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Life as a Diplomatic Courier: Connecting China to the World

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to jet off across the world continent-to-continent at a moment’s notice? Before the days of instant electronic communications, the role of a diplomatic courier would be to deliver classified information back and forth as quickly as possible. Earl Kessler was a diplomatic courier stationed in Shanghai during the late 1940s. As a courier, he traveled and connected consulates and embassies across Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India, and even Russia.

Tamil coolies helping to launch a Catalina flying boat down the slipway for a patrol mission in the Far East (1941/1942) United States. Office for Emergency Management | Library of Congress
Tamil coolies helping to launch a Catalina flying boat down the slipway for a patrol mission in the Far East (1941/1942) United States. Office for Emergency Management | Library of Congress

The situation in Shanghai and across China at this time was tenuous, and traveling out of Shanghai became a dangerous affair as the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek and the communists raged on. By 1949, the situation had deteriorated so dramatically that Kessler and the consulate had to evacuate from Shanghai to Honolulu. While abroad, Kessler would have the strenuous task of safeguarding classified materials everywhere he went. Once he reached his desired location, Kessler had to navigate his way through unfamiliar environments to deliver crucial information to both U.S. and foreign residences. Along the way, Kessler met and befriended various individuals, from foreign government officials to playing tennis with local warlords. Following the evacuation from Shanghai to Honolulu, Kessler spent his later career as an administrative officer. He served in Athens (1949–1952) and Madras (1952–1954). Later in his career, Kessler returned to Washington, D.C., and taught administration courses at the Foreign Service Institute.

Earl Kessler’s start in the Foreign Service as a diplomatic courier truly exemplifies the dangers and sacrifices FSO’s undertake when placed in challenging assignments.

Earl Kessler’s interview was conducted by David Reuther on February 23, 2012.

Read Earl Kessler’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on China click HERE.

For more Moments on Southeast Asia click HERE.

Drafted by Jonathan Adams

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“He said, ‘You have no idea what you have ahead of you . . . .’”

Always on the move:
[…] my supervisor said I was going as far south as the embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, and as far east as New Caledonia, but he said I don’t think you’ll make it to Tahiti because we’re closing down Tahiti, the French are kicking us out because they’re having some nuclear tests going on soon and they want us out so I don’t think we’ll be able to stay so you probably won’t make it to Tahiti, but you’ll definitely make it to Nouméa, which is the capital of New Caledonia. And he said, you know, Australia’s a big area and he said you know, we have consulates in Adelaide and Melbourne, Brisbane, we have an embassy in Canberra, way out in the Indian Ocean at Perth. He said you have no idea what you have ahead of you, and so forth. And then he said you’re going to go to what was called the Strait Settlements in those days, now it’s in Malaysia, and Singapore and Burma and you’ll meet the courier that’s coming all the way from Cairo. You’re going to have to exchange your material in Calcutta and what he brings you’ll bring back and give to the fellow there. He’ll take all the way back to Cairo and from Cairo, it’ll go who knows where. Who knows where and so forth. And then he said so, are you up to this? I said I think it’s wonderful, I’m all set. He also added that I would go as far north as Vladivostok, which pleased me because that’s another place I was dying to go to.

And so that’s the way we got started. My very first trip was to sort of break me in a little bit, put me on the train, overnight train to go to the embassy in Nanking. And so I went to the embassy in Nanking several times on the train, which was uneventful but I did enjoy being in Nanking and the reason I was going, spending so much time in Nanking is because it was the capital of China and where the other embassies were from whom I had to get visas for all my travels. I was told in Washington not to waste time with this visa business in Washington; they can do it faster in Nanking. But you know, they weren’t very fast and those embassies there, some of the guys, consular officers only met you maybe a couple of hours in the morning or a couple of hours in the afternoon; that’s all they worked. Some of the embassies closed at noon. Fortunately, the British embassy could give me a visa for a variety of stops because they were British colonies; the Strait Settlements was a British colony, so was Singapore, so was Burma and so was India. But the Dutch were real fussy and of course, I had to have a visa for Dutch East Indies but the Dutch embassy, they weren’t all that—they were very slow about giving me a visa. Anyway, it took me days to get all these visas for some of these places. At that particular time, the Australians didn’t have a consulate in Shanghai. And the British could not give you an Australian visa, nor would New Zealand do it. So I had a lot of things to do. .

“. . . . we had seals so that they couldn’t be tampered, but we were never supposed to leave the pouch out of our hands. We went to the toilet we took the pouch with us. We took a shower we had it right outside and so forth.”

American Embassy, Nanking, China (1937) Harris & Ewing | Library of Congress
American Embassy, Nanking, China (1937) Harris & Ewing | Library of Congress

Keeping materials safe:
Q: Now on these trips, is it like in the movies where you’re handcuffed to your pouch?

KESSLER: No, absolutely not. No, that was a lot of baloney. However, we had seals so that they couldn’t be tampered with, but we were never supposed to leave the pouch out of our hands. We went to the toilet we took the pouch with us. We took a shower we had it right outside and so forth.

Q: Now, the necessity for this kind of pouch service is that electronic communication is quite minimal and most Foreign Service reporting at that time is via paper.

KESSLER: Oh it’s all paper. There was almost none of the other. And you know, in those days they had charts they’d want to send. They’d be classified. Pictures sometimes would be classified. Elaborate reports would be classified. Sometimes publications would be classified. And sometimes you’d fly into a place and they’d have to answer the materials I brought as fast as they could, so that I could take it back, maybe the next plane. Usually I was at a stop two or three days and take it back. So I had time at all these places.

And another aspect of it, which I can’t talk too much about and you’ll understand, is that we had a lot of other assignments just to keep our eyes open and check on things because we could get in anywhere where no one else could hardly get in. It was virtually impossible for awhile to get into Burma. They were very strict but they couldn’t stop us. And I got to know the king’s messengers very well. Of course that was a very prestigious title in England to be a king’s messenger and they were all retired senior military and some of them—and one of my closest friends, he was a Sir Somebody, and I got to know them quite well because we would frequently run into them on the planes, and our instructions were if you had to leave the pouch, it’s perfectly safe to leave it with a king’s messenger. And they had the instructions which was you could always leave the pouch with the American diplomatic courier. So we’d be sitting there sometimes waiting for the same flight and all of a sudden well I’ve got to go to the bathroom, why I’ll leave my pouch with him, or I’d take care of his pouch.

And our instructions were if you ever were in a place that there was absolutely no American consulate of any kind and you couldn’t keep the pouch, you wouldn’t think it would be safe to keep the pouch with you, go to the British consulate and they will take care of you, and you’re authorized to turn the pouch over and they’ll put it in their safe. And that only happened once. And once the plane was sputtering away and I didn’t think we’d ever make it but we finally did and we overshot the airfield, went into a huge rice paddy, and it took them several hours for them to rescue us off the plane because it was just like a quagmire and they had a military thing finally take us off, amphibious sort of thing. And this was in Haiphong and Haiphong was in northern Indochina in those days, now Vietnam.

And so anyway, sitting next to me was a very nice French fellow, spoke very good English, and he was a representative for one of the big French newspaper chains. I knew there was no American consulate there so I asked him if there was a British consulate? Oh yes, there’s a British consulate. He said there’s a funny little man there, he’s all alone but I think he’s soon going to have another fellow joining him because the fellow went away on home leave and there’s someone coming out later but this fellow’s a very nice elderly man. So I got to the British consulate there. It had already closed but they had a sign, in emergency press this button, so I did and this was maybe 8:00 at night, something like that, and this fellow came out and he was in his pajamas and his robe, and he saw me and he saw the pouch. Oh, he said, for goodness sakes, do come in. And he was so nice to me. He said you know, this is very exciting for me. He said I’ve never had this happen before. He said of course you can put your pouch in my vault; I’ll make sure that it’s perfectly safe. I said I’m sure you will. And he wanted me to stay at his place. He said I don’t think it’s safe for you to be in a hotel. And I said well, I have a friend aboard ship- aboard the plane that was nice enough to say he’d put me up. That was this French fellow; he had a big place there and he used to have another correspondent, I guess, living there with him but the correspondent had taken off, I guess. And so anyway, I didn’t spend the night with him but I left the pouch and I had a very interesting time with this French fellow who later visited me when he had some kind of business in Shanghai.

So anyway, that was the only time I had the situation come that I had to put my pouch in another consulate.

“And I could never understand why such an intelligent person that apparently Chiang Kai-shek was, but how could he allow this thing to happen?.”

Troubling times:
Q: And when did you leave Shanghai and what was your next assignment?

KESSLER: Yes. See, when I departed Shanghai my two years were up. So I can’t say I left because the city was falling or anything like that. My two years were up so they called me in and they said look, it doesn’t look good and if the commies take Nanking our goose is cooked, so to speak, because there was nothing between Nanking and Shanghai to speak of and there was already massive desertions in the nationalist army because they weren’t—half the time they never paid them. And at one time on the streets of Shanghai you could find a guy in a uniform, an army uniform, begging for money. It was a terrible situation. And I could never understand why such an intelligent person that apparently Chiang Kai-shek was, but how could he allow this thing to happen?

Nevertheless, conditions in China did impact me. After confirming I was in no hurry to get back to the States and that my parents were, my boss asked me to go to Honolulu. We’d like to keep you there maybe, you know, four, five, six months but maybe not. We’ll see what happens. Maybe if they hold Nanking and maybe Chiang Kai-shek gets his house in order, gets his act together, then maybe you can come back and then we’ll—you know, help us out for maybe a month or two and then you can go home on your home leave and so forth.

Well anyway, I went to Honolulu and he said, was told they were sending someone from the Department over and so the two of us were to set up a tentative office in Honolulu. Tentative office; it may be permanent, but it may not be. We’ll just have to see what happens. But he said we’ve got to be prepared because the Army has already stopped its service to Australia and New Zealand and apparently they did have off-and-on some sort of a service but all the U.S. military had gone, all the military had left Australia and New Zealand so there’s no—obviously there’s no connection, no reason to have a military courier going into Australia and New Zealand if there’s no military, except for military attachés at the embassy.

So anyway, I said sure, great, so I volunteered and I flew to Honolulu but it wasn’t as if I was leaving the city in haste because that was not the case. And I arrived in Honolulu and this fellow, Jack Grover, G-R-O-V-E-R. He died and so did his wife die years ago. By the way he was a very fine fellow—and there’s a building at the new FSI (Foreign Service Institute) named after him.

Anyway, he had had considerable experience in working out of Washington and so forth. Very nice fellow. So we were there together, the two of us. Actually I got there before he did and I had talked to this captain and explained the situation and they were kind of phasing down too, you know, the war was over after all, you know. Everything was phasing down. So he had plenty of space. He said sure, I can fix you up an office here and we have a little vault you can use, we’ll move it in. He was very accommodating, very nice person. And he said look, he said you can stay at the BOQ, there’s a very nice wing at the BOQ and I’ll get you into that BOQ wing and you can stay there as long as you want. I said well it wouldn’t be very long because either we’re going to stay here for awhile or we’re not. Anyway, and it turned out I was there really for at least- well over a month, probably two months.

Anyway, we got things pretty well set up and so forth and Jack arrived and he was a big help and he handled certain things and I handled certain things. So we made runs at that time then from Honolulu to Sydney. And then there was a flap so I had to spend some time in Sydney, I can’t remember quite what the reason was but there was a difficulty there about something and I ended up spending oh, three or four weeks at one time, another time I spent three or four weeks in Sydney. So I sort of divided my time between Sydney and Honolulu for some time. Then of course they couldn’t hold Nanking and of course exactly what was predicted happened; the communist forces moved right on into Shanghai, everyone was evacuated. The Department didn’t know what to do with them so they sent them to nearby embassies, Hong Kong and Singapore, and the situation of course was bad in Indochina so they didn’t go there and a lot of them went to the Philippines and so forth, some went back to Washington and so forth.

I want to note that eight months or so before I left Shanghai, or maybe a year before I left Shanghai, something like that; Pan Am finally started service to Shanghai; thank God for that. Maybe 10 months, anyway, Shanghai was finally on the circuit. Shortly after that or maybe the same time, it seemed to be very close to each other, Northwest Airlines came in. So then we were in business; then for the first time beautiful big American passenger ship finally arrived and that was the big President Cleveland and American President Lines had the beautiful, beautiful trans-Pacific ships, gorgeous ships; they had the President Hoover, the Monroe, the Wilson, the Cleveland, and there’s another one and they’re beautiful ships. Their earlier name sakes had all been sunk during the war, every single one of them were sunk by the Japs so this is a brand new ship, the Cleveland, and then shortly after that there was another brand new ship that was called the Wilson.

And for the first time tourists finally could come to Shanghai. Not many would do it, would come, but they’d had a few. I used to play tennis a lot with the head of the American Express office and he was all excited the first time tourists were actually coming into Shanghai. And three months later or so, why things start crumbling and crumbling. Finally Pan Am and Northwest both said well, we’re going to make—we’ll only guarantee one more flight so that’s your chance to get out. I wasn’t there at the time but I’ve been told this by several who were there. Northwest the same thing. And finally only had the last flight.

But I was there when the last ship sailed because the ships were very—they were everywhere because boy, that’s a bad situation getting in there. It was very narrow and boy, if the commies ever got in they were going—The Army itself wouldn’t have to get just a bunch of saboteurs could get in; they could really cause trouble. So anyway, while I was there the last ship sailed and it was a tearful thing because that was just before I left Shanghai, just before I left Shanghai the last ship left and I said good-bye to some of my friends and we—and the consulate took over just about everything on that ship and later I met them in Honolulu when they stopped for the day and just had a lot of fun.


BA in International Affairs, University of Southern California 1940–1943
Joined the Foreign Service 1946
Shanghai, China—Diplomatic Courier 1947–1949
Athens, Greece—Administrative Officer 1949–1952
Madras, India—Administrative Officer 1952–1954