Lindsay said the pigeons were trained individually.

"They took the birds on the back of a motorbike to Ballina and let them go from the lighthouse one at a time," he said.

"D of D tags (Department of Defence) were attached to their legs.

"When it came time to go they loaded them in a big cage on the back of a truck and headed up towards Darwin. Each day the trucks would stop and the pigeons would be released, returning to the cage.

"From Darwin they were taken to New Guinea (for operational work) and because of Australia's quarantine laws that's where they stayed."

A small capsule would be placed around the leg of the pigeon and a paper message put into the capsule. The bird would be released to fly to its home loft with the message.

Pigeons have been known to fly hundreds of kilometres in a day with a mile (1.6km) a minute being the average speed.

Surrounded by rugged terrain and unusual atmospherics, wireless communications often failed in the jungles and mountains of New Guinea.

Bert Cornish was the Australian behind the pigeon forces and about 13,500 birds were used in the Pacific Theatre by the Australian Army.

Two birds that aided them were awarded the Dickin Medal, the British Empire's highest award for animal valour. The United Kingdom used about 250,000 carrier or homing pigeons during the war.

In all, 32 of them were awarded the Dickin Medal, including the Irish pigeon Paddy and the US Army Pigeon Service's GI Joe, which flew 20 miles (31km) in 20 minutes with a message that stopped American planes from bombing an Italian town occupied by British forces.

The UK maintained its Air Ministry Pigeon Section for a while after the war, but in 1948 it decided thatpigeons were of no further use.

However, the UK security service MI5 was still concerned about the use of pigeons by enemy forces and until 1950 they arranged for 100 birds to be maintained by a civilian pigeon fancier to prepare counter-measures.

The US Army also used specially trained homing pigeons to carry messages, considering them an undetectable method of communication.

Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, was the home of the US Army Pigeon Breeding and Training Centre from 1917 until 1957.

Military historians claim more than 90% of all messages sent by the US Army using pigeons were received.

Pigeons carrying maps, photographs and cameras are credited with saving thousands of lives.

Mr Lindsay, now 83, has had pigeons ever since his days going to tech in Conway St.

"A club was started in Lismore during the war," he said.

"The Army fellas got it going for us.

"That lasted a few years and we started up the Lismore Pigeon Racing Club in 1956."

Racing pigeons fly from as far as Eden and Mackay to Lismore, often in a single day.

"With favourable winds I've had a bird get here from Sydney in less than five hours," Mr Lindsay said.

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