On April 7, 1943, the fleet oiler USS Kanawha AO-1 sustained fire from enemy aircraft in a battle between Allied and Japanese forces over control of the Solomon Islands. The Kanawha was in the south Pacific performing fleet replenishment operations including refueling duties and mail services much as it had done in the Atlantic during the First World War. The slow moving oil tanker had gotten underway off Tulagi Island to join her escort when bombs struck the Kanawha, killing 19 crew members, destroying the engine room and setting the ship ablaze. Her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Brainerd N. Bock gave the order to abandon the inoperable ship.
In the aftermath, the survivors were rescued and fires quelled. A tug towed the tanker and beached her in Tulagi harbor. But after taking on water during the night the Kanawha sank into Ironbottom Sound, so named for the numerous ships and airplanes sunk in the expanse between Guadalcanal, Nggela Islands, and Savo Island. The Kanawha and other wrecks in the Sound (including USS Aaron Ward and New Zealand Moa,which were also sunk as a result of the April 7th battle) have become dive sites.
Over the years divers have recovered many items from the Kanawha. On the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking, members of the crew were presented with two unused money orders retrieved from a safe aboard the tanker. One of these money orders, serial number 9803, was donated to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. The extremely fragile money order underwent extensive conservation treatment to stabilize tears and the water-damaged paper.
Originally blue, but now darkened and yellowed, the long form has three portions of the original four still intact. From left to right these include the stub for the issuing postmaster’s records, the money order, and the coupon for the paying office. The forth and right-most portion, the receipt for remitter, is missing and presumably lost in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Printed especially for issuing at this ship’s post office, the form bears the name: “U.S.S.Kanawha, New York, N.Y., Office Number 20480.” The Kanawha’s post office, established on January 5, 1943, was designated as a branch of the New York City post office, as were all shipboard and overseas naval station postal units.
Navy postal branches received official sanction to conduct money order business in 1914. Accounting and supplies fell under the purview of the Postmaster of New York City. During the Second World War this added considerable work, material requisitions, and personnel to New York’s Money Order Division to oversee the business of Navy branches and certain Army Post Offices (APO) in their care. The number of money orders issued and paid out grew each year over the course of the war; the New York office alone distributed 205,223 blank money order books (each containing 200 forms) printed specifically for individual Navy branches and 336,206 blank books to its APOs between 1941 and 1945 (Goldman 223).
Postal money orders offered means for securing funds for transferring amounts through the mail to or from family, friends, and commercial businesses as well serving as an ad hoc bank to lay away money between pay days. The Postmaster of New York’s description of wartime activity from 1941 to 1945 retold stories of identifying deceased military personnel through money order records, and reported “It was the general practice of a soldier, when an attack was imminent, to convert all his cash into money orders, on the theory that if he lost his life the money orders would be forwarded to his estate, with the knowledge that they would be worthless if seized by the enemy” (Goldman 233).
Providing safe and affordable conveyance of money was the objective of the May 17, 1864 legislation approving the establishment of the postal money order system during the Civil War. The authorized extension of money order operations for military postal branches such as the one aboard the USS Kanawha provided not only convenient but sometimes the only such financial service available to American sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen. A quick comment on a radio interview demonstrated the popularity of the service, as Corporal Corliss “Corky” Larson, a navy mail clerk in the Women’s Marine Reserves working in Honolulu, Hawaii, answered, “We Navy mail clerks can’t quit our jobs, and as usual we were just carrying right on writing more money orders,” when asked by a Marine Corps radio correspondent on August 14, 1945 about her reaction to the news of Japan’s surrender. Interviewer PFC Cliff Naughton then questioned, “You mean that the mail goes through even when the war is over?” and Corporal Larson replied cheerfully, “Mail goes through irregardless.”
- Goldman, Albert. The New York, N.Y. Post Office During the War Years 1941-1945. New York: Judicial Printing Company, 1949.
- “Interview with Cpl. Corliss “Corky” Larson of Springfield, Massachusetts.”Marine Corps World War II Personnel Interviews. Marine Corps Combat Recordings (Library of Congress). Marine Corps radio correspondent PFC Cliff Naughton (reporter) and Corliss Larson (interviewee). Recorded August 14, 1945, Honolulu, HI.
- Maynard L. Hamilton, letter to National Postal Museum Director James Bruns, April 24, 1993. Accession files of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
- Noll, James E. “Modern Commentary: World War II Money Order Business: A Money Order Collector’s View.” The United States Post Office in World War II: The U.S. Government’s Classic ‘A Wartime History of the Post Office Department’ in a New Illustrated Edition with Modern Commentaries. Ed. Lawrence Sherman. Chicago: The Collectors Club of Chicago, 2002.
- United States Bureau of Naval Personnel.Postal Clerks 3 & 2. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1963.
- United States Post Office Department.Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year 1864. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1864.
- United States Post Office Department.The Army Mail Service: Instructions for the Guidance of Army Mail Clerks and Assistant Army Mail Clerks. Chicago: United States Post Office Printing Section, 1942.
- United States Post Office Department.United States Official Postal Guide July 1943. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1943.
- United States Post Office Department. A Wartime History of the Post Office Department: World War II 1939-1945. Washington, DC: Post Office Department, 1951.
By Lynn Heidelbaugh