Operation Graphic Hand: Troops turned mailmen in times of USPS trouble

Elizabeth Howe
August 21, 2020 - 1:23 pm
US Air Mail

US Army

As the COVID-19 pandemic further strains an already financially fraught U.S. Postal Service and some doubt the USPS' ability to deliver reliably for an expected surge of mail-in voting for the upcoming election, the military has the resources and the logistical plans to help.

In fact, the military has a formal contingency plan in place to do just that. 

The 2006 U.S. Northern Command Contingency Plan 2501 includes the provision that the U.S. military is prepared to act “in the event of a postal work-stoppage and the disruption of mail service on a national, regional or local basis." 

Tampering with the chain of custody for mail is a federal offense and is heavily regulated -- so military personnel would be augmenting the USPS system in ways other than home deliveries such as delivering mail to government addresses and post office service counters. They could even deliver it to lockboxes. More importantly, the contingency plan includes logistics for troops to sort mail and transport it between processing facilities.

So you won’t see a military cover replace the USPS bucket hat of your usual mailman -- but at one point in history, you might have. 

Long before the formalized contingency plan was published, the military has been stepping in to make sure mail gets where it needs to go -- and we mean long, long before. 

In 1934, not long after mail transport via air was established, the airmail system faced issues of corruption and fraud concerning civilian contractors hired to fly mail across the country. Until the concerns were resolved, President Theodore Roosevelt canceled all airmail contracts. 

And who stepped in to help in the meantime? The Army Air Corps, of course. 

It proved to be no small feat for the Army. The Air Corp was largely unprepared for the task and 66 accidents led to twelve deaths during the operations from February to June of 1934. But they accomplished the mission nonetheless, preventing a multiple-month long standstill in airmail delivery. 

Twenty-five years later, a halt in USPS deliveries resulted in a national emergency. And who do you call on in a national emergency? That’s right -- the military. 

In 1970, around 200,000 mailmen went on strike for eight days. The USPS had long been lamenting its low salaries, so when Congress gave itself a 40% pay raise, USPS workers decided they had had enough. 

It only took five days for President Richard Nixon to declare a national emergency and Operation Graphic Hand was launched. 

The striking mailmen stretched across 13 states. All told, around 29,000 active-duty and Reserves military personnel were dispatched to post offices across the country to keep the mail flowing. In New York City alone, military personnel processed 12.8 million pieces of outgoing mail during the week of operations. The 220-page Operation Graphic Hand after-action report itemizes $2.84 million in operational expenses or around $18 million in 2020 dollars. 

Luckily, unlike the 1934 mail augmentation operations, the DoD reported no deaths as a result of Operation Graphic Hand. 

The state of the USPS is currently being deliberated on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers on Friday confronted U.S. Postal Service Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on reported delays in USPS service, which has affected some veterans' prescription deliveries.

Senators push USPS leader for answers on mail delays, including veteran prescriptions

“We are working here feverishly to get the system running, add stability, and also to hire more workers to handle the delivery process," Dejoy said. "We all feel bad about the dip in our service level. We serve 161 million people. We still deliver at 99.5% of the time ... Everybody's working feverishly to get that right ... We're considering dramatic changes to improve the service to the American people." 

It might be too soon to say, but the military certainly has a history of stepping up when needed, at home or abroad.

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Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter @ECBHowe.

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