Naval Postal Service History

Mail Service to the Fleet: Navy Postal Ratings

To view an article documenting the different Navy Mail Ratings that were responsible for mail service to members of the US Navy since the beginning of World War II CLICK on the below heading.  Included in the article is a picture of each rating badge.

Postal Then and Now –  Navy Postal Service Ratings Over Time

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ANTICIPATION …

NAVY MAIL – MAIL CALL, MAIL CALL

Compiled by JIM COZINE

     Mail call was extremely popular throughout the Navy during our service years long before personal computers, and the Internet of things with commercial email. Sailors aboard any ship hoped for an announcement over the 1 MC telling them their mail had been delivered.  Mail was the only way Sailors stayed connected with home while underway. The arrival of mail aboard Navy ships was traditionally an event to be celebrated and would boost morale. Sacks of mail would come over by highline from an oiler, or would be waiting on a pier when a ship made a port call. It was the link back to families and friends. Mail was considered second only to food and ammunition in morale value.

     Once the mail was sorted, Sailors eagerly awaited the word passed on the 1 MC, the ship’s general announcing system: “Mail call, All Division mail POs lay down to the post office and pick up mail.” The mail would be brought to the divisional spaces and each article passed out one by one as the lead petty officer called out the name.  A box from home would be noted by all, so the Sailor receiving it might have to open it and share the broken cookies.  A pastel and perfumed envelope would get a raised eyebrow from all hands as a sheepish Sailor came up to claim it. The murmurs turned to chuckles after the second and third scented envelope was delivered. The more experienced members of the division had their letters from home numbered in the order in which they were sent.  Dads in the division proudly opened notes from their children in scribbled handwriting.

How did Navy Mail happen?

     Back in WWI a civilian run Military Postal Express Mail was formed in 1917 for the American Expeditionary Forces in France- it converted to Army staffing in May 1918.  That service was completely discontinued in January 1924.

     Before WWII, the Navy received mail direct from civilian post offices.  Locations of stations remained permanent and presented few problems with mail delivery as it was directed to the city and state where each particular naval station was located. In the case of ships and aviation units which were afloat, additional arrangements were required. This procedure consisted of direct negotiations between the ship’s office and the local postmaster.  Ship’s mail was sent to the city where it spent most of its time in port in care of the postmaster of that city. The postmaster in turn would have the mail delivered to a designated office on the dock where the ship’s mail clerk picked up the mail. Before a cruise the postmaster was advised of the schedule and the mail was forwarded accordingly. To expedite mail delivery, personnel usually advised their correspondents of the ship’s movements and mail was addressed direct to port cities in care of the postmaster.

     After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when wartime secrecy shrouded the movement of ships, it became necessary to have a central distribution point. Two main Navy post offices were established in early 1942 – one in San Francisco for ships and stations in the West or Pacific Ocean, and one in New York City for mail for East Coast Stations and the Atlantic Ocean. In this manner the locations of ships and foreign stations remained unknown to all with the exception of those charged with routing the mail.

     In July 1945 the Navy manpower peaked at some 3,405, 525 personnel, ten times the 337,349 count on Dec. 7th 1941.  Note: Today’s Navy of 337,066 [Nov. 2019].  San Francisco was the largest of all the FPOs handling roughly 61% of all navy mail with 2,100—3,000 staff as needed, New York handling 34%, had 1,500 and Pearl Harbor had 434.  It was a massive 24 hr/7 day challenge to provide this Navy mail service to nearly 5,000 official Navy ship and shore post offices throughout the world. A special FPO had to be opened in Chicago to keep the mail moving as volumes grew (read about VMail later). The New Orleans FPO also played a part in clearing mail to and from the areas fringing the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

     Each of these major FPOs had sections within the FPO to handle the Armed Guard and Merchant Marine mail. The Coast Guard was handled with the Navy mail.  The Marine Corps section of the two big FPOs operated separately, except for dispatching, which was handled by the Navy. The New York FPO even took care of the free French Navy’s vessels operating with the US Atlantic Fleet.

Directories

     Mail that was properly addressed moved full speed ahead using the FPOs and activity numbers. Improperly addressed or hard to read names/addresses were turned over to the directory service known as the Fleet Records Office.  Here the names of every serviceman and woman (all 3+ million of them) were kept on cards (akin to library index cards) arranged alphabetically in scores of wooden bins or cases that took up half an office floor. Here the staff, chiefly WAVES, did an effective job of recording address changes and tracking down the latest correct addresses.  The biggest headaches where with the thousands with family names like Smith, Jones, Johnson, Brown and Williams. In 1944 there were 10,000+Smiths in the NY FPO Mail directory files alone. Any mail not delivered at a ship or station mail would also be sent back to the FPO Fleet records and if the new location of the addressee was not found it went to the Navy Annex at Arlington, VA as the final resort.

Victory Mail

      Victory Mail, more commonly known as V-Mail, operated during World War Il to expedite mail service for American armed  forces overseas.  Moving the rapidly expanding volume of wartime mail posed hefty problems for the Post Office. To reduce the bulk and weight of letters, the Navy started microfilming letters. As a result, as much as 25 sacks of air mail weighing up to 1,250 pounds was recorded on 16mm film, put in a small V-mail sack of only 14 lbs. Then at the overseas station photographic prints were made and delivered to the servicemen.

     V-Mail used standardized stationery for the microfilm processing.  Space was made available for other war supplies and more letters could reach military personnel faster around the globe. This new mode of messaging was launched on June 15, 1942. V-Mail assisted with logistical issues while getting top priority.  In 41 months of operation, letter writers using the system helped provide a significant lifeline between the front-lines and home.  Most V-Mail went through the Chicago FPO for the outbound microfilming and homebound reprinting. The Navy used V-mail with most every island invasion, usually going in with the third echelon on the 3rd day. Even landing ships (LSTs) were turned into floating central post offices at places like the great fleet anchorage at Ulithi, and as part of the invasion fleet at Okinawa.

The Fabulous Earl Grover

     One evening aboard a Landing Craft Infantry -LCI(L) in New Guinea, in late 1943, three of the LPOs (Leading Petty Officers) of this 2 Officer/24 man crew were having a bull session in the radio shack with a cup of Joe in hand.  As they began discussing the mail and how they would like more letters is when the sweet voice of ‘Tokyo Rose’ came over the speaker after playing a popular Folk and Country record “No Letter Today.” She said “Is your mail slow in arriving?” and other taunts. That triggered a group brainstorming for an idea to get more mail. The action plan launched was a letter to five major stateside newspapers, including the Chicago Herald Tribune, from an imaginary shipmate Earl Grover.  It read “No Letter Today may be a popular song in the states, but here in the South Pacific it is a tragedy.  We have a young man on board named Earl Grover, an orphan… ” The letter went on to state Earl was a wonderful guy, but had no one to write to.  He was always left out at mail call and the crew shared their letters and packages with him.  We implored the readers to write to Earl and make him feel wanted.

     Some six weeks later they saw the results.  As the ship returned to the Flotilla anchorage, from landing troops in the Bougainvilles, four Higgins boats pulled alongside with mail, lots of mail.  What a load-WOW!  They couldn’t believe it!  All Hands turned-to unloading the sacks and right away we noticed nearly every sack was tagged ‘EARL GROVER’.  They had forgotten all about the letter.  The Captain called the crew to quarters and came right to the point. ‘WHO IS EARL GROVER? There are 57 sacks of mail on the quarterdeck addressed to Earl Grover.  There was no response.

     Then the Captain asked Radioman Macman (one of the 3 LPOs) to step forward – in that he doubled as the ship’s Yeoman – he handed him clippings from newspapers featuring their letter. “ORPHAN IN PACIFIC SEEKS LOVE,” “LONELY SAILOR NEEDS MAIL.” He replied ” I have never met the man Captain, but I think his mail should be forwarded.”  The skipper glared at him for a moment then huddled with the XO and reached a decision. “Now hear this.  All hands will turn to on the mail sacks.  All checks and cash are to be placed in an envelope and returned to the sender.  Under no circumstances are any of these letters to be answered!  Anyone caught will be court-martialed. Dismissed!  They broke ranks and made a bee-line for the mail!  What supreme joy!  In seconds the mess hall tables were loaded with letters and packages.  The packages could not be returned and many were smashed… they tore into them.  It was like Christmas in August.  There were cakes, candies, cigarettes, cigars, lighters, canned fruits and meats, shaving gear, bibles, comic books, wrist watches, knives, handkerchiefs, stationery, pens and pencils, socks and underthings, one contained three jars of caviar!  And the letters.  Oh what letters!  Beautiful girls sent fabulous photos, some in a pin-up pose taken by professionals, proposals of marriage, some wanting a pen pal while others wanted a sweetheart.  In one defense factory in Chicago 40 girls had a group picture take, each had her lips pursed ready to kiss and the sign in front saying—A kiss for Earl Grover—come and get it!  Then there were many other letters from couples with lost sons, old folks, Clubs, Fraternal and Religious groups.  Letters like that made us feel pretty cheap and lowdown.  We found out there are a lot of wonderful people on the home-front.  In a way though, it wasn’t wasted.  The letters and packages were distributed throughout the area and hundreds of serviceman benefited.  Morale soared to the greatest heights.  For several weeks the mail poured in for Earl and we were kept delightfully busy.  Gradually it petered out as no replies were sent and finally dwindled down to nothing.

     Some time later their LCI joined a huge convoy and made the initial invasion in the Philippines (at Leyte Gulf).  They were on the  beach discharging their troops when a reporter from Life magazine came aboard having been assigned to do a story on Earl Grover.  The Captain took him to the wardroom and broke the news to him gently.

A Job Well Done

     Prior to WWII, the Navy’s mailmen were often Yeomen, but were sometimes gunner’s mates, pharmacist’s mates or other rates.  In 1948 they were Telemen and then became Postal Clerks in 1960 following approval of the new rating in 1959,  Today the work is done under the rate Logistics Specialist.  The Internet doesn’t deter Navy mail volume – letter mail as decreased, but e-commerce has exploded as sailors are ordering a lot of items online.  Mail delivery is still a much-anticipated event on ships.  MAIL CALL, in war an peace, afloat or ashore, has approved itself one of the big reasons that Navy morale stays high.

  The Mail Buoy Watch

     Capturing the mail buoy.  It was one of those harmless but amusing initiations for a young Seaman’s first time at sea. The build up was important. The crew was expecting mail, letters from home, care packages, and so on.  Everyone knows how important the mail is underway!  A plane flew ahead on the course that the ship was following, dropping the mail buoy or it was dropped by some other ship that could not highline the mail in this weather.  It had to be retrieved.  In hard hat, foul weather gear, sound-powered headphones, life jacket, lifeline, with a gaff hook and binoculars the Seaman was posted to the forecastle and was instructed to keep his eyes peeled for the buoy.  Instructions are given that when he saw the buoy he must hook it or the mail bag on the buoy.  They’re warned again that the whole ship is waiting for their mail, and failure to hook it will have the whole ship mad at him.  Twenty or thirty minutes later in the cold breeze and sea spray, one of the Boatswain Mates, lookout or bridge watch would then cuss him out (over the headphones) for missing it.  Of course, the Officer of the Deck, the Bridge watch, and the ship’s Boatswain were in on the joke.  At the end of the watch if he accepted the good nature hazing he might get a trip to sickbay for some Corp»man Candy (APC -all purpose cure).

A Real Mail Buoy?
     It all started in 1931 when a trading post was opened on the isolated volcanic rim island of Niuafo’ou in the northerly Tongas of the South Pacific. The island was a tropical paradise, but had neither a natural harbor nor a wharf and needed regular mail connections. To accomplish this a large biscuit tin can was secured to a buoyant bamboo pole containing the mail.  With two natives to fight off the sharks, the Postman would swim out to the passing ships and set the mail out for pickup and a like tin would be thrown overboard by the passing ships.  It worked and attracted wide attention so the steamship lines began advertising this as a fascinating tourist event at “Tin Can” Island.  By 1935 the business was all they could handle.  All went well till 1946 when an erupting volcano scattered all the inhabitants who fled to nearby Eua Island.  Slowly over the years the native folk drifted back to the island and in 1962 the Tin Can Mail was resumed at three-week intervals.  By this time the Matson Lines passenger ships on the run between California and Australia were making this stop at Niuafotou northbound. They would lay-off about a mile and the native postman in an outrigger delivered the mail to the white luxury liners.  A ship’s purser would lower a large can painted red, white and blue for the mail exchange and the ship was shortly underway again. This Liner service ended in the 1970s.

NOTE:  The full story (with a minor change to reflect postal was moved under Logistics Specialist) appeared in ‘Our Navy’ magazine Sept. 1965 by Macman – he appears to be James H. Macman of Denver, CO who passed away in Nov. 1998 (age 76).

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PREZ Al Hass found this article in SEAPOWER OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE NAVY LEAGUE OF THE UNITED STATES. Volume 62, Number 8, October 2019  TITLED MAIL CALL, SHOWS HOW THE NAVY POSTAL SYSTEM HAS EVOLVED

MAIL CALL! POSTAL OPERATIONS STILL A CRITICAL PART OF THE NAVY’ S
OVERALL LOGISTICS ENTERPRISE —AND MORALE ABOARD SHIP
BY EDWARD LUNDQUIST, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

The arrival of mail aboard a U.S. Navy ship has traditionally been an event to be celebrated.  Sacks of mail would come over by highline from an oiler or would be waiting on a pier when a ship made a port call.

Aircraft carrier crews would anxiously watch the flight-deck imagery  on the closed-circuit TV system to see the carrier onboard deliver (COD) flight arrive with parts, passengers and, most importantly, the mail — with a collective sigh from every compartment if there wasn’t enough wind over the deck to land the COD.

When the mail was sorted, Sailors eagerly awaited the word passed on the 1MC, the ship’s general announcing system: “Mail call!” The mail would be brought to the divisional spaces and each article passed out one by one as the lead petty officer called out the name.

A box from home would be noted by all, so the Sailor receiving it had to open it and share the broken cookies. A pastel and perfumed envelope would get a raised eyebrow from the LPO as a sheepish Sailor came up to claim it. The murmurs turned to chuckles after the second and third scented envelope was delivered. The more experienced members of the division had their letters from home numbered in the order in which they were sent. Moms and dads proudly opened notes from their children in scribbled handwriting.

According to the 1963 Navy Postal Clerk 3 & 2 Manual rate training manual, “Your function is to see that your shipmates receive all the benefits of the Postal Service. In performing this function, you will contribute greatly to the morale of your ship.” The Postal Clerk rating is gone now and is performed by logistics specialists. But the function continues — as does its importance to the Navy and its personnel.

The jointly manned Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA) was created in 1980 to bring together the mail functions within the military services under a single mail manager and to serve as the military’s single point of contact with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS),  providing service in 55 countries and for forces afloat and deployed for contingency operations.

The Adjutant General of the Army serves as the MPSA’s executive director, charged with processing, transportation, and distribution of personal and official mail within the Defense Department. 

Today, military personnel who handle mail must be authorized and trained to do so in accordance with Postal Service and Pentagon regulations. MPSA said 88,618 tons of packages and letters were sent or received by overseas Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and federal employees at about 1.2 million post office boxes, unit mail rooms, buildings and other delivery points in 2018.

Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) is the Navy’s representative to the Military Postal System. The Navy postal system moved 5.6 million pieces of mail in fiscal 2018, processed 36,000 documents, and handled $9.4 million in postage and money orders. Quite simply, postal operations are a critical part of the Navy’s logistics systems.

“Postal touches customers every day,” NAVSUP Postal Operations Manager Dale Pinchart said. In 2013, the former Fleet Post Offices (FPO) in New York and San Francisco, with detachments in Miami and Honolulu, were consolidated into a single hub in Chicago, e, unit or ZIP code. Those FPO gateways are still there, and express mail, registered mail and surface mail still pass through New York or San Francisco, but those operations are not as large as they were in the past.

“Letter mail has decreased, but e-commerce has exploded. Our overall volume — and our workload — has increased,” Pinchart said.  Pinchart said the amount of official mail has also been gradually decreasing, but there is still a significant volume of documents and instructions. And many supply parts are still forwarded through thepostal system because it’s still the most reliable and cost-effective method.

Internet Doesn’t Deter Navy Mail Volume Mail delivery is still a much-anticipated event on ships. Even though the internet has replaced a lot of the “snail mail” cards and letters, today Sailors are ordering a lot of items online. So, the volume of mail is growing exponentially.

In the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility (AOR) that covers 52 million square miles, NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Yokosuka handles the transportation of all Navy mail throughout the Far East, covering 13 Navy postal activities and base post offices on Navy installations; the entire 7th Fleet; all USS and USNS, MSC and US Coast Guard ships visiting the 7th Fleet area of responsibility; as well as the U.S. Army at Camp Zama and at North Dock Yokohama and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. 

NAVSUP FLC Yokosuka operates 16 Far East NAVSUP  postal activities from Guam to Diego Garcia, with 140 military, U.S. civilian and local national postal personnel who provide military postal service.

According to Capt. Frank Nevarez, the commanding officer of NAVSUP FLC Yokosuka, 22 million pounds of mail — much of it being packages from online retailers — is processed a year by the Fleet Mail Center in Yokohama. “We support 180,000 customers and have $5 million in postal revenue annually,” Nevarez said.

The Navy manages its mail differently than the other services. The Navy’s bases don’t move, but Pinchart said Navy ships have always been somewhat of a challenge. “You’re trying to hit a moving target. You have to anticipate where the ship or squadron is going to be, and hopefully have mail waiting for them on the pier, or have it delivered by air or during a replenishment at sea.”

Most Navy mail being sent overseas will travel by scheduled commercial flights. “It’s very reliable,” Pinchart said. Ships inform NPS where they will be by classified message so the mail routers can get the mailto them at their next port or at sea.

“We route the mail based on the ship’s schedule. We don’t want to have the mail catch up to them in a port after they’ve left,” Pinchart said.  Military Sealift Command ships are also supported by the Navy’s postal system, but the function is carried out by the ship’s purser instead of by Sailors.

Technology has changed the charter of military mail. Online video chat has replaced the numerous cassette tapes that were once mailed back and forth. Sailors still receive “care packages” from home, but now online ordering has made it easier from military men and women to order what they want. Families living overseas used to order from the J.C. Penney catalog, but now Amazon and eBay make it easy to find what they want. 

Technology Changes Mail Delivery – Technology has changed the way the Navy moves mail.  Mail that is both received and dispatched is scanned to help track from the point of mailing to delivery. New technology, such as the Intelligent Locker System (ILS), Informed Delivery and Pier Lockers, is helping to serve customers better, Pinchart said.

Now ILS lets customers pick up their mail from secure lockers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and eliminates the need for customers to stand in line. The system provides an email barcode, which can be printed out or used with their cellphone to access their mail. ILS is now available in 19 locations and that number is growing.

Pinchart said “address standardization” speeds up the mail and improves accuracy. “All of our customers have a unique address, and it’s important to ensure their correspondents know what that address is to avoid delays.”

Pier lockers allow the base postal personnel to drop mail for a ship at a secure location at the head of the pier. While big ships with huge volume like aircraft carriers may not be able to use the lockers, they can bring efficiency to busy ports like San Diego and Norfolk. “We’ll inform the ship that they have mail and give them the code so they can retrieve their mail. It allows us to streamline our routes, and we don’t have to wait for the clerks to come off the ship to receive their mail. They can get it whenever they’re available,” Pinchart said.

SendSuite Live (SSL) helps commands send large shipments by the most economical means. The command enters the package height, weight and destination into the SSL system and the software “shops” around to find the lowest price. 

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ALL HANDS NAVY MAIL 1949

PREZ Al Hass found an interesting article in a 1949 edition of “ALL HANDS.” Click on the header to access the site.  Many Navy Postal Clerks can relate to the information in this article, especially the more senior members of the NPCA.  Mail was still in in its heyday when Al joined the Navy in 1964, as he soon found out during his first assignment at Terminal Navy Post Office, Yokohama, Japan.  Yokohama, then as now, was a hub for the movement of Navy mail in the Pacific.  Click on the below header to access the website.

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Shipboard Navy Post Offices:

This is for all you Navy Postal Historians.  The first shipboard Navy Post Offices were established on 15 August 1908 aboard the USS Illinois (BB-7), USS Rhode Island (BB-17), and USS Prairie (AD-15).  As important as mail was back in the day, I imagine this was a big event. Thanks to PCCS (Ret) Jeff Gibbs for this tidbit of Navy Postal History. Shown below are pictures of each of the ships.
 
Al Hass
 
USS Illinois BB-7.jpg
USS Illinois (BB-7)

 

Rhode Island
USS Rhode Island (BB-17)
 
 
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41eu%2BvqpH-L.jpg
USS Prairie (AD-5)

History of the Military Postal Service (MPS) as documented at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.  View information in the below URL for a great overview of the MPS.  Quite a bit of information pertains to Navy Postal Operations.
 

Retired PCCS(SW/AW) CRAIG HOULETTE put together this recap of the Naval Postal Service History, bit of nostalgia for all


  •  Navy Postal In Action – Access the website below to view pictures of Navy Postal Operations.  These pictures reflect     operations between roughly 7-12 years ago, so they are fairly current and give a true depiction of what postal operations are all about.  You may even see a picture of yourself, and/or some shipmates.  Click on the below Category to access the site.

 Category:Postal Clerk (United States Navy) – Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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