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Marine Mail Guards



 Marines are generally very well versed in the long and colorful history of our Marine Corps. We know of our roots and the events and battles through the years that have brought us to the present day. However,  there are several areas of our history where we tend to be less aware of the facts involved. The use of Marines to guard the U.S. mails during the 1920s, I think, is one such area.

All Marines know that Marines were called upon during that era to act as mail guards; but few are aware of the specific facts of that involvement. Most books dealing with Marine Corps history touch only briefly upon this subject. This might lead the reader to believe that this was only a minor incident, but that is far from the truth.
The facts are that after a series of mail robberies resulting in murder, mayhem, and losses in the millions of dollars, beginning in 1921 (thru 1922), and again in 1926 (thru 1927), the Marine Corps was requested by the Post Office Department to assist in the protection of the U.S. mails, guarding mail trains and trucks, post offices, etc. Though the overall duration of the Marines' involvement spanned only a few months, thousands of Marines were detailed, and it encompassed the entire length and breadth of the United States as well.
(Detailed information regarding this is on record at the Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington, D.C.).
It is my  feeling that this topic of Marine Corps history is deserving of  more attention. Therefore the following is presented here as information  provided by the Marine Corps Historical Center.

In a memo to the officer in charge of the historical section, dated November 6, 1930, it is stated, "In 1921 the robbery of the U.S. Mails necessitated the detailing of marines to guard mail trains, post offices etc. In November 1921 a force of approximately 53 officers and 2200 enlisted men were dispatched throughout the country and performed this duty until March 1922 when they were withdrawn. Maximum strength 54 officers 2208 enlisted. (Nov 30, 1921)

The marines were again detailed to guard the mails in October 1926. The number of officers and men on mail guard duty reached its maximum of 68 officers and 2452 enlisted on December 20, 1926. Due to the demand for marines for expeditionary duty, a gradual withdrawal of marines was begun on January 10, 1927, and completed on February 19, 1927." 

"Cocked And Locked!"

And, in a 'circular letter', "Subject: Miscellaneous Instructions, dated 13 December 1921, from The Major General Commandant....
1. In cases where trains carrying Marines guarding mails cross the Canadian Boundry enroute to another point in the United States, the Marines, upon crossing the boundry, shall place their arms in a registered mail-sack and turn over the sack to Canadian Post Office Officials (who accompany the train) until such time as the train re-crosses into the United States. Under no circumstances shall Marines exercise a military function in Canadian teritory.
2. Shotguns preferably will be carried with filled magazine and empty chamber, in order to avoid accidents.
3. Pistols may be carried loaded, cocked and locked. The holster should be fastened to the leg and the flap tucked or tied back, so as not to interfere with drawing. The Marine (if not carrying other arms) should carry his hand on the pistol butt.
4. Arrangements should be made for each mail-coach to carry a supply of ordinary railroad flares, which should be ignited and thrown out of the car if an attack is made on it. Also, in case of attack on a car, interior lights should be put out. On trains lighted with electricity the guard should be prepared to turn out all lights.
5. The Marines should be continually reminded that they will use their firearms to wound or kill only when necesarry to prevent robbery or theft of the mails. The use of firearms except for this purpose must be avoded.
6. Where it is decided to convene a summary court-martial and a shortage of officers exists, a request may be made on the local Recruiting Officer for one or more officers to report for this temporary duty. When they report, the Commanding Officer may order them as members of the Court-Martial. In such cases, the officer or officers requested should be junior to the officer ordering the court.
7. Cases have arisen where men have been transferred to barracks without punishment for the offense which caused their transfer. Except in cases serious enough to warrant trial by General Court-Martial, men should be tried, before transfer, by a Deck Court or Summary Court-Martial, as it will be impracticable to bring them to trial after transfer. Men committing offenses warranting a general court-martial should be held at their station until a decision in the premises has been received from Headquarters.
8. The official title of the Detachments is --U.S. Marine Corps Detached Guard Company ( Place ). For instance, "U.S. MARINE CORPS DETACHED GUARD COMPANY, WASHINGTON, D.C.". Hereafter no other title will be used.
9. Commanding Officers must take steps to provide a suitable Christmas and New Years for their commands. No doubt much can be done for their entertainment by enlisting the good offices of local welfare organizations.
10. Precious orders regarding transfer, for discharge of men from U.S. Marine Corps Detached Guard Companies to nearest Recruiting Office or Barracks, are rescinded. Hereafter Commanding Officers of U.S. Marine Corps Detached Guard Companies will discharge their men in the same manner as any other Commanding Officer.
by direction" 
Another directive HQMC memo dated 22 July 1960, titled "Notes On Organization Of The Mail Guard, 1926-1927, states...
"The United States was divided into two zones, eastern and western. The dividing line ran through Williston, North Dakota, Green River, Wyoming, Denver, Colorado, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, all points named being the Western Mail Guard.
The Eastern Mail Guard came from the Expeditionary Force stationed at Quantico, reinforced by two companies from Parris Island. Brigadier General Logan Feland was designated as commanding general of the Eastern Mail Guard, with headquarters at Quantico. The Eastern Mail Guard zone was divided into three areas: Fifth Regiment area ( CP, New York), Tenth Regiment Area( CP, Chicago ), and the Southern Area ( CP, Atlanta ).... " 
The following is from the "Marine Corps Historical Reference Series Number 9"
"Toward the end of 1926, the men of the 4th Regiment had an opportunity  for something more exciting than garrison routine. A recrudescence of  robberies of the United States mails, featured by a particularly brazen and  bloody attack on a mailtruck at Elizabeth, New Jersey, on 14 October 1926,  led to arequest by the Post Office Department for the services of theMarine  Corps to bring the situation under control. The Marines
had been called upon  once before to guard the mails, when a
similar situation had developed in the  fall of 1921, and they
had quickly put a stop to the robberies.  There had  been
virtually no incidents after the Marines had entered the picture
on that  occasion, and after they had been withdrawn in the
spring of 1922, the Post  Office Department, having provided
itself with civilian armed guards, had been  able to carry on
satisfactorily for some four years.
     In 1926, when the Marines were called on the second time,
the country was  divided into an eastern and a western
mail-guard zone, with Brigadier General  Logan Feland commanding
in the east and Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler in  the
west.  Most of the personnel for the eastern zone came from the
east-coast  expeditionary force at Quantico, Virginia.
 The westernmail-guard zone was manned by the west-coast
expeditionary force
from San  Diego - that is to say, by the 4th Regiment.
     Although it was a change from life at the base, mail-guard
duty on this  occasion proved to be scarcely more exciting.  No
incidents occurred after the  Marines began guarding trucks,
railway cars, and various strategic points in  the handling of
the mail.<47> These quiet conditions, however, made the
withdrawal of the Marines feasible sooner than would normally
have been the  case, when a need for their services on
expeditionary duty outside the United  States arose at the
beginning of the new year.
     The early withdrawal was considered necessary because of
conditions in  Nicaragua and China, where American interests
were endangered by civil strife.   The east-coast expeditionary
force, reinforced, was sent to Nicaragua, where,  under the
command of General Feland, it was designated the 2d Brigade.
Similarly, the west-coast expeditionary force (4th Regiment),
reinforced by  various other units, was to become the 3d Brigade
in China, commanded by  General Butler." 
The following is from the Marine Corps Monograph, "San Diego Recruit Depot"
"Violence and robbery brought a new and entirely different role for the 4th Marines as the year 1926 progressed. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, on14 October 1926, the brutal robbery and killing of a U. S. Mailtruck driver forced President Calvin Coolidge to turn to the Marine Corps for assistance in the civil community. By Presidential Order, 2,500 Marines proceeded on duty to guard the mail. The Commandant, anticipating the Presidential Order, on 18 October had directed the Commanding General, Headquarters, Department of the Pacific, located in San Francisco, ...You will organize a force from the 4th Regiment, to be known as the Western Mail Guards, under the command of Brigadier-General Smedley D. Butler...
Brigadier-General Smedley D. Butler, known as "Ol' Gimlet Eye" to fellow Marines, brought a long record of combat leadership and two Congressional Medals of Honor to the Mail Guards. Veteran of both World War I and the guerrilla wars of Central America, Butler's easy-going manner hid his cold, methodical approach to the task given to the Marines. As the primary source of personnel for the Western Mail Guard, the 4th Marines initially would be spread throughout eleven states. Part of a twelfth state, Texas would be added on 22 October 1926.
General Butler's fully armed Marines soon became sobering influences throughout Post Offices, mail trains, and mail trucks in those areas. While Marines carried out their mail guard assignment, only one attempted robbery was recorded. That particular robbery involved an unguarded mail train carrying no mail at the time. Meanwhile, in San Diego, the base stood relatively empty with a reduced level of caretaker personnel awaiting the return of the 4th Regiment. When normal operations returned to the U. S. Mail system as a result of the Marine guards, the need for continued assignment of such forces became less and less justified. The return of the 4th Marines to San Diego began on 10 January 1927 and by 18 February all personnel had been returned to their home bases as the Mail Guard Force disbanded.
In 1927, American interests and lives in China and Nicaragua had once again been endangered by internal unrest and civil war. The Marines received the call to conduct expeditionary protective operations in these two countries to protect Americans and their property." 
In Conclusion
There is more that can be written here, and I may add more later, but this will suffice to provide some food for thought regarding the Marines as Mail Guards during the 1920s.
The following is from a letter to The Major General Commandant, Headquarters U.S, Marine Corps, from the Office of the Postamaster General, dated February 15, 1922, which states in part...
"My dear General:
It gives me extreme pleasure at this time to submit to you this letter of commendation of the marines who have been performing, during the past three months, the duty of protecting United States mail in railway terminals, post offices, railroad junctions and federal reserve centers. The protection of the mails has been splendidly effective through the loyalty, cooperation, bravery and fearless manner in which the marines have handled the situation in general.
For the twelve months ending with April 9, 1921, there have been thirty-six major mail robberies, with a loss of $6,300,000 stolen from the mail. In April 9 an order went out to the postal service to arm all outside postal employees and through the cooperation of the War Department, guns and ammunition were placed at the disposal of the Post Office department....from April 9, 1921 to October 9, 1921, there had been a total stolen of something like $300,000. In this effort postal employees were injured and killed and some robbers were slain, but the followed a series of robberies and depradations at points at which the Post Office Department had not as yet been able to eqip fully and with which it was unable to cope.
Therefore on November 8, 1921, the Postamaster General submitted a request to the Secretary of the Navy for the use of marines to take over this arduous and difficult duty. This request was immediately complied with and a force of ,,,,were dispatched by the U.S. Marine Corps instantly, in the characteristic of Marine Corps efficiency. These marines were detailed to ride on mail trucks, and on outlying offices and stations where special protection was vita. They have performed their arduous and difficult duty in a most excellent manner and they have my most earnest praise and appreciation for their invaluable service to the public...
Therefore, I desire to express my personal appreciation to the officers of the Marine Corps connected with this work of guarding United States mail, as well as to the Marine Corps and the Navy Department, for the responsive, expeditious and effective manner of carrying out these duries.
Sincerely yours,
/s/ Acting Postmaster General" 
The above information was provided by the
Marine Corps Historical Center
Washington, D.C.

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By Dick GainesGnySgt USMC (Ret.)