-By Seth Daniel
For the Transcript
There aren’t too many people who would readily agree that Memorial Day is for the birds, but Winthrop’s John Tricomi and the American Racing Pigeon Union (ARPU) would go right along with that.
But they mean no disrespect by it.
This Memorial Day, the northeast zone of the ARPU, and its members like Tricomi of Upland Road, are bringing attention to the combat roles that pigeons have played for the United States from World War I up to the current engagement in Afghanistan. And as it turns out, Winthrop has quite a history of winged warriors coming from within its borders.
“When America went to Europe to fight in World War I and World War II, they brought with them a secret weapon that helped us and the Allies ultimately defeat Adolf Hitler and the German Army,” said William Desmarais, director of the ARPU’s northeast zone. “That secret weapon was the American Racing Homing Pigeon. Members of the ARPU from across America, some right here in Winthrop, donated hundreds of thousands of their birds for combat service. These birds provided a very reliable means of communication, and served as forward observers, spies and message carriers for our military, carrying encapsulated messages and cameras to record and report information.”
Tricomi was one of those volunteers.
When he was 15, Tricomi – now 83 – donated his entire stock of pigeons to the war effort in Europe. As far as he knows, they served valiantly, though none of them returned home.
Tricomi told the Sun Transcript that he took up pigeon racing with his older brother while living in the West End of Boston when he was 11.
“In those days, that was right out of the Depression, so we didn’t have TV or video games or cars,” he said. “This is what a lot of kids and adults did. It’s not as popular today, but it was a very popular hobby in those days. My brother got me into it and when he started chasing the girls, he left them to me. Then when the war broke out, I and several members of our union donated our birds to help in the war. I handed them over in 1943 and they gave me the rings that said ‘U.S. Army’ to put on their legs.”
Tricomi said he’s glad that there is some attention being brought to the efforts of homing pigeons during wartime.
“A lot of people don’t know it and that’s sad because they saved a lot of lives in so many wars,” he said. “They saved many, many lives in World War I and II and they’re still out there in Afghanistan now doing the same thing. This is very important and something people don’t usually think about on Memorial Day.”
One bird of particular note actually came from Winthrop – from the loft of late Winthrop resident Harry Toppings.
Toppings, a former member of the ARPU, also donated his birds to the war effort during World War II, and according to Desmarais and Tricomi, one of those birds was key in locating the infamous Nazi Erwin ‘The Desert Fox’ Rommel. Rommel was known for making quick and successful attacks on the Allies and then disappearing into the desert. No one could locate him for quite some time.
Finally, the Allies were able to locate his position, and it was all due to Toppings’s pigeon.
“When he was finally located, a message was sent by Homing Pigeon to alert us of his position,” said Desmarais. “One of Toppings’s pigeons was the bird that successfully carried and delivered that message. Because this bird delivered its message, and quickly, Rommel was defeated and Harry Toppings was awarded extra gasoline rations for the remainder of the war.”
Such birds are not rare.
Desmarais said that several pigeons that have done notable service in battle have been preserved, so that at military bases all over the country one will find stuffed pigeons preserved in mount as a nod to their roles and service.
One pigeon that delivered a message, despite being shot down and maimed, was awarded the Croix de Guerre from the French government – the only non-human to ever receive that award.
In the backyard of his Upland Road home, Tricomi is still very active in racing and raising pigeons.
He said that he gave it up for many years, but revived it when his son was in his teens.
As a Boston Police Detective for four decades, Tricomi often needed something to take his mind off of his experiences at work.
“I handled murders, stabbings and shootings and this was a means of relaxing me and getting away from my experiences or family problems,” he said. “I still find it very relaxing and exciting.”
Desmarais said it is important to remember the true, human veterans of wars on Memorial Day, but he also said it doesn’t hurt to pay some mind to Winthrop’s winged warriors as well.
“You will find these birds of peace today in the backyards of Winthrop residents like John Tricomi, being released at Special Olympics opening ceremonies, at funerals or at weddings,” he said. “Just as our military veterans have returned home to enjoy life, so have these noble birds of peace. But should the need ever arise, they are ready to serve our country and our military once again as a valuable means of carrying communications.”