Marines Ordered to Guard Mail

U.S. #2265 from the Transportation Series.

On November 7, 1921, President Warren G. Harding ordered 2,200 Marines to guard the mail in the wake of a series of daring mail robberies.

In the early 1900s, mail robbery was a common problem in the U.S.  It was a profitable enterprise for thieves, as banks and other financial institutions often shipped large amounts of money and negotiable bonds by registered mail.  Between 1919 and 1921 alone robbers stole about $6 million worth of mail.

Perhaps the worst robbery occurred in New York City when robbers stole five sacks of mail, carrying about $2.4 million in cash and securities in a single heist.  The situation was so dire that by early November 1921, the postmaster general wrote a letter to President Harding to request that the Marines come and guard the mail.

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Harding agreed and on November 7, 1921 (the same day as another robbery occurred in Paxton, Illinois) wrote a letter to the U.S. Navy Secretary ordering him to assign as many Marines as necessary to guard the mail.  He complied and within a few days, 2,200 Marines and 53 officers were scattered across the country to guard the mail.  They generally worked in small detachments of two or three men.

U.S. #610 was issued just one month after Harding’s death in 1923.

The Marines had strict orders: “You must, when on guard duty, keep your weapons in hand and, if attacked, shoot and shoot to kill. There is no compromise in this battle with bandits. If two Marines guarding a mail car, for example, are suddenly covered by a robber, neither must hold up his hands, but both must begin shooting at once. One may be killed, but the other will get the robbers and save the mail. When our Marine Corps men go as guards over the mail, that mail must be delivered or there must be a dead Marine at the post of duty.”

U.S. #1315 was issued for the 50th anniversary of the Marine Corps Reserve.

The Marines remained on duty until March 15, 1922.  During that time, there wasn’t a single attempted mail robbery.  And for about a year, there were no more major attempts, until robbers took $2.4 million from a St. Louis mail messenger in April 1923.  The robberies then began to increase in frequency once again, culminating in the murder of a mail truck driver in Elizabeth, New Jersey on October 14, 1926.

U.S. #834 from the Presidential Series.

The postmaster general then requested President Calvin Coolidge send in the Marines again, which he did on October 20, 1926.  Soon, 2,500 enlisted men and officers were again spread across the country to protect the mail.  However, by this point the robbers had stronger firepower – automatic rifles and machine guns, so the Marines were armed with Thompson submachine guns.

There was only one known incident of an attempted mail robbery during this time, on October 26, though the Marine fired his gun scaring off the would-be thief.  Much like the last time, the Marine presence brought an end to the rash of mail robberies.  In February 1927 the Marines left for Nicaragua and were replaced by a new security force of the Postal Service.

U.S. #1315 – Classic First Day Cover.

Click here to read the special orders issued to Marines guarding the mail in 1921.

U.S. #2265 – Classic First Day Cover.

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  1. Without researching this article I am thinking that in February 1927 the Marines were replaced by the Pinkertons. Again this is speculation, but if that were the case , it was a substantial trade off. Engineer to fireman: “You’re not going to believe who is guarding the shipment today”. Fireman to engineer: “That’s nothing, wait til you see what they’re gonna do in Iwo Jima in about 18 years.” Just having a little fun with that. It may have been the Hell’s Angels. I’m sure by day’s end I’ll find out what really happened. Please allow me to introduce myself……….

  2. I had read about stage coach robberies so that a guard “rode shotgun” next to the coach driver, but I had never known the stories of the Marines involvement with the mail on trains.. I can only imagine the added congestion with two Marines added in the mail car that didn’t have much room for even two mail clerks plus the open mail sacks for sorting. Thnks for these side stories on moving the mail.

    1. The size of Railway Post Office cars varied, but most had at least four clerks working a very efficiently laid out car. All clerks had side arms which they were trained to use. The clerks would have been very happy to have Marines if they were carrying much registered mail. I believe that the last robbery of a train occurred in 1926.

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