Air Mail like None Other
Of all the submarine stories I have ever read, this one ranks with the most unusual. In 1959, the world was still reacting to the Soviet advances in space. The Navy had invested a significant amount of money on the Regulus Missile system as a way to counter Soviet threats. In the background, the Polaris program was about to come on line and change everything. But this story involves another use for the Regulus that is really just a foot note in history.
The story comes from the Postal Service Historic Library and shows an amazing feat that certainly should have a place in history. For the first time in history, mail was delivered using a missile fired from a navy submarine.
The USS Barbero was a Balao class submarine that was a veteran of World War II. She was converted in 1955 allowing her to launch the Regulus I nuclear cruise missile. She was thus redesignated SSG-317. Barbero was enlisted to perform this most unusual delivery in the summer of 1959.
The following story comes from the USPS library article:
“Throughout its history, the Postal Service has explored faster, more efficient forms of mail transportation. Technologies now commonplace – railroads, automobiles, and airplanes – were embraced by the Post Office Department at their radical birth, when they were considered new-fangled, unworkable contraptions by many. One such technology, however, remains only a footnote in the history of mail delivery – missile mail.
On June 8, 1959, in a move that Postmaster General Arthur A. Summerfield heralded as “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world,” the Navy submarine USS Barbero fired a guided missile carrying 3,000 letters towards the naval auxiliary air station in Mayport, Florida. Racing along at about 600 miles per hour, the guided missile traveled the more than 100 miles from the deck of the submarine off the coast of Florida to the air station in about 22 minutes. The letters, in special commemorative envelopes, were all from the Postmaster General to leading government officials and prominent citizens with a special interest in the Post Office Department.
To achieve this feat, the US Navy fired a Regulus I missile from the USS Barbero (SSG-317) and directed it to land at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, Florida, near Jacksonville. While the sub was docked at Norfolk, Virginia, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield helped place two blue and red metal containers, holding 3,000 letters, inside the sub’s missile prior to the flight.
Racing along at about 600 miles per hour, the guided missile traveled the more than 100 miles from the deck of the submarine off the coast of Florida to the air station in about 22 minutes. The letters, in special commemorative envelopes, were all from the Postmaster General to leading government officials and prominent citizens with a special interest in the Post Office Department.
“Before man reaches the moon,” Summerfield was quoted as saying, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles.”
“The 1959 event was widely-publicized as the “first official missile mail” to distinguish it from earlier rocket flights. The earliest known unofficial transportation by rocket of U.S. Mail took place on February 23, 1936, when two rockets transported mail about 2,000 feet across a frozen lake towards the Hewitt, New Jersey, Post Office, from Greenwood Lake, New York. The rockets crash-landed before reaching their destination and slid along the ice; the postmaster of Hewitt obliged by removing the two bags of mail and dragging them the rest of the way to the Post Office.”
The missile was fired from the submarine shortly before noon and arrived at Mayport twenty-two minutes later. The 3,000 letters inside the missile were identical letters from the Postmaster General that were addressed to President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, cabinet members and top federal officials, all members of congress, Supreme Court justices, U.S. governors, postmasters generals from around the world and the officers and crew of the Barbero.
Summerfield’s letter was an enthusiastic announcement of the experiment, which had not been publicly announced beforehand. Summerfield’s office received several letters from stamp collectors who complained that they had not been given the opportunity to place items aboard the flight. In the four decades since the flight, some of the Regulus I letters have found their way into public hands. Some made their way to dealers that year and were sold at over $100. The letter addressed to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution remains in the National Postal Museum’s collections.”
A different kind of message was delivered
While it was really an experiment, many view the action as a covert message to the Russians that the American Navy was fully capable of launching a missile with a certain degree of accuracy and have it arrive at a location of their choice. The technology was still new, but the guidance system was fully capable of delivering a weapon with a thermonuclear weapon from a distance of 600 miles. This particular shot was only 100 miles but it clearly showed the potential lin an age where missiles and planes were being built at a rapid pace o both sides of the iron curtain.
The space used for the containers was space that was originally designed to hold the missile’s nuclear warhead.
Postmaster General Summerfield’s enthusiasm did not translate into a monumental shift in mail delivery systems. The 1959 USS Barbero test firing was the only time a missile of this type was used to carry mail in the US.
I wonder what the stamp price would have been had they continued?