Marines as Mail Guards: A Story Of the Roaring ’20s
By: Bob Campbell
The history of the United States Marines is nothing if not colorful. From the Mexican War to the Battle of France to the Chosin Reservoir, Marines have earned respect as fighting men. At times the mere presence of Marines has been enough to bring the peace.
One of the more interesting but less well known actions Marines participated in happened in America at a time when there was no FBI and prior to the firm establishment of armed postal inspectors. During the Roaring ’20s violent crime was commonplace. Among the institutions hardest hit was the post office. According to the Postmaster General, from April 9, 1920 to April 9, 1921 there were 36 major mail robberies that netted armed perpetrators no less than $6,300,000.
The first response was to arm all outside postal employees. A common arm used in this detail was the Smith and Wesson Model 1917 .45-caliber revolver. These handguns were readily available as surplus from the recent Great War. Guns and ammunition were transferred from the War Department to the post office. The 1917 revolver, a substitute standard handgun of the U.S. Army, was used not only by the U.S. Postal Service but by the United States Border Patrol. In some cases it was issued directly to bank tellers.
Despite the arming of post office employees, $300,000 dollars was stolen from April to October 1921, during which postal employees and a few robbers were slain. The Postmaster General appealed to the president. A special request was delivered to the Secretary of the Navy. Almost immediately, Marines were detailed to the post office to guard trains, trucks, main buildings and isolated transfer stations.
The Marine action was no token show. Nor was it a small scale operation. The Marines were serious, heavily armed, and in a high state of readiness. The original contingent consisted of 53 officers and 2,200 enlisted men dispatched throughout the country. Post office robberies stopped immediately. No one wished to face armed, ready Marines. The first Marine guard action ended in March 1922.
The nation was divided for this purpose into two zones, eastern and western. Dividing lines were clearly marked. Williston, N.D., Green River, Wyo., Denver, Colo., El Paso, Texas and Albuquerque, N.M., were cities considered borders of the Western Mail Guard. Eastern units came from the Expeditionary Force. This crack unit was stationed at Quantico, but two companies were seconded for the mail assignment from Parris Island. Brigadier General Logan Feland commanded the Eastern Zone, which was divided into three areas. The First Regiment covered New York, the Tenth Regiment, Chicago, and the Southern Area was headquartered in Atlanta.
Experience gained in this exercise served veteran Marines well in 1926, when events again called for serious action when a mailtruck driver was brutally murdered in Elizabeth, N.J. President Calvin Coolidge issued an executive order calling for Marines to once again ride the rails and protect the post office. General Smedley Butler, a respected combat Marine, Congressional Medal of Honor holder, and veteran of World War I and various South American guerrilla wars, commanded the Western Mail Guards. Primarily he utilized the 4th Marines, which he spread through 11 states and part of Texas. These Marines soon became familiar sights on mail trucks and trains in the West. Obviously, they were a sobering influence on the criminal element. During the tenure of the Marines as mail guards only one robbery attempt was made — on an empty, unguarded train!
The presence of high-profile Marine guards allowed the post office to operate normally. By January 1927, Marines began to return to their home bases. While the mail guards were welcomed by the population, they had seen no action. By Feb. 18, 1927 all Marines were off guard duty. Many were soon on the way to protect American interests in China and Nicaragua.
In the years between Marine guard actions, the post office hired civilian guards, but no guards were ever as effective at dissuading robbers as the Marines. In comparison to most police agencies the Marines were exceptionally well trained. (Police agencies of the day expected peace officers to come to the job trained!) Just as important, there were no federal police agencies in those days. No one had authority to pursue felons outside of a limited jurisdiction. The Marines were another matter. Most police agencies used the .38 revolver and perhaps a shotgun. My research shows the Marines wisely relied mainly upon two of the finest short-range weapons of all time. The main weapon was the 12-gauge shotgun. These guns were short-barrel Winchester 97s, the estimable “trench guns” of World War I fame, proven in Europe and South America. The other weapon relied upon was the Colt Government Model .45 automatic, a weapon that needs little introduction. This pistol had been widely used in Mexico and Europe with excellent effect. No other pistol combined such excellent stopping power, complete reliability and excellent hit probability in trained hands.
General Logan Feland issued a circular letter on Dec. 13, 1921 that carried instructions for conduct by all Marines on guard duty. The instructions were detailed, including guidelines for passing through Canada. The official title of the detachment was, “US Marines Corps Guard Company, Washington, DC.”
Tactical instructions were explicit. Railroad flares were kept for emergency signaling if the train were attacked. If attacked, all interior lights were to be put out, by gunfire if necessary. Shotguns were to be carried with a full magazine and chamber empty. The Colt .45 was to be carried properly, cocked and locked (hammer back, safety on) with a loaded chamber. The commandant ordered that the military flap holster would be worn with the flap folded back so as not to interfere with a rapid draw from the holster. If not carrying other arms, it was recommended guards keep their hand on the Colt .45 at all times.
The Marines have a long history worthy of praise. This small episode was simply business as usual for them, but it is worth a little attention. Without a shot fired, Marines brought the peace. If we need the Marines again, they are always ready!
Copyright Bob Campbell
Military Trader, December 2001 Issue
Reprinted by Permission