On this day in 1959, the United States Post Office experiments with “Missile Mail.” It would be the first and only time that U.S. mail was delivered via cruise missile.
Yes, you read that right: The Post Office was granted use of a Regulus I cruise missile, which boasted a state-of-the-art guidance system and a range of 600 miles.
It was more than just a simple mail delivery, of course. It was a Cold War demonstration to the world: United States missiles are so accurate that we can even use them to deliver the mail.
The mail delivery itself had all the markings of a regular Post Office delivery—well, except for the cruise missile, of course. A post office branch was established aboard the submarine USS Barbero, and 3,000 pieces of mail were formally delivered to the new post office branch while Barbero was docked at Norfolk, Virginia. The letters were placed inside two blue and red metal containers. The containers, in turn, were placed inside the modified Regulus I missile.
Each of these 3,000 letters was exactly the same: It was a notice from the Postmaster General, announcing and explaining the missile experiment. The letters were addressed to various government officials.
Barbero departed from Norfolk and entered international waters near northern Florida. On June 8, just before noon, the missile was launched. Twenty-two minutes later, it was received at the Mayport Naval Auxiliary Air Station. The missile had traveled 100 miles and landed with incredible precision.
The 3,000 letters were taken to the post office in Jacksonville and sorted like normal mail.
The Postmaster General was overjoyed at the successful venture. “This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail,” he said, “is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation. Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.”
Perhaps he was just a tad over-enthusiastic? The Department of Defense didn’t feel the need to get involved in mail delivery over and over again. A point had been made to the world, which was all that was needed.
The delivery made on this day so long ago proved to be the first—and the last—time that the United States Post Office used a cruise missile to deliver the mail.
“Ostensibly an experiment in communication transportation,” the Smithsonian National Postal Museum concludes, “the Regulus’ mail flight sent a subtle signal that in the midst of the Cold War, the US military was capable of such accuracy in missile flight that it could be considered for use by the post office.”
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Eric Limer, That Time the USPS Launched a Missile Full of Letters Off a Navy Submarine (Popular Mechanics; June 30, 2016)
Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America: Missile Mail (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Gary Robbins, The day the Navy mailed a letter with a missile (San Diego Union-Tribune; Sept. 16, 2012)
Regular Delivers Missile Mail (1959 newsreel)
Regulus Missile Mail: Object Spotlight (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)