The Department of State Diplomatic Courier Service, which marks its 100th anniversary in 2018, ships tens of thousands of bags and containers, known as pouches, around the world each year (more than 116,000 separate items in 2017). If these pouches could talk, they would have some amazing tales to tell.
Below are a few memorable diplomatic courier stories from throughout history:
Diplomatic Courier Joel Bell retired in 1987 after 37 years of service. During his career he traveled more than 9 million miles, the equivalent of 361 trips around the world or nearly 19 roundtrips to and from the moon.
Bell’s journeys meant he traveled more than any U.S. government employee, with the exception of astronauts who have spent at least 22 days in orbit.
By the 1990s, the Diplomatic Courier Service had transitioned to a regional hub-and-spoke system, resulting in fewer long-haul trips for individual couriers (and notably less jet lag), meaning Bell’s distance record may never be broken.
On July 10, 1776, the Committee of Secret Correspondence of the Continental Congress, led by Benjamin Franklin, commissioned Captain Peter Parker as commander of the U.S. ship named Dispatch to carry sensitive diplomatic correspondence to France.
Captain Parker’s messages were addressed to pro-American merchants in Bordeaux to obtain weapons for the newly independent United States. Franklin’s committee instructed Parker that the secret documents should be attached to “a heavy weight ready to throw overboard and sink them in case you should be unfortunately taken by the Enemy, but to avoid that danger you must make it a standing rule to run from every Vessell you see at Sea.”
Departing Delaware Bay in late July, Dispatch was intercepted by British warships. Following his instructions, Captain Parker threw the weighted diplomatic letters overboard before being captured. This is believed to be the first U.S. diplomatic courier trip, and Captain Parker was the first American courier. Copies of the destroyed messages were sent via pouch on the next outbound dispatch ship to Bordeaux.
Somewhere in or around Ruse, Bulgaria, there might still exist the remnants of a baby grand piano that got waylaid from a U.S. diplomatic courier who slept beneath it one night on a railway station platform while awaiting the next Orient Express to Istanbul.
If it’s ever found, the U.S. government doesn’t necessarily want its piano back, but the current owners might be interested to know that it might be the only official shipment ever lost by the Department of State’s storied Diplomatic Courier Service.
Troubleshooting foreign policy for four presidents from the 1940s to the 1970s, David K. E. Bruce became one of the nation’s more notable diplomats. His diplomatic career began in 1918-1919 when Bruce was discharged from the Army in France as a young soldier at the end of World War I and joined the fledgling Diplomatic Courier Service. His first assignment included carrying dispatches from Trieste to Istanbul via the Orient Express adding, at the last moment, a grand piano destined for a U.S.-sponsored YMCA.
With the war ending amid Bolshevik uprisings, Bruce’s rail journey was twice interrupted by blown-up bridges, forcing him to raft the piano across the Danube River. In Ruse, Bulgaria (then known as Rustchuk), awaiting the final rail leg, his official report claimed the piano was played by a band of gypsies at a train station, after which Bruce slept beneath it on the railway platform and awoke to discover the piano had literally vanished from right atop him.
The local military searched but did not find it, and Bruce boarded the weekly train to complete his dispatch mission. Other accounts suggest that after multiple border crossings he finally encountered a customs officer who refused to clear the massive musical instrument for transit, and chose to speed his other pouches to Istanbul. Regardless of which version is accurate, Bruce soon left the Courier Service and held a lifelong dislike of border restrictions, which made him well placed in later decades to help implement the Marshall Plan.
On the other hand, Bruce was known as a spellbinding storyteller and, as a former classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he socialized in the 1920s with literary expatriates in Europe. So, despite being featured in his New York Times front-page obituary, the piano story might in fact have been concocted over champagne one Parisian midnight with Scott and Zelda.
On October 10, 1955, Diplomatic Courier Frank Irwin was aboard a Yugoslav airliner that crashed outside Vienna, Austria. Irwin survived but suffered internal injuries and third-degree burns over a large portion of his body.
Despite his injuries, Irwin refused to relinquish control of his diplomatic pouches and declined painkillers until a U.S. Embassy officer arrived on the scene to take control of the classified materials.
For his service, the U.S. Department of State awarded Irwin with the Distinguished Service Award February 12, 1956.
In November 1933, comedy star Arthur “Harpo” Marx, one of the Marx Brothers, performed a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union and became a secret diplomatic courier.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Marx to visit Moscow during a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations because his act was based on pantomime, thereby overcoming language barriers throughout his hugely popular six-week tour, Marx was constantly under the watchful eye of a political officer who identified herself only as Comrade Malekinov, acting as interpreter but also on the lookout for hints of espionage.
During the tour, Ambassador William Bullitt asked Marx to carry confidential messages back to the United States. Malekinov never discovered the messages, which Marx kept hidden for 10 days by taping them tightly to his leg beneath his sock.
On May 25, 2008, an aircraft carrying classified diplomatic cargo crashed in Brussels, Belgium.
Diplomatic Courier Tomas Andrew Perez guided the aircrew to safety and notified the Department of State of the incident. Perez ensured the security of the sensitive cargo until U.S. Embassy Brussels personnel arrived and set up a 24-hour command center to provide control of the pouches.
More diplomatic couriers from Frankfurt arrived to secure the site throughout the week long process of salvaging the pouches from the wreckage. Perez received the Department of State Award for Heroism.
Long before the United States established a Diplomatic Courier Service, trustworthy private citizens were temporarily appointed as “bearers of despatch” to carry sensitive documents. In 1851, Matilda Frye became the first female bearer of despatch when the U.S. minister in Lima hired her to carry a newly signed Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation from Peru to the United States.
Frye traveled by steamship to New York, then transferred the treaty to a Reverend Rockwell, who brought it to Washington and was quickly paid customary fees for a bearer of despatch ($6 a day plus reimbursement for ship tickets).
As a woman, however, Frye ran up against barriers when she sought her own payment. She was informed that she would need to contact the U.S. Minister in Lima, J. Randolph Clay, to request that he provide a written statement that he had entrusted Frye as a bearer of dispatch. He willingly provided such a statement. Months passed.
Frye then wrote directly to Secretary of State Daniel Webster asking if it was possible for at least a partial reimbursement, adding that “I have been put too much inconvenience” in her quest for payment. After two more months, almost a year after her journey began, Frye was fully paid for her duties. More than 120 years later, in 1974 the Diplomatic Courier Service began recruiting its first full time female couriers. The treaty delivered by Frye is in the National Archives.
A security leak at an international hotel in Vienna ended up throwing an unwanted spotlight on an unpublicized State Department mission.
Over the Christmas weekend of 1954, diplomatic couriers Neal Ryan and Milt Persson were supposed to be prepping to run the next pouches behind the Iron Curtain. However, they learned that 15 children at a local orphanage didn’t have any place to go for the holidays and arranged a party at the luxurious Hotel Bristol, including a tree, Santa Claus, a magic act, and toys hand-delivered by official diplomatic courier.
Ryan and Persson asked the hotel to keep the event low-key, but a manager contacted the media the next day. “It was the nicest thing anyone ever did in this hotel,” the manager told United Press. “I think the newspapers should know.”