On June 8, 1959, the US Navy fired a Regulus I missile from the USS Barbero (SSG-317) and directed it to land at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, Florida, near Jacksonville. While the sub was docked at Norfolk, Virginia, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield helped place two blue and red metal containers, holding 3,000 letters, inside the sub’s missile prior to the flight.
The missile was fired from the submarine shortly before noon and arrived at Mayport twenty-two minutes later. The 3,000 letters inside the missile were identical letters from the Postmaster General that were addressed to President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, cabinet members and top federal officials, all members of congress, Supreme Court justices, U.S. governors, postmasters generals from around the world and the officers and crew of the Barbero. Summerfield’s letter was an enthusiastic announcement of the experiment, which had not been publicly announced beforehand. Summerfield’s office received several letters from stamp collectors who complained that they had not been given the opportunity to place items aboard the flight. In the four decades since the flight, some of the Regulus I letters have found their way into public hands. Some made their way to dealers that year and were sold at over $100. The letter addressed to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution remains in the National Postal Museum’s collections.
Ostensibly an experiment in communication transportation, the Regulus’ mail flight sent a subtle signal that in the midst of the Cold War, the US military was capable of such accuracy in missile flight that it could be considered for use by the post office. The missile employed a then state-of-the-art guidance system that could precisely deliver a thermonuclear weapon from a distance of 600 miles. The trip from the USS Barbero to Mayport was only 100 miles in distance, but it helped to illustrate another possible use for the weapons technology. The space used for the containers was space that was originally designed to hold the missile’s nuclear warhead.
Postmaster General Summerfield was ecstatic over the possibilities of postal uses for the technology, claiming that “This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation. Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.” Summerfield’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, the 1959 USS Barbero test firing was the only incidence of using a missile to carry mail in the US.
By Nancy A. Pope