Like travelers today postal employee Charles P. Leary needed a passport to journey abroad during World War I. Unlike modern passports however it was granted for a specific purpose: to allow Leary to travel to France where the Post Office Department was establishing a service to support the deployment of US military personnel.
An explanation for the purpose of his travel is given on the passport alongside requests that he be allowed to move freely and that he be treated well. Like today, the Department of State was keen to ensure that the passport could only be used by the individual to whom it was issued. In the days before computers and finger printing this consisted of a photograph and a physical description including the dubious claims that his chin was “round” and his nose "long.” To accompany the passport Leary was also issued with a visa that was valid for the duration of the war and letters and passes to allow him transportation across the Atlantic and within Europe.
It was civilians such as Leary who were first issued travel documents to journey to France with the task of establishing a special postal service to support the American Expeditionary Forces. Under the leadership of Postal Agent Marcus H. Bunn a committee of veteran postal employees with experience of operating postal services in war zones created a workable mail system for the deployed military service members. They established the Chelsea Terminal on the banks of the Hudson River in New York to act as the main sorting terminal for military mail, ensuring that it reached the receiving port of Bordeaux almost completely processed. Other initiatives included free postage for military mail, the allocation of APO (Army Post Office) numbers to conceal the location of troops and the principle of a flexible addressing system able to follow troops across the continent. These initial experienced employees were soon joined by a large number of civilian postal workers who within months were dealing directly with a vast amount of US military mail. Between July 1917 and June 1918 the Post Office Department delivered 35,455,986 letters and 15,122,810 parcels to the American Expeditionary Forces and returned 15,940,310 letters to their families back home.
Leary was part of this large civilian influx into the early Army Postal Service. Issued his travel documents in September and October of 1917, he took up the supervision of Army Post Office no. 714 at Langres, France on the 13th of November 1917. In December 1921, after returning to his home town of Kansas City, Missouri, he was awarded a Certificate of War Service by the Postmaster General.
Despite its initial success within the first year, the Army Postal Service was perceived to be unsuitable for the task in hand. Several causes for tension between the Post Office Department and the military had arisen including the military’s reluctance to disclose to the Post Office Department the exact location of troops and the difficulties faced by the Post Office Department in securing transport. Under these conditions the Post Office Department felt it could not provide the level of mail service to which it believed the troops were entitled. Consequently the War Department decided that the mail service for the American Expeditionary Forces should be completely militarized and so on the 9th of May 1918 the Military Postal Express Service was established by General Order No.72. It was the first postal system in the world to be created by an army and to be clearly distinguished from an established government postal system. Despite this historical significance, the systems put into place by its civilian predecessor remained largely the same, and several postal agents were recruited and commissioned as officers.
The Military Postal Express Service continued operations well into the delicate peace of post-war Europe, closing its last outpost on the 31st of January 1924. It should not be forgotten however the part that the civilian Post Office Department played in one of the biggest jobs of the war, and the impact it has consequently had on the managing of mail in all future conflicts.
- Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30 1918.Washington Government Printing Office, 1918.
- Bruns, James H. “Letters in War: The Post Office Department in World War I”. The United States Specialist. 662 (1985): 159-166.
- Buck, Joseph F. “The Yanks are Writing: A General History of the A.E.F Postal Service”. The American Philatelist. 48 (1935): 445-457.
- Ingerick, Wallace L. Account of Personal Experiences in the U.S. Postal Agency in France. Post Office Department, 1938.
- United States Army in the World War 1917-1919, General Orders GHQ, AEF Vol.16. Center of Military History United States Army, Washington DC, 1992.
- Van Dam, Theo. Ed. The Postal History of the AEF, 1917-1923. The War Cover Club, 1990.
By Louise Pearson