During World War II, many American countries paused their pre-war manufacturing and converted it into war work, producing materials used by the military. Maidenform, a manufacturer of women’s underwear, also halted pre-war fabrication and switched to defense work. What could a company that produces bras and undergarments have to contribute to the war effort?
Maidenform manufactured two things during World War II. The first was parachutes, which is not too surprising. However, the second product they produced was pigeon bras. Yes, you read that correctly. Pigeon bras, also called pigeon vests, were made out of bra-like materials and served a practical purpose. They were designed so a carrier pigeon could be strapped to a paratrooper’s chest.
On December 22, 1944, the company agreed to make over 28,000 of these bras for the government. The government realized the importance of protecting these birds because they played a big part in the war. Carrier pigeons often carried messages or other small items (such as blood samples or tiny cameras) in capsules attached to their leg. They were also difficult to capture.
These bras – or vests – kept the pigeons safe and secured when the paratroopers jumped int a war zone. Upon landing, he would undo the bra, attached a message to the pigeon, and send the bird on his – or her – way back to operation command. During World War II alone, over 56,000 carrier pigeons were trained by the United States Army Pigeon Service to carry messages and other forms of communications. They were pretty successful in doing so since around 90% of messages were successfully delivered.
One of the most famous birds from the WWII-era was G.I. Joe. The bird, trained by the U.S. Army Pigeon Service, saved a thousand lives when it flew 20 miles in 20 minutes with a message to call off a bomb request. This occurred during the Italian Campaign in October 1943. Allies requested air support against German positions at Calvi Vecchia. However, before the air support arrived, the 169th (London) Infantry Brigade captured the village from the Germans. If the air support had arrived before G.I. Joe delivered the message, the allied forces in Calvi Vecchia – as well as the civilians in the town – would have died.
Thirty-two pigeons received the Dickens Medal for their distinguished and successful service during the war. The Dickens Medal is a British honor and is awarded to animals that have displayed “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defense Units.”
The US Army discontinued using pigeons as message carriers in 1957.
Keating, Lindsay. “Pigeons in bras go to war.” Smithsonian, September 4, 2013.
Razes, Joe. “Pigeons of War.” America in WWII, August 2007.