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History of the Service

World War II

Before the Highway Post Office began its rapid growth in the 1950s, it suffered a startup delay during the war. As the United States became formally involved in the Second World War at the end of 1941, life in America underwent a number of adjustments. Railway Post Office Department Division Superintendent, J.H. Musgrave, summed up the shocking events in one of his weekly news circulars stating:

“The year 1941 has passed into history. The almost unbelievable events recorded this year are legion and when the true history is written, it undoubtedly will picture one of the darkest periods on record. We ‘Americans’ have much to be thankful and proud of, for while we are now engaged in an all-out war into which we were forced, yet the privilege of LIBERTY is still ours and will be ours so long as we are willing to give what it takes to maintain our Democratic form of government.”(1)

From rations on food to limitations on raw materials available for industry, the way of life changed on the American home front. This was true for the Post Office Department also; materials were conserved, train lines were changed, and personnel turned over as men went to war. Clerks’ minimum work week moved from 40 to 48 hours.(2 )

As American society devoted itself to the war effort, materials became harder to acquire, including those used by Railway Post Office clerks to secure mail into bundles and close and lock mail bags. These materials could all be devoted to the war effort, instead of mail delivery. The Department joined in the campaign to redirect resources, encouraging its clerks to collect unused twine and use existing resources as long as they held out. One postal superintendent went as far as to print conservation ads in its Cincinnati newspapers using a derogatory term of the era, “Save your scraps! And jolt the Japs!”(3 )

Measures were also taken to ensure the safety of the RPO cars during the war. Black-out curtains were added to mail cars in order allow clerks to continue their important work at night. They were made of black oil cloth and could be rolled up or down depending on time of day. Instructions concerning proper blackout procedures were passed amongst Railway Mail Service employees.

Additionally, railroad companies began separating cargo, mail and passenger cars. The separation would expedite faster movement and delivery of war materials across the country. Some soldiers had left the Railway Mail Service to serve. By 1944, 3,952 former RPO clerks were in the armed forces.(4 ) Many of these men returned to the Railway Mail Service at war’s end. Others’ tales of the service inspired fellow soldiers to look to the Railway Mail Service for a job when they returned home.

“I worked... overseas, I got talking to some Railway Mail clerks. They were sorting mail. And decided when I was overseas. And when I came back, I took the examination in 1946, when I got out of the service, got married, and that’s the start of my career with the Railway Mail Service, yup.” —Richard Jennings, former RPO clerk

After the war, RPO clerks returned to their 40-hour work week (restored in October 1945). They also received an increase in pay: $6 per day in their travel allowance and $1,370 increase in their annual salary.(5 ) In 1949, the Post Office Department recognized the changing mail transportation landscape and renamed the Railway Mail Service. The RMS was folded into a new Postal Transportation Service (PTS). This new branch combined all modes of mail transit: Airmail, Highway Post Offices, Railway Post Offices, terminals, and transfer offices.(6 ) In 1950, only 16,000 of 32,000 PTS employees actually worked on railroads, which was still the “most important part of the service.”(7 )

1) National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

2) Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985.

3) National Archives and Records Administration

4) Wilking, Clarence R. The Railway Mail Service United States Mail Railway Post Office. Marietta, OH: Railway Mail Service Library, 1985.

5) Ibid.

6) Ibid.

7) Ibid.

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