History of America's Military Mail

Moving the Mail

Location is Key

Mail delivery must overcome the complexities posed by troop movements, supply lines, and transportation means. The most challenging and time consuming part of moving mail arises in a theatre of operation. Issues of security, difficult terrain, and transportation resources can slow dispatches. At times, limiting the size and weight of mailed items has helped to ensure that the mail goes through.

“I am truly glad to hear that you had rec’d some of my letters. I have the advantage of you. I know where to write to you. Your home is stationary, mine is upon the wide world, wherever I pitch my tent there is my home for the time being. A soldiers’ life is uncertain & his abode more.”
—Lieutenant William McKean to his father, November 13, 1846
refer to caption
APO stands for Army or Air Force Post Offices, while FPO represents Fleet Post Offices, serving the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Using a number assigned to an APO/FPO as an address provides flexibility and security if and when a military unit changes location. The APO number 96490 example on this poster represented the 1st Calvary Division, Airmobile, stationed in Vietnam, located at An Khe as of November 1967.

No Easy Task

refer to caption
Waterproof, camouflage mailbag for experimental use during Vietnam conflict.
Courtesy U.S. Postal Service

Delivering mail in war zones is fraught with difficulty. During the American Revolution, postal couriers scoured the countryside to find George Washington’s elusive army. Two hundred years later during the Vietnam War, the military experimented with using bags like this one to drop mail from helicopters. Unfortunately, this type of bag blended in with the jungle too well, making it difficult to locate.


An “Outrageous” Bill

refer to caption
Letter on Quartermaster Department stationery from Civil War.

Creating and maintaining the system that made delivering military mail possible was expensive, requiring the government to devote vast resources to the task. Postal and military officials tried many ways to coordinate management and decide financial responsibility. In this 1862 letter, an officer from the Quartermaster General’s Office questioned the transportation costs charged by the Post Office Department.

How Does Mail Get to Ships and Submarines?

Different means can be used to deliver and receive mail from naval vessels. All require information about movements and location, including the old standby of exchanging mail at a port of call. While at sea, so called “underway replenishment” is also possible. Ship to ship lines are established for refueling, water, and transfer of supplies. Aircraft carriers sometimes receive containers of letters and parcels flown in by airplane or helicopter. Cargo can also be transferred between hovering helicopters and vessels such as surfaced submarines.

refer to caption
Aircraft carrier crew members carry mail sacks from a helicopter on a flight deck, 2003.
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson.