If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we’re heading to The Garden State, New Jersey.

NEW JERSEY'S WAR HERO PIGEON

In war, the tide of battle can shift in an instant, making communication between the front lines and the commanders in the rear a vital component of victory or defeat. Even though portable radios were used in World War II, they weren’t always reliable, so the Allied forces also used specially-trained carrier pigeons to send messages to and from the battlefield. The U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Service, based out of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey and Camp Crowder, Missouri, was made up of about 3100 soldiers and 54,000 birds, including one of the most honored pigeons in American history, G.I. Joe. 

While Joe flew messages on countless occasions, his most famous flight occurred on the morning of October 18, 1943, near the Italian village of Calvi Vecchia. Troops from the British 56th Infantry Division were poised to attack the town in an attempt to recapture it from German occupied forces. The plan was to have the infantry move in right after a group of bombers had dropped armament to soften the enemy’s position. However, much to the British’s surprise, the Germans didn’t hold their ground, and instead quickly surrendered the town and retreated. But the air strike was still on schedule, meaning the Brits were in considerable danger.

Radio communications couldn’t reach the airfield 20 miles away, so a message was strapped to Joe and he was sent to the air. The bird flew at an amazing clip, covering the entire 20 miles in only 20 minutes. His message reached the airfield just as the bombers were taxiing for take off. With only five minutes to spare, the bombing run was canceled, saving the lives of at least 1000 British troops.

On November 4, 1946, G.I. Joe was presented the Dickin Medal, a special British honor given to war animals who serve with valor, often referred to as “the animals’ Victoria Cross.” Joe was only the 29th animal to receive the award, and the first non-British recipient. From there, G.I. Joe flew back to America and lived at the Churchill Loft in Fort Monmouth, and then was later sent to live at the Detroit Zoological Gardens until his death at the ripe old age of 18 in 1961. His body was preserved through taxidermy and was on display for decades at Fort Monmouth until the base was closed in 2011. Today, G.I. Joe is packed away in storage at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, probably next to the Ark of the Covenant, until a more permanent home for him can be found.  

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

See all the entries in our Strange States series here.