Army Capt. Ray L. Delhauer in 1922 arranged for three World War I fliers to attend the first L.A. County Fair where they greeted the crowds — from their cages.
These three war heroes — with the names of Mocker, Spike and President Wilson — were carrier pigeons, birds that had played key roles in serving the military in France, explained Ray Nolan, a member of the Los Angeles Pigeon Club which holds its national pageant this weekend in Ontario.
Delhauer, who lived most of his 67 years in Ontario, might be called the father of the Army pigeon corps, both during and after the first World War. And that love of the birds continued after he became a faculty member at Chaffey High in Ontario, encouraging hundreds of students there to learn about and raise pigeons as a hobby.
Lest you think pigeon could serve no real role in wartime, the military relied on these birds to play vital roles in communications. In those days, radios were at best rudimentary and telephone lines often were tapped by the enemy. As many as 10,000 pigeons carried messages for both sides during the war.
One of those, Spike, was credited with 52 deliveries of messages from the trenches to army headquarters, each time dodging bad weather and enemy sharpshooters. Spike survived these harrowing tasks and lived to age 17, dying in retirement at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, according to the San Bernardino Sun of April 26, 1935.
This love of pigeons like Spike was a lifelong avocation for Delhauer whose family came to Ontario from Ohio when he was 4 months old.
He turned his hobby to good use after he was called to service in 1916-17 as a member of Ontario’s National Guard company. At Nogales, Arizona, during the border troubles with Mexico, he brought some of his birds and established a station, using them to carry messages, reported the Sun on Aug. 16, 1921.
When America moved closer to entering the World War, Delhauer urged the military to begin breeding and training pigeons to serve as messengers.
After some initial reluctance, Army officials assigned him to begin training not only the birds but those who would handle them in combat. Many of his own Ontario pigeons were “enlisted” for breeding purposes at the training center at Fort Monmouth.
In addition to being in the trenches, pigeons were often used by Army and Navy pilots. They would carry birds with them on reconnaissance missions and release them to carry back information or to contact rescuers when planes were downed.
The British also used pigeons, including a legendary bird, The Duke. The pigeon carried numerous messages across the English Channel from France to London. The Duke was given to Delhauer after the war and lived in Ontario until his death in 1930.
Delhauer remained in the Army for a few years after the war, continuing to expand the military program. After retiring in 1925, he was hired at Chaffey High where, for 23 years, he was not only a teacher but ran the pigeon-breeding activities in the school’s agricultural program.
At times the school’s Pigeon Club had as many as 100 members, and students regularly entered their birds in local competitions. At the 1933 L.A. County Fair, 46 Chaffey pigeons received 44 awards.
Delhauer was an impassioned advocate of the benefits of young people raising pigeons.
“Every effort should be made to encourage every boy to becoming interested in a growing bird or animal,” he was quoted in the Ontario Daily Report, Aug. 12, 1946. “All normal boys are interested in live things. Pigeon raising can help round out the character and help develop the boy.”
While at Chaffey High, Delhauer continued working on a global scale. He encouraged the nation’s new air mail program to carry pigeons in planes in case they were forced down in a crash or bad weather. He also undertook a program for the military to breed a pigeon whose camouflaged coloring would make it harder to be seen by an enemy on the battlefield.
He retired from Chaffey in 1948 but his white pigeons were a fixture when they were released as part of the annual Memorial Day ceremonies at Bellevue Cemetery. Delhauer died in 1951 at age 67.
This weekend, Ontario will play host to more than 4,000 birds on display at the Pageant of Pigeons, an event put on by the Los Angeles Pigeon Club for more than a century. Previous shows have also been at the Orange Show in San Bernardino and the fairgrounds in Pomona.
Entries are from all over the nation and birds from as far away as Dubai and Australia will be displayed, according to Nolan.
The event will be at the Ontario Convention Center, 2000 E. Convention Center Way, on Thursday afternoon and all day Friday and Saturday.
Admission is free, though there is a charge for parking. Information: www.losangelespigeonclub.com.
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