U.S. Diplomatic Couriers: Before the Jet Age
In the 1950s, before the onset of the Jet Age, U.S. diplomatic couriers often spent days traveling from one post to another in order to deliver the diplomatic mail to U.S. Embassies and Consulates. In this documentary, diplomatic couriers discuss the allure of the Foreign Service in the early post-war era—when Eisenhower was President, John F. Kennedy was a Senator, and a flight from Hong Kong to London took 56 hours.
- Rebecca A. Ross, Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State
NARRATOR: In 1918, the Diplomatic Courier Service was established to support the work of American diplomats by ensuring that classified messages and materials were delivered safely and securely to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Over the 100-year history of the Courier Service, this core mission has not changed and remains critical to the national security of the United States. Before the onset of the Jet Age, this small group of couriers traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, often spending months on the road.
MR. JAMES VERREOS: The Department was using the Diplomatic Courier Service, I think, because it had some kind of sex appeal as a job to entice people to make at least an inquiry about working at the Department.
An article appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that a recruiting team from the Department of State would be coming to St. Louis in about 10 days. And the article discussed the different aspects of the Foreign Service, diplomatic life, seeing all of the wonders of the world. And I’ll have to admit that that was the bait and I bit the bait.
And so on a cold November afternoon, I went down to the Jefferson Hotel, where the State Department people were. I had an interview, was even more interested after the interview, and they gave me about a 8- to 10-, 12-page application and explained how you apply for a job in the U.S. Government, which was—I don’t know how it is today, but it was very complex then.
I sent the application in and continued on in my studies at the law school. And then one fine thing—that was in November of 1951, and I think it was in the spring of 1952, I get a telephone call from the Department of State. And they said, “Mr. Verreos, we would like to offer you an appointment as a diplomatic courier. Would you be interested?” And I said, “When?” And that’s how I got into the Department of State. I figured it was a very happy relief from law school.
MR. VINCENT CELLA: During the occupation of Germany—that was during the Korean War, actually—I was stationed in Germany, in the Nuremberg area, with the Army Counter Intelligence Corps. One day, we drove up to the Czech border and we saw some people from our embassy in Prague coming out.
And one of the fellows I was traveling with that day said, “Boy, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it? To be something like a diplomatic courier?” And here we already had a pretty good job being in the Counter Intelligence Corps, but that really sounded good. And I just kept thinking of that. But one day it came up again in my thoughts and I decided to write in to the State Department and see if I could qualify for that job.
MS. ROSEMARY “RHODY” DUNN: I was working for the Armed Forces in Madison, Wisconsin. And one of the ladies there had returned to tell us all that she had been to Washington and that she had an assignment in Haiti and it was the Foreign Service. And so I thought, well, I think I should investigate this. And I did. And I had sent a letter to the director of Foreign Service personnel. And in no time, I got a Government Transportation Request to come by train to Washington. I think they needed help. [LAUGHS]
MR. PHILIP OLIVARES: I got out of the service—I was an aircraft mechanic in the Marine Corps—and went to Seton Hall College for a couple of years. And somehow got into my mind I’d like to go to France. I saw something in LIFE Magazine, a bunch of guys sitting around enjoying themselves, a bunch of GIs. And I thought, jeez, that sounds pretty good.
I was studying journalism. I switched to French. Then I got the VA to approve my going to Paris. I went to a summer school in La Rochelle and Montpellier and then I studied at the Sorbonne for a year. Then, somehow, I got—one of my friends put me onto a job in the embassy. They called me over and they said they needed somebody to work in the pouch room. And right above the pouch room it was the courier office at that time. And the next you know, I’m in the Courier Service.
MR. DONOVAN KLINE: I learned about diplomatic couriers my last year in college at Kent State University in Ohio. I saw a little booklet, which had all of the State Department positions listed therein. The most interesting one was diplomatic courier, as far as I was concerned. Because all I could think about back then was, before I settled down and got married and all that, I wanted to get to Europe. One morning, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I read that the State Department recruiter was in town. I took off work and I went up town, applied for the job, and they hired me after an interview there.
MR. KENNETH COOPER: I think I’ve always had a desire to travel, go to faraway places with strange sounding names. And this just sounded like an exciting job to me. I was working for General Motors Acceptance Corporation as a field representative. It involved sometimes taking—repossessing—people’s automobiles that they couldn’t pay for. And it was work that I thoroughly disliked.
I used to come up to Kansas City for weekends. And on driving out of town to get back to my territory, I read the morning paper while having a cup of coffee on the way and saw that there was a State Department recruiting team in Kansas City. So I immediately turned around, went down to downtown Kansas City—the Hotel Muehlebach—and met the team.
They were recruiting mostly secretaries and code clerks, for which I was totally unqualified. Just as I was leaving, one of the people said, “You know, you might be a good diplomatic courier.” And I said, “What’s that?” And they explained to me roughly what a diplomatic courier does. And I said, “That’s the job for me.”
MR. ERNEST HOHMAN: I was serving in the U.S. military in Frankfurt, Germany at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters and a group of us went out to one of the German gasthauses—restaurants. As often happens in Germany, you share a table with somebody else. And the person that we shared a table with turned out to be a U.S. diplomatic courier. I had never heard of a diplomatic courier before.
This fellow talked about himself. He was very garrulous and told us about his job and so forth and it sounded intriguing. When I left the military, there was an article in the Reader’s Digest about the Diplomatic Courier Service. And it was about Frank Irwin, and he was on a diplomatic courier trip. I believe he was coming on a Yugoslavian airlines flight and it crashed in Vienna. And it showed his devotion to the job. In spite of injuries and so on, he held on to the diplomatic pouch.
So I thought I’d make an application at the State Department for this particular job. It sounded, as I said, fascinating, and I liked the idea of travel. The qualifications at that time were that you had to be a male; you had to be age—25 to 31 years of age; you had to be unmarried; you had to pass a physical examination; you—they also had preferred that you had completed your military obligation, and that you had a writing skill—a typewriting skill—of 25 to 35 words a minute, and so on.
And I passed the physical examination, but then they sent me to Hollywood to see a psychiatrist. And this was the tail end of the McCarthy era, nd I was to be psychologically analyzed. The turn of events was really surprising to me because it went about my sexual orientation and what I thought about homosexuals. They feared this was an area of compromise, because we knew that the Soviets were using this here as a means of blackballing individuals, and also in terms of getting information from individuals.
Among ourselves in groups, we were opposed to the so-called witch hunts that were taking place with McCarthy and felt it was improper.
MR. OLIVARES: I think most of us felt this generally, that he was a bit of a nut. The man was—was just going too darn far.
MR. COOPER: I got word that there was a State Department chap who wanted to talk to me. And we had a nice chat about this, that, one thing and another. And almost as a parting shot, he said, “By the way, what do you think of Senator McCarthy?” [SIGHS]
Well, I told him what I thought of Senator McCarthy, in no uncertain terms. And I thought, well, that’s the end of my State Department career. But about three or four weeks later that I got a message to report for duty at the State Department. So that’s how it all began. [LAUGHS]
MR. HOHMAN: I applied and was accepted, came to Washington. I remember my parents taking me to the airport in Los Angeles. And it was a TWA red-eye flight going to Washington. And across the aisle from me was Senator Kennedy, the representative from Massachusetts. I told him I was getting a job with the U.S. State Department and he said, “Good luck.” He said, “I wish you well.” And that was my first experience of meeting Jack Kennedy.
MR. VERREOS: Washington, for me, was a brand new world. General Eisenhower was now President Eisenhower and was opening his administration. Coming from the hinterlands, from St. Louis, I was very much impressed by the monuments—the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial. Frankly, to tell you the truth, they made me feel proud to be an American. And I’ve never really lost that.
MR. OLIVARES: Being in the capital of the most powerful country on earth at the time, to be part of all that was quite exciting, I thought. Incidentally, at the time, I remember they used to tell me that the British considered Washington as a hardship post. Overseas we had hardship posts for various places, where it was difficult because of the climate or political situation. But the British considered our country—we thought it was all on top of everything—to be a hardship. But I think it was because the hot and humid climate in Washington, which everybody there took for granted, of course.
MR. HOHMAN: I had made arrangements to stay at the YMCA, which was close by to the State Department. And the State Department office—the courier office—were these temporary buildings along the Mall, which had been erected during the First World War and were going to be demolished. But then came the Second World War. They were not demolished. Again, they were ready to demolish them. And they said, no, we need them for the Korean War.
This was before or in the process of building the new State, the Truman Building. And I remember around 5 o’clock, when all these buildings suddenly sort of came alive. People spilled out of the buildings and going to the buses and trains and so on. I said, jeez, I’m going to be part of this lifestyle, too.
It was fascinating. And I really appreciated the beauty of the place. This was a springtime. It was in April and things were in flower. It was an exciting time.
So we had an orientation. And as it turned out, part of my orientation with the Diplomatic Courier Service was with Frank Irwin. And he’s the very one I had read about. So he really was my hero.
MR. KLINE: I checked in at the Department, started the paperwork, got a bunch of shots. I remember that. Oh man, do I remember that. And Frank Irwin was working there at the time. And he was the courier that had went down in the plane crash in the Vienna Woods the prior fall. He was recuperating and that’s the first time I met him. He turned out to be a great guy, real nice guy. I served with him later.
MS. DUNN: I was on the train all night. And I came into Union Station. And I remember walking out and looking at the Capitol. I was so impressed. Here I am in Washington! I took a taxi down to the personnel office, where Mr. Wills checked me in. And I paid $2 for my—for my passport picture, and raised my right hand and I was sworn in. That very day.
When I first went into the offices, on one wall was Africa, over here, and over here was a map of the Philippines. And he picked up my folder and he said, “Now, Rosemary, you’re going to Manila, in the Philippines.” And I thought, now let me see, that’s—I knew it was beyond Hawaii. [LAUGHS]
MR. VERREOS: The basic training for couriers was out of Washington. And I met all these kids, young people from different parts of the United States with different backgrounds. And, man, it was a brand new life to me, and it was a lot of fun, especially taking me out to seafood places. I mean, in St. Louis in the 1930s when I grew up, and in the 40s, seafood was a delicacy in St. Louis. I ate my first oyster when I went to Washington. By golly, I liked it.
And I found out, fortunately, I liked a lot of those things, which made my life very interesting. And being a courier gave me an opportunity to explore all the unknowns. And believe me, I did my best to explore as much as I could.
The courier office in Washington served all of North and South America. So our first trips were primarily down through the Caribbean and Central America and South America. And when a vacancy would occur at one of the other two offices—which at that time were a regional courier office in Frankfurt and another regional courier office was in Manila—we, the new couriers, would be assigned accordingly.
I took my training period in North and South America, moving the pouch, dragging the bag. And then I was assigned to Manila which covered the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, including a trunk trip that ran from Manila to Hong Kong, where we picked up Pan Am’s round-the-world flight from Hong Kong to London. And we were on that airplane for 54 hours.
By the time we got to London, boy, your head was rattling. This is all in pre-jet days However, this was the best time, actually, I think, in the courier service, was the pre-jet days, because airplanes could only fly so fast. And in those days, there was a limited amount of traffic anywhere in the world.
So we would be able—as a courier, you would arrive at a particular destination. Sometimes, in order to get your next flight, you had to wait two or three days. So you had two or three days to see that city, which might be Singapore or Bangkok or Calcutta.
MR. OLIVARES: In those days, we didn’t have jets, so I think we stayed in places much longer than the people do nowadays with jets. So we’d always have a couple of days in a place.
Most of us that travelled in the 50s, we were still on the old pistons—DC-6s, Constellations, and all that. First class was in the back of the aircraft. And the reason for that is the engines created quite a bit of noise. You wanted to get as far back as possible where it’d be quiet. So that’s where first class was. And it also was, we found out from various experience from other couriers and other people that the safest part of the aircraft is in the tail.
MR. HOHMAN: The propeller age was rather interesting, too, because we had a unique group of airlines that were flying. Some of them had archaic aircraft. In Latin America, we had the Ford Trimotor. But then you got into more modern ones. One of the nicer ones, I thought, was the “Connie” Constellation, which I believe was designed by Howard Hughes. When the Jet Age came in, it was a smoother ride because you were flying above the weather, and a quicker ride, too.
The job became more difficult, in a sense. Jet airplanes could carry a larger load. And then, of course, there were political considerations, too, and things that normally would have gone by air or by ship suddenly became important for us to have them accompanied by couriers.
A simple case was typewriters. We found out that the Russians were able to eavesdrop on our electric typewriters. They were able to pick up every stroke. So, suddenly, these typewriters became encased and they had to be courier-moved, where before they went by sea or by air, unaccompanied.
MR. VERREOS: We were supplying a very essential element of communications by providing the secure transport of our classified information and classified materials to various parts of the world. When you got into a dilemma, a delay, whether it was weather or the aircraft broke down and would have to wait two days to get a part in to fix it, you had to know what the general courier schedules were in your area in order to keep the various courier routes moving. It wasn’t just, hey, happy go lucky, I got a pouch, deliver it there and I go out and have a martini or something.
MR. OLIVARES: So you’re representing the U.S. Government, you’re carrying their secrets around, you’re traveling on a diplomatic passport. People made space for the diplomatic courier. You were treated specially for it. You’re working for the most prominent country in the world at the time and doing an official job for them. And just take care of those bags is about it, you know. It’s simple enough.
MR. KLINE: My very first trip was a paired trip, just to get your legs. Jack Grover, a very senior courier at that point, and the most famous courier at that point, took me on my initial trip. We flew up to Brussels for an overnight stay. After that, I was on my own for the rest of the 325 trips that followed. It was over one million, eight hundred and some thousand miles—official miles, courier miles. Not counting what I did on my own.
MR. CELLA: My first courier trip was paired, because that’s what they usually do with a first courier. So they used to go behind the Iron Curtain, first trip. Started out on a train trip to Basel and then it ended up in Zurich. Couldn’t get into Prague out of most cities, so we got in out of Zurich. We were sitting at the little place where you eat in the Zurich airport. In those days everything was little. And who sits next to us but our Ambassador to Prague, to Czechoslovakia.
His job, beside being Ambassador, was being our negotiator with China. So he would go out to Geneva, like, once a month to meet with the Chinese. We were sitting there, we had the one pouch in between us. He said, “Are you the American couriers?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Do you mind telling the people in Prague that I’ll be in later? I got bumped off this flight.” We felt so—here the Ambassador’s bumped and we’re, and we’re going in, right? [LAUGHS]
But he was such a nice guy. I remember we came in with the pouches another time and he was right there waiting to open up, maybe to get his own mail or something. Really a smart guy.
MR. COOPER: It was my one and only trip to Latin America. That was sort of my introduction, really. Started out going through the Caribbean, two or three of the island posts, and then on to Rio de Janeiro, then to Buenos Aires. And I was supposed to go from Buenos Aires over to Santiago. But there was a storm in the Andes and they had to cancel all the flights, so I didn’t make that part of it. Came back to Rio and went across the top to Central America, Mexico City, and back to Washington from there.
It’s a 30-day trip. Got back to Washington, and after my little brief South American sojourn, I was off to Manila and spent the next two years traveling in the Far East, with the occasional trip into Europe.
MS. DUNN: I arrived in Manila on the 2nd of January, 1950. And I thought, what have I gotten myself into? When I saw these sunken ships in the harbor, ugh, I thought, what is this? Bombed out wharfs?
Well, it didn’t take long, and you get kind of used to it. And we lived right on the bay in a Quonset hut, very close to the embassy. You could see people coming and going from the entrance. Most of the single people lived on the compound, the couriers, the code clerks. Of course, the marine guards were there, too. It was quite a young group.
MR. VERREOS: In Washington, there wasn’t much sense of camaraderie, as such. But now I get out to Manila, the couriers there were a group. We were something apart. We weren’t—we were uniquely different from everybody else in the embassy. And the embassy treated us that way, on a friendly basis. Not that we were standoffish, but, like, “Couriers! The courier’s here!” Having—especially the girls, the secretaries and other positions, a courier asking them out for a date got—boy, that went around the grapevine real fast. Who was dating who?
And a courier, on his time off, had no particular executive or office functions, other than to type up his trip report and put in his claim for his per diem and his expenses. And once he did that, after that, it was, let’s have a party or go bar-hopping. And the only people who could do that weren’t the personnel in the embassy. They had to work from 9:00 to 5:00. We were free. And we were the source of party for the singles in the embassy at Manila. And we also had a lot of Filipino friends.
MR. COOPER: Manila itself was kind of fun. Of course, I guess, being out on the road alone all this time, we looked for collegial companionship. And it was good for us, because we all compared notes about what we encountered in our travels.
MS. DUNN: I was the secretary. And when I first got there, we had about seven couriers. So I’d to go to Pan American, get their tickets. Did their ticketing. Did schedules, airline schedules. Did the correspondence. I suppose my most important was ordering San Miguel beer for them when they went on a trip. That was—they’d just leave their orders with me because they were gone for weeks at a time. It was great fun. I loved it. I really did. It was—there was something going on all the time.
And I must say, I was the most popular girl in the embassy, because I had the schedule of when the couriers were going to be in. So I always got an invitation, which was pretty nice. We were close. We hung together.
Between the Quonsets on Saturday morning they’d all come out, everybody in the Quonsets all around. That’s where we used to wash our hair, because we didn’t have hot water. We just used the hose.
And, see, we had that lovely room in the embassy that, you know, faces the water. So that was just perfect for dances and for these costume affairs. And then we put on My Fair Lady and they all came in costume for that. We were big on that.
Yes, there was a—there was a party every other night somewhere. It was a big party town. But, as I said, we didn’t have the hot water, we didn’t have ovens. And we didn’t have windows. And you slept under mosquito netting. But it was fun.
MR. VERREOS: That same camaraderie that we had as a group, we had in Frankfurt as we did out in Manila. In Frankfurt, all of the American Government personnel, whether they were military or State Department or Agriculture, whatever, were in one large area. We had well over 50 couriers and there was always 8 or 10 or 12 of them in town at any one time. And on a Saturday or Sunday, we would barbecue our sausages and stuff in the so-called backyard.
MR. CELLA: When I first went there in the military, there was still a lot of rubble around. '1 it was still—god, walking around Nuremberg, it was just a mess. But I went back later as a courier, things were a lot better already. A lot of Mercedes driving around with silver-haired Germans at the wheel, the captains of industry, the economic miracle.
When we started out, we were only about 15 or 16 because it was just Europe, including Eastern Europe and a couple of points in North Africa, Israel and Libya and Turkey. And then the rest of that area was covered out of Cairo. Finally, after the Suez War, Frankfurt covered then all of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
There was good camaraderie. And it was fostered mainly by the Iron Curtain trips that were always paired. So you got to know the couriers a lot, because you traveled with them. And then you had details in about four or five places—Helsinki, Madrid, Rome, Athens—where you would be with another courier. Then a third courier would be coming down to deliver stuff. So you got to know all of the couriers that were stationed there.
MR. KLINE: We used to take a military train from Frankfurt, through East Germany, up to Berlin, to the English zone. There were four zones: English, French, U.S., and Russian. And the English had an air base in their zone. We would go over there and get aboard an RAF World War II Lancaster bomber which had been reconditioned as a cargo plane.
We would take off from there to fly to Warsaw. The Russians gave us clearance through a 15-mile-wide corridor, left to right. A narrow, well, relatively narrow, corridor in the air.
One of those days that I took off on that flight, the weather was absolutely terrible. Cloudy, rainy, really bad flying weather. And somehow or other, we drifted out of the corridor. And I was looking out the left side of the plane. And, all of a sudden, there was a Russian MiG-15 on our wing tip. And he was so close I could see his face.
And it scared the daylights out of me, because I thought he was going to shoot us down after he took a good look. Because the Russians had been known to shoot down American military planes along the van route between Turkey and Russia.
The van route—we used to have spy planes flew right alongside of it, which would listen in on radio transmissions coming out of Russia. And that’s what I was thinking about on this particular flight, whether they’re going to shoot us down or not. [LAUGHS]
They let us go. And I landed in Warsaw and turned around and came right back out. Had no problem on the way out. Still bad weather, but we stayed in our corridor.
MR. VERREOS: I’d say probably the favorite trip for all the couriers was the one from Manila to Hong Kong to London, because in London we got three and a half days’ break, and we got to go to the London theaters and see everything. I mean, London was London. I mean, that’s like going to New York City. The fact that it was a tough trip getting up to London was nothing.
The most interesting travel that I had was while I was in Manila and detailed to Karachi which, at that time, was the capital of Pakistan. And Karachi is where we served Afghanistan. We would take the train from Karachi to Peshawar. And the embassy in Kabul would send down their vehicle and driver. And then from Peshawar, we would go through the Khyber Pass to go into Afghanistan. And believe me, that was the most interesting trip in the world.
MR. COOPER: The other part of the Far East assignment that was interesting and exciting was our trips to South Vietnam. This was prior to Dien Bien Phu. We still had a consulate operating in Hanoi, so we used to have a bag to carry up to them all the time, up through Haiphong, all the way up to Hanoi and back.
Every place I went was, of course, different. It was a different adventure. How do you-- I don’t know how I’d rank them. I love the food in Spain, the food in Paris. [LAUGHS]
Maybe a trip to Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, and back would be—would be pretty hard to beat, too. [LAUGHS]
MR. OLIVARES: Paris, at one time, was my favorite city. I didn’t think I could live without Paris. And when I left Paris, I was almost in tears. I didn’t want to leave. Even Frankfurt became familiar to me and I didn’t like leaving Frankfurt.
Although I loved the Rome detail. We’d take the train up to Bologna and to Venice and then to Trieste. And we did exchanges through the window. People from the consulate would come out. And then from Trieste we went to Milan, to Turin, and then to Genoa. And that part I liked.
Going back to Rome, you went along the Italian Riviera. And I remember having pasta on the train and looking out the window, the beautiful scenery down below, the Mediterranean and all those colorful towns. Living high on the hog, I thought.
MR. COOPER: I had a lot of fun in the courier service. It was something I took great pride in.
MR. VERREOS: After carrying the bag now for about eight years, I got tired being married to a suitcase and I decided I’d like to maybe fly a desk, rather than fly an airplane. So I decided to take the Foreign Service Officer’s examination and was commissioned by President Eisenhower as a Foreign Service Officer. My first assignment outside of the courier service was as vice-consul at our embassy in Mexico City.
MR. OLIVARES: In those days, most of the guys did get out after one or two tours. I wasn’t disillusioned with the courier service, but I was getting a little tired—and I think quite a few us were—of traveling on airplanes. And a lot of us were thinking, you know, planes do crash, and there have been a few casualties, and we had several couriers who’ve been in crashes—Frank Irwin in Vienna.
MR. HOHMAN: It was a good lifestyle. I have no regrets at all. Actually, initially, I was only going to stay in a short while. Yeah, see, the first tour was in Frankfurt, Germany. And I saw the area there. And I said, oh, I’ll go for another tour. And it was in Manila, Asia, and Southeast Asia. So I went on to Panama.
I remember one time we were here in Washington, a group of us, and we were at a restaurant. And we were talking about our various travels and so, and what we’d been seeing. And all these foreign places, the names were just spilling out. And a man at an adjoining table, he got up and he said, “I’ve been eavesdropping with you guys.” And he said, “You’re the biggest group of BSers I’ve ever heard about. I can’t believe a word you said.” And he walked off. [LAUGHS]
We were proud of what we were doing. We thought it was important what we were doing for the U.S. Government. I really enjoyed every moment of it. I miss the travel, the unique places I went to, and the people. It was an erudite group of individuals, aside from the very fact that, you know, that we were doing government work. Government work in the air, so to speak.
MR. KLINE: Seeing the world, and getting paid to do it, was just—I mean, how much better can it get? [LAUGHS]