U.S. mail across the Atlantic by land-based aircraft, Part 1, 1941 and 1942
By Ken Lawrence
In the summer and fall of 1941, the United States Army Air Corps Ferrying Command (ACFC) inaugurated two air transport routes across the Atlantic Ocean that carried mail. The previously established Foreign Air Mail route No. 18 (FAM 18) commercial trans-Atlantic service operated by Pan American Airways between New York City and points in Europe employed Boeing B-314 flying boats called Clippers, with luxurious accommodations for passengers. ACFC flew austere land-based aircraft — Consolidated B-24 Liberator long-range bombers that had been refitted as transport planes.
As explained by Air Force historian John D. Carter in The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 7, edited by Wesley Frank Craven and James D. Cate:
The B-24 was unusually well suited for transport work after most of its armament had been removed and its bomb-bay section rigged to accommodate passengers and cargo. With full fuel tanks, the plane was estimated to have a maximum range of 4,000 miles. … Stripped of all combat equipment and armor plate, the Liberator alone among major aircraft then in production or planned for early production had one prime characteristic of true cargo aircraft — its fuselage stood low to the ground so it could be easily loaded.
Later models of the same four-engine Consolidated design, built originally as transports instead of being modified combat planes, were designated C-87 Liberator Express, shown here. The Ferrying Command eventually used both B-24s and C-87s on its trans-Atlantic routes, the first American transoceanic airmail services to be operated exclusively with landplanes.
Surviving covers that show evidence of having been carried aboard land-based transport planes on ACFC trans-Atlantic flights are uncommon. Learning to identify them can be challenging, but finding and collecting them is exceptionally rewarding.
JULY 1941: WASHINGTON, D.C., TO AYR, SCOTLAND, AND BACK
From July 1 to Oct. 18, 1941, ACFC operated an air transport service that carried urgent passengers, cargo and mail on an average of six round trips per month between Washington, D.C., and Great Britain on three B-24 Liberators. The 1,700-mile route followed this course: Bolling Field, Washington, via Montreal, Canada; and Gander Lake, Newfoundland; to Ayr, Scotland, then retracing those same intermediate stops back to Washington.
The 1941 diplomatic cover shown above from the U.S. Embassy in London to Washington, D.C., is probably a relic of the next-to-last trip of that service. This cover, sent by diplomatic pouch, flew on a B-24 transport flight from Ayr, Scotland. Upon entering the U.S. domestic mail on Oct. 13, 1941, at Washington, D.C., the cover’s 2½-penny bright ultramarine King George VI stamp (Great Britain Scott 239) paid surface postage to the destination. The endorsement “This article originally mailed in country indicated by postage” was applied when it arrived at the State Department.
With the arrival of frigid weather, and unable to secure landing rights from neutral Portugal over a proposed warm-weather route to Britain via Bermuda, the Azores and Lisbon, ACFC suspended the North Atlantic flights. When the northern route to Britain reopened the following year, the eastern terminal had moved from Ayr to nearby Prestwick, Scotland. Meanwhile, in September and October 1941, the Ferrying Command had flown two survey flights for a South Atlantic crossing to Africa.
By that time, interior trans-Africa services had already begun. The War Department’s contractor (a Pan Am subsidiary called Pan American Airways-Africa Ltd., PAA-Africa, based at Accra, Gold Coast) initially flew 12 twin-engine Douglas DC-3 Skytrain landplanes, as shown above, with the Army’s pledge of six more as quickly as they could be delivered.
On Aug. 18, 1941, the Civil Aeronautics Board had authorized PAA-Africa to “engage in the transportation by air of persons, property, and mail in Africa.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt had approved the CAB order on September 8. Next, the Ferrying Command linked those flights to a trans-Atlantic connection.
NOVEMBER 1941: WASHINGTON TO CAIRO, EGYPT, AND BACK
Three B-24 Liberators previously in North Atlantic service were transferred to the new route between the United States and Egypt inaugurated Nov. 14, 1941, a flight distance of 10,000 miles that took seven days to fly in each direction. The first flight went from Bolling Field, Washington, via Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico; Belem and Natal, Brazil; Takoradi, Gold Coast; and El Fasher, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; to Cairo and back.
Lt. Edson E. Kester was the pilot and Capt. Lawrence M. Thomas the co-pilot on that flight. An important passenger was Gen. Elmer E. Adler, the newly appointed chief of the air section of the United States Military North Africa Mission.
According to the unpublished seven-volume report, The Official History of the South Atlantic Division Air Transport Command, “These flights were intended to be only temporary, ending on January 2, 1942, but our sudden entry into the war in the meantime completely altered these plans.” The Army Air Forces added, “The service continued on a special-mission basis during the critical early months of war, pending the establishment of a greatly expanded and more regularly scheduled contract carrier operation over the route.”
Later stops were added at West Palm Beach, Fla.; Piarco Airport (later still, Waller Field), Trinidad; Atkinson Field, British Guiana; Bathurst, Gambia; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Roberts Field, Liberia; Accra, Gold Coast; Lagos, Kano and Maiduguri, Nigeria; Fort Lamy, Chad; and El Geneina and Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
Formerly classified documents held by the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., provide additional details. According to History of the Air Transport Command in Central Africa and the Middle-East, Part I, History of the Ferrying Command in Africa and the Middle-East (29 May 1941 – 30 June 1942), “The first run landed at Cairo on November 21st … , started its return trip November 25th, and arrived at Washington December 1st.”
The anonymous author of another unpublished report, Ferrying Command Operations, May 29 – December 7, 1941, added, “[F]ive trips of the B-24 shuttle service of the Ferrying Command departed Bolling Field prior to December 7, one round trip of the Pan American flying boat service was made to Leopoldville [Belgian Congo] and back, and a few dozen trips of the trans-African transport line were completed between Bathurst and Khartoum.”
The Pan Am flying-boat round trip was the Dec. 6-18 inaugural flight of FAM 22, nominally between Miami and Leopoldville although Capetown Clipper actually departed from New York City and collected mail and passengers from Miami en route at San Juan, Puerto Rico. Airmail collectors knew about that flight, but not about the landplane flights.
The Air Force historian’s map illustrated here shows all the trans-Atlantic and trans-Africa routes flown by the Ferrying Command and its contractors as they existed before Pearl Harbor. It also shows two routes operated by its contract carriers Pan Am (Miami to the Belgian Congo) and PAA-Africa (Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, and Nigeria to Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), plus routes that had been proposed but not implemented (Central Atlantic via Bermuda, the Azores, and Lisbon, which the Portuguese government had declined to approve, and Egypt to Iraq). In June 1942 a landing strip on Ascension Island became a mid-ocean call for South Atlantic flights.
AFTER PEARL HARBOR; EXPANDING SERVICE TO AND FROM AFRICA AND ASIA
A Dec. 13, 1941, supplementary contract between Pan Am and the War Department specified that flying boats would be phased out of South Atlantic service and transferred to the Navy as soon as four-engine landplanes became available, a transition that occurred between November 1942 and June 1943.
In a snarky note attached to a memo that affirmed the transfer, Brig. Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Plans, wrote, “Believe we should leave all of the obsolete flying boat business to our friends in the Navy.” After retiring from the Air Force, Kuter became a vice president of Pan Am.
The December 1941 contract not only anticipated phasing out flying boats on the South Atlantic route, it also required Pan Am to apply for an amended certificate of convenience and necessity that extended the FAM 22 route eastward to Singapore. The longer route was initially served by B-24 Liberator and DC-3 landplanes, and later by four-engine Douglas DC-4 Skymaster transports. A Skymaster is shown, being loaded with mailbags.
The Ferrying Command contracted with Transcontinental & Western Air to inaugurate service on Jan. 3, 1942, over essentially the same Washington-to-Cairo route but with fewer intermediate calls, employing two four-engine Boeing B-307 Stratoliner landplanes. A picture postcard showing a Stratoliner is illustrated here.
On Jan. 7, 1942, the B-24 and B-307 routes were extended to Basra, Iraq; on January 12, to Tehran, Iran, and Karachi, India. On March 27, the Post Office Department secretly designated the TWA route FAM 23, authorized by a CAB certificate of convenience and necessity to transport civilian mail. Besides operating B-307 Stratoliners, TWA flew C-87 Liberators from Washington to Karachi from November 1942 until June 25, 1943.
By the end of February 1942, Pan Am was operating a thrice-weekly Miami–Natal–Accra cargo, passenger and mail service for the Ferrying Command, flying DC-3 aircraft with added fuel capacity. The Army’s designation for the twin-engine DC-3 was C-47; for the four-engine B-307, it was C-75; and for the four-engine DC-4, it was C-54. In his book Passed by Army Censor, Richard W. Helbock wrote:
The South Atlantic Ferrying Route became the principal lifeline between the U.S. and Allied forces in the Middle East and beyond after America entered the war. The principal U.S. base in West Africa was located at Accra, Gold Coast, and from there planes were able to move in easy stages across Africa to Khartoum. At Khartoum, aircraft en route to India proceeded east across southern Arabia by way of Aden and on to Karachi. Those destined for China continued on across India to Dinjan in Assam and then flew over the Himalayas to Kunming. Aircraft bound for Russia in the lend-lease program flew north to Cairo from Khartoum and then on to Basra or Tehran where they were turned over to Soviet pilots.
When America entered the war there were virtually no U.S. Army forces stationed in bases along the South Atlantic air route. The situation had changed little by April 1942, but during the last three quarters of the year troop strength rose to 1,340 in Brazil, 1,240 in Liberia, 1,350 in the Gold Coast (Ghana), 1,320 in Belgian Congo and French Equatorial Africa, 280 in Kenya and 1,870 on Ascension Island.
During those early months, the air bases were staffed mainly by Pan Am personnel. A July 1, 1942, Air Corps memorandum titled “U.S. Civilian and Military Personnel at Ferrying Command Installations along the Route to India” reported these totals: Ferrying Command, 599; PAA, 1,059; TWA, 26.
Summing up, historian Frank H. Beck, author of the unpublished History of the Air Transport Command, 29 May 1941 – 30 September 1945, A Brief Sketch, wrote, “During the first six months of the Command’s existence, it served primarily as an agency for facilitating the delivery of aircraft to the beleaguered British, and for maintaining a limited flow of key personnel and mail between the United States and London and Cairo.”
Our challenge as collectors is to identify the mail carried on those flights.
MAIL CARRIED BY THE FERRYING COMMAND OR ITS CONTRACTORS
The best evidence that a cover flew across the ocean from Africa or Asia in one of the land-based aircraft is the presence of a Washington postmark or a censor mark or both, which in most instances means finding a letter sent by military or diplomatic pouch.
My collection includes the cover shown above from New York Herald-Tribune reporter Russell Hill to his paper, mailed from the press room at U.S. mission Middle East headquarters at Cairo. An Army censor at Cairo applied the black “CENSORED” mark on Jan. 24, 1942, and a second Army censor struck the blue five-zeroes boxed oval marking upon its arrival at War Department headquarters. The letter entered the domestic mail on February 19.
At the time that cover was posted, no U.S. Army or shore-based Navy post office had been established in Africa, so stamps were not available to Americans. A special provision of the Postal Laws and Regulations of the United States allowed it to be sent collect, a seldom-seen usage. As a war correspondent, Hill enjoyed the benefit of military mailing privileges.
Airmail collectors are partial to covers like this one, with postmarks or docketing that recorded both departure and arrival dates. We often must pay a substantial premium for such showpieces. Here the dates show that the cover was in transit for 26 days, a remarkably rapid journey during those early months of American involvement in the war.
The cover from Karachi, India, to New York, shown nearby, made a speedier trip over a longer distance. An army censor at Karachi dated his release Feb. 5, 1942, and a Ferrying Command or TWA transport flight carried this cover from there to Washington, D.C.
The blue-boxed oval censor mark was applied at War Department headquarters before the letter was deposited in the mail at Washington on Feb. 27 for the final journey by air to New York City.
A pair of 4-anna dark brown Mail Train stamps and a strip of three 12a carmine lake Mail Plane stamps (India Scott 158 and 161, respectively) paid airmail postage to the destination.
So, released by the Army censor in India on Feb. 5, it transited Washington and arrived at The New York Times building on Feb. 27, totaling just 22 days for the entire trip.
BACKLOG: “THIS MAIL PROBLEM IS A LULU.”
Those quick westbound trips were exceptional. In light of the sudden though not entirely unexpected war emergency, the small number of long-range aircraft then in service, and the military’s urgent needs to deploy troops, arms and equipment overseas, it should not be surprising that mail piled up all along these routes, shunted aside for more important loads.
On March 30, 1942, the Pan Am traffic manager at Accra complained that urgent company mail was being unduly delayed; some mail received on that date had been sent from New York on Feb. 11, a lag of almost seven weeks. By mid-May, 30,000 pounds of outbound mail had piled up at Miami, 70,000 pounds at Natal and 20,000 pounds throughout Africa.
The postcard shown here was flown in a diplomatic pouch from Cairo to Washington, probably on a B-24 flight. U.S. Army censors released this card on April 4, 1942, at Cairo, with red “CENSORED” and rare blue-boxed oval “PASSED BY THEATER US ARMY EXAMINER” markings. It was canceled in Washington on May 15, and the recipient in Minnesota docketed it May 18 in pencil. The 1-millieme brown orange, 4m green and 10m purple King Farouk stamps (Egypt Scott 206, 209 and 212, respectively) secured surface transport from Washington to the destination at the postcard rate.
The card was censored at Cairo on April 4 and arrived at Washington on May 15: a total of 41 days in transit. Ironically, this arrival date coincided with the policy change that eventually solved the problem.
Lt. Dano N. Laux, Air Corps public relations officer, complained to the Ferrying Command that chronic mail delays were sapping morale both among troops and on the home front. “This mail problem is a lulu,” he wrote. He considered the crisis so pressing that he proposed dedicating a fleet of aircraft solely to the transport of mail.
But events had occurred that made possible a less drastic and more practical solution. Gen. Robert E. Olds, the Ferrying Command chief who had required separate CAB-certified commercial operations for the contract carriers, essentially duplicating military routes at reduced efficiency, suffered a heart attack in March and was replaced by Gen. Harold L. George in April.
Meanwhile, on April 24, TWA had given Lawrence G. Fritz, its vice president for operations, leave to take a commission in the Air Corps.
Gen. George put Lt. Col. Fritz in charge of ACFC operations. Fritz was a no-nonsense, daredevil pilot who had flown the very first contract mail trip from Detroit to Cleveland in February 1926. On May 15, 1942, Fritz issued an order, shown nearby, that swept aside the distinction between commercial and military flights for the purpose of transporting mail, and assigned quotas of government, military official and post office mail for every transoceanic flight by the Ferrying Command and its contractors.
Fritz showed his determination to eliminate the mail backlog by additional measures, too. According to the official report, Army Postal Service During World War II:
A large number of tactical aircraft being ferried to overseas points aided materially in the transportation of mail. However, as their departure could not be projected in advance it was impossible to set aside specific mail allotments. In order to secure all possible air space available, postal liaison officers from ports of embarkation were detailed to air fields from which tactical aircraft departed. Through their personal contacts with pilots and officials of air fields, these officers were able to secure space aboard tactical aircraft for a considerable amount of mail.
The distinction between commercial and military no longer applied to the transport of mail by the Ferrying Command and its contract carriers.
An entry in Brig. Gen. Kuter’s diary gave Sept. 21, 1942, as the date that the Civil Aeronautics Authority dissolved its Office of Military Director and integrated CAA’s oversight duties within the Army Air Forces. I infer from the absence of subsequent certificates of convenience and necessity for Ferrying Command and Air Transport Command (ATC) mail routes that the CAB had probably made a similar arrangement with Kuter earlier, but I have no documentary proof of that.
AIR MAIL OVER THE HIMALAYA MOUNTAINS: “THE HUMP”
While Fritz was working to clear the Atlantic backlog, another landplane route was born more than 15,000 air miles to the east, a transport distance greater than half the earth’s circumference at the equator. The unanticipated Japanese conquest of Burma in April 1942 closed the Burma Road, the last land route of supply to unoccupied areas of China.
Gen. William H. Tunner wrote in his memoir, Over the Hump, “In early 1942 no thought whatever was given to airlift anywhere in the world, much less over the remote and forbidding terrain that lay between India and China,” the route over the Himalaya mountains of Tibet called “the roof of the world.”
On April 8, 1942, a Tenth Air Force flight carried cargo over the Hump for the first time, beginning the new air transport service that was also the only mail route to and from China, using every available kind of land-based aircraft that could fly high enough. The May 17, 1942, cover illustrated here from Chungking to New York City, forwarded to Silver Bay, N.Y., is an early example. The sender endorsed the cover “AIRMAIL TO CALCUTTA, CAIRO, PORT BELL [Uganda], LEOPOLDVILLE, Thence by PAA TO DESTINATION.” Postage Rates of China, by Ping-wen Sieh and J. Lewis Blackburn, and rate tables by the same authors published in the journal China Clipper, report June 30 as the date that route opened, as does the China Stamp Society website.
A single $20 rose violet and black Sun Yat-sen stamp (China Scott 464) appears to have represented a 60¢ convenience overpayment of $1 surface postage for a 20-gram letter plus double the $8.70 per five grams airmail surcharge and a $1 registry fee.
A Tenth Air Force transport plane carried the cover from Chungking, China, over the Hump to India. There it was censored, then flown by British Overseas Airways’ Horseshoe Route to Cairo and Port Bell, Uganda, where it transferred to a South African Airways flight to Leopoldville (assuming the sender’s endorsement was obeyed).
By this date, the Ferrying Command had assigned Pan Am’s Boeing B-314 flying boats to shuttle back and forth between West Africa and South America, so very few Clippers continued to call at Leopoldville, but PAA-Africa provided weekly ACFC Congo Route service between the Belgian Congo and Gold Coast on DC-3 landplanes. Pan Am’s B-314 seaplane and modified DC-3 landplane shuttles both flew the trans-Atlantic route to Miami, so it isn’t possible to assign the June 23 transit date to a specific aircraft. The cover reached New York City on June 24, its 38th day in transit. After being forwarded it was delivered at Silver Bay on June 26.
My cover offers evidence that the route through Uganda became known earlier than June 30 in China, and that the $9.50 per five grams airmail surcharge advertised for that service was established afterward.
In March 1942, Army engineers were sent to Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic to build a landing strip called Wideawake Airfield (named for the island’s ubiquitous sooty terns, colloquially called wideawakes), which became operational in June. By locating a fueling station halfway between Brazil and West Africa, the Air Corps made possible the use of twin-engine aircraft on these routes, and established a base for anti-submarine patrols.
History of the South Atlantic Division told how the first airplane that landed on the island, piloted by Lt. E. Dixon Child of the Royal Navy, barely avoided tragedy:
In due time, on June 12, they sent out a proud message that the airstrip was ready for planes. Actually, it was ready only for an emergency landing, and the emergency developed three days later. On June 15, the British auxiliary carrier Archer unthinkingly dispatched a pilot, in one of the old Fairey “Swordfish” bi-planes, to drop a message on the cable station at Georgetown [the capital and largest town]. The announced plane, which might have been German or Vichy French for all anyone on the island stopped to think, circled curiously over the airfield. When it seemed about to land, the anti-aircraft batteries opened fire. Meanwhile, calmer heads had identified it, and the pilot came in, past machinery and vehicles driven onto the strip to impede him, and with three shell-holes in the skin of his plane and a caliber .30 projectile lodged in his shoulder harness. He felt all right, though, the first man to land on Ascension Island, and took off again in a couple of hours.
On July 1, 1942, the Ferrying Command became the Air Transport Command, largely to avoid semantic confusion. The Air Force history explained, “When the Ferrying Command was established the term ‘ferrying’ was used in a broad sense to include both the flight delivery of aircraft and the operation of back-and-forth service for the transportation of cargo and passengers,” but British commanders often did not grasp the second meaning.
The first ATC flight to Ascension Island, a B-24D Liberator, arrived from the Belgian Congo on July 10. The July 30, 1942, cover shown nearby from temporary APO 1257 (APO 877 New York was the permanent address for U.S. forces on Ascension Island, but APO 1257 Miami was the address for troops being transferred to Gold Coast) at Ascension Island, was free franked for surface transport, but went by air from there to Washington. It was forwarded locally on Aug. 8, just nine days in transit, verifying airmail transport. Earlier military and civilian mail went by ship and took longer to reach recipients. This might be the earliest flown cover from Ascension Island.
My collection also includes a Dec. 27, 1942, letter from Turkey to Virginia, shown here. One 10-kurush black Mustafa Kemal Pasha stamp and one 2k light blue Soldier and Map postal tax stamp (Turkey Scott 748 and RA50) paid the international surface letter rate of postage. It was sent from Turkey by diplomatic pouch and traveled by surface transport to Egypt and by air from Cairo to Washington, arriving on Jan. 18, 1943. From there it went by surface mail to Fort Belvoir, Va.
The enclosed letter, dated Dec. 27, 1942, from an Army engineering instructor stationed at Istanbul to a colleague at Fort Belvoir, described his travel itinerary from Miami that had followed the same route as the mail:
I arrived in Turkey on November 20th. We left Washington October 30th and flew to Miami, thence to Natal, Brazil across to Africa to Cairo and from Cairo we went by train and motor car to Ankara, Turkey and then on by train to Istanbul and Robert College. We had a very delightful trip. It covered about 15,000 miles and good weather all the way. Everything went off just like clock work and we only spent about 8 days actual travelling time. The other time was spent waiting for connections. We flew by land plane all the way to Cairo. Crossing the South Atlantic we stopped to refuel at Ascension Island. The airfield there was built by the 38th Eng. Bn. You remember they left Jackson last March for some unknown destination. They finished the job there in July and moved on to Africa. A few of them are there still.
This letter disclosed the existence of the mid-Atlantic air base, one of the military’s closely guarded secrets, which could not have been sent if it had been subject to censorship, but for today’s postal history studies it’s an exceptional contemporaneous document.
The Army Air Forces summed up:
By the end of 1942 the fleet operating on the transatlantic jump had been increased to twenty-six planes — nine C-54s, four C-87s, four B24D’s, five Stratoliners, and four Clippers. Their daily capacity was thirty tons, which compared most favorably with the nine tons in July.
With the completion of the Ascension Island air base and the inauguration of regular trans-Atlantic flights that stopped there en route, the stage was set for extension, expansion and expedited transport of passengers, cargo and mail from the United States all the way to China. On Dec. 1, 1942, Air Transport Command took over the Hump route, with Col. Tunner (later promoted to brigadier general) in command.
We shall resume those stories in my next Spotlight column.
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