Hello, my name is Carolyn and I am an Education Officer here at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
We look forward to sharing some stories with you during the school holidays.
Today I would like to read Lofty's Mission by Krista Bell and beautifully illustrated by David Miller.
‘No Dad! Please don't take Lofty. I bred him to be a champion racer!’
Tears trickled down Harley’s cheeks.
Harley's father was putting six baby pigeons into the cane hamper.
Lofty would be one of them.
'Couldn’t you take Number 368 instead of Lofty? Please!'
'Sorry, lad.' Frank McNamara was firm. 'The army needs top homing pigeons as messengers.
Your Lofty, number 371, is our best squeaker.
He’ll be a big, strong adult bird—just what they need up in New Guinea.
Everyone has to make sacrifices for the war effort.’
Frank locked the hamper securely.
'Harley, while I deliver these birds, would you clean out the stock loft? Won’t be long.'
He strapped the pigeon hamper onto his motorbike and rode away.
Harley stared down the empty driveway.
'Maybe the war will finish next week,' he murmured. 'Then the army will send you home, Lofty.
I’ll train you, just like I promised. We’ll go in races—and you’ll win.
You’re the best pigeon ever.'
His mother held him tight.
‘Give me a hug, dear. Don’t be sad. There’ll be other squeakers.’
‘I don’t want another squeaker,’ Harley sobbed. 'I just want Lofty.'
Lofty was being trained by the army up north, in Queensland, where it was hot and wet.
The sergeant who worked with the pigeons was teaching Lofty to fly back to his mobile loft.
One soldier would stand next to it and shake a tin of dried peas.
A few feet away the sergeant would gently toss Lofty into the air and he would fly to the loft.
At first Lofty was only a short distance away but, as the toss distance increased,
he learnt that, no matter how far he had to fly, the mobile loft meant food, water, rest and safety.
The loft was home.
Months later, in the New Guinea jungle, Lofty flew hundreds of miles on long-distance missions for the army.
At dawn one morning, he was placed in a carry box with another pigeon.
The platoon was going out on patrol behind enemy lines and the pigeons would be their only communication with headquarters.
But before they reached their destination, the enemy surrounded them—the entire platoon had walked into an ambush.
The captain wrote an urgent message on rice paper.
The sergeant rolled up the note and placed it in a tiny cylinder, which he strapped to Lofty’s left leg.
Then he attached a copy of the note to the other bird, in case Lofty didn’t reach headquarters.
In his gently cupped hands, the sergeant held Lofty up high, then lowered his arms, opened his fingers and tossed the bird into the air.
'God speed, 371. Without reinforcements, we’re goners.'
Lofty pushed strongly up into the air. Enemy gunfire whizzed around him, cutting into his wings and threatening to bring him down.
But he flew on bravely, until finally he reached the safety of his loft.
'It’s 371,' yelled the loft sergeant.
'He’s exhausted and badly wounded. Corporal, take this message from the platoon to the Lieutenant. Hurry!'
Down south, where it was cold and wet, Harley was in hospital. He was very ill.
‘Once he recovers completely,’ the doctor explained to Harley’s parents, 'I’m confident he’ll walk again. It’ll just take time. The polio shouldn’t affect him permanently.'
Weeks passed. Harley was home from hospital but still in bed.
Through his bedroom window, he watched his father’s racing pigeons circle the house as they came home from their daily flying sessions.
Lofty’s been gone so long, Harley thought.
Maybe he’s never coming home from the war.
Harley’s mother was sitting on the end of his bed.
‘There’s a bird in this book I’m reading, Mum,’ said Harley.
‘Not a pigeon—a robin—and a girl called Mary, and a boy called Dickon. They find a secret garden.’
‘That book was one of my favourites when I was your age,’ said his mother.
His father came into the room. ‘Look what the postie just delivered, lad.’
Harley opened the parcel. 'It’s a medal!'
Frank McNamara scanned the letter.
‘It says here that number 371 has been awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry. Seems he saved an entire platoon of soldiers.
The Dickin Medal is a bravery award for animals—a bit like the Victoria Cross for soldiers.
Your name is on the certificate as his breeder, Harley. Congratulations, lad. Your Lofty is a hero!'
‘Ripper! A bravery award!’ said Harley.
‘Hang on, did you say Dickon? Like in my book?’
His mother checked the certificate.'The award is spelt d-i-c-k-i-n.
It’s something to do with a lady who runs a clinic for sick and dying animals in England. I heard about her on the radio.’
‘Lofty’s dead, isn’t he?’ Harley slumped back onto the pillows.
‘The army sent this because Lofty’s dead.’
'No. Quite the contrary, lad.' His father pointed to the letter.
‘It says here that 371 was wounded in action and the loft sergeant stitched him up.
He’s okay now, but he won’t ever fly again.
We can write to the army and ask for Lofty to be discharged. They’ll send him home. It’s happened with other birds from the pigeon–racing club.’
Harley grinned as his mother pinned the medal onto his pyjamas.
‘It’s okay that Lofty can’t fly, isn’t it, Dad? Our stock birds don’t fly anyway.
Lofty can be my number one stocky. Lofty’s squeakers will grow up to be the best racing pigeons ever!
They’ll be bonza flyers, just like Lofty—and they’ll win lots of races.’
Harley moved to the edge of the bed, lowered his feet to the floor and stood, for the first time in months.
‘Can I go out to the stock loft?’ he asked his parents.
'I have to get things ready. And we need to choose the best hen we’ve got to mate with Lofty.'
A year later, Harley and his dad stood together in the backyard.
‘Look, Lofty! Your son is first home by miles,’ said Harley.
‘Quick, Dad. Let’s get the race ring off his leg and into the tin lizzie to record his time.
What did I tell you, Lofty? I knew Nifty would be a champion—I just knew it!'
And that is the end of our story.
Reviewed 28 September 2020