Marine sentries are governed by 11 General Orders and such special orders and directives as may be required for a particular guard post or location. A Marine’s first general order is, “Take charge of this post and all government property in view.” That is precisely what the Marines did in 1921 (and again in 1926) when gangsters began robbing the United States Postal Service of its mail and packages. Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, himself a veteran of Marine Corps service, instructed the Marines as follows:
“You must, when on guard duty, keep your weapons in hand, 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.”
Mr. Denby was not a joking man.
Mail robbery had become a very lucrative business between 1919 and 1921. According to an article by Postal Historian George Corney, about $6 million was lost to mail robbery during these years. In terms of today’s dollars, that would be about $80 million. Train/postal robbery was a worthwhile endeavor back then because registered mail is how most businesses and persons transferred money from one location to another. The worst robbery of all took place in New York City —the loss of $2.4 million in five sacks of registered mail. Today, that would be about $31 million.
The Postmaster General of the United States asked the President for help (on two separate occasions). In 1921, President Harding sent a terse letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Denby:
My Dear Mr. Secretary:
You will detail as guards for the United States Mails a sufficient number of officers and men of the United States Marine Corps to protect the mails from depredations by robbers and bandits.
You will confer with the Postmaster General as to the details, and will issue the necessary instructions in regard to the performance of this duty.
Very truly yours,
Warren G. Harding
It was not very long before the Commandant of the Marine Corps temporarily reassigned 53 officers and 2,200 Marines to duty protecting the United States Mail. These Marines came from the bases at Quantico, Virginia and San Diego, California. Marine commanding officers passed down terse instructions to their Marines, including a training manual formatted as a series of questions and answers. Here are two examples:
Question: Suppose he (the robber) is using a gun or making threats with a gun in trying to escape?
Answer: Shoot him.
Question: Is it possible to make a successful mail robbery?
Answer: Only over the body of a dead Marine.
Of course, so few Marines could not guard every bit of mail and so the Post Office Department decided that Marines would only guard registered mail consisting of a considerable value, particularly mail involving cash and negotiable bonds. The post office consolidated these shipments as much as possible in order to reduce the number of Marines required for such duties.
Marines assigned to these duties may have imagined that it was a plum assignment, but it actually involved long, tedious, lonely hours. Not one time during the initial period of guard duty did anyone attempt to rob the U. S. Postal Service. Marines were withdrawn on 15 March 1922.
The break in robberies continued until in April 1923 when a mail messenger in St. Louis was relieved of $2.4 million of registered mail, and a general reescalation of robberies in 1926. In October, a group of gunmen murdered a postal truck driver and made off with $150,000. Once again, the Postmaster requested Marines to guard the mail while the postal service developed its own force of guards and armored trucks. Once again, the Commandant of the Marine Corps detailed 2,500 Marines to postal security duties, this time under the command of two-time Medal of Honor recipient Major General Smedley D. Butler (West Coast Operations), and Major General Logan Feland (East Coast Operations). All 2,500 Marines served on Mail Guard Duty.
By 1926, gangsters had upgraded their firearm capability. Now they were using automatic rifles and machineguns. Marines responded in kind, adding Thompson sub-machineguns to their arsenal of .45 pistols and shotguns. This time, a Marine did fire his weapon. On the night of 26 October 1926, while detailed to a Seattle bound train, Private Fred Jackson discovered an intruder standing on the mail car platform. In spite of the fact that the train was traveling at about 25 miles per hour, Private Jackson ordered the man off the train. The man told Jackson he wasn’t going to do it. Jackson fired a shot above the man’s head, which caused the interloper to rethink his position. As the man jumped from the train, Jackson fired a second shot for good measure. Today this would result in a White House investigation.
Marines were withdrawn from Postal Security Duty in February 1927; they were needed elsewhere. The Banana Wars were once more heating up.