DENVER – A long-forgotten box of documents moldering in a garage has proven a treasure trove of history, telling the stories of the swashbuckling soldiers who first served as confidential couriers for the U.S. government.
The papers, documents and photos, which were turned over to the State Department on Wednesday, were the personal collection of U.S. Army Maj. Amos Peaslee, who founded the federal government’s Diplomatic Courier Service in 1918 amidst the still-smoking rubble of World War I. The papers will form the core of a museum display commemorating the courier service's 100th anniversary this year.
Among the collection is a draft of the Treaty of Versailles, Peaslee’s diplomatic passport and letters from President Nixon. Also in the collection is a letter from Peaslee warning the treaty meant to bring peace to Europe was toothless.
Wearing protective gloves, Robin Peaslee Dougall, the grandson of U.S. Army Maj. Amos Peaslee, shows off a map contained in his grandfather's draft copy of the Treaty of Versailles. (Photo: Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY)
"He said it would never work," said Peaslee's grandson, Robin Peaslee Dougall, who donated the collection after finding it in his mother's garage. "Those people (in Europe) cannot seem to agree on very much."
In the waning months of the war, U.S. government officials formalized a secure system for moving confidential information around Europe, creating a courier service linking embassies and military outposts with the American government. The service took on the name “Silver Greyhounds,” a nod to the diplomatic couriers first used by English kings.
Without jets, modern roads and high-speed ferries, these couriers were on the road for weeks or months at a time as they carried documents between U.S. government outposts in Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, combining discretion, a sense of adventure and dependability to get the job done.
The first couriers proved their worth by figuring out how to cut travel time between Europe and Washington, D.C. from five weeks to just two. They also witnessed the aftermath of the Russian revolution and the face of Europe changing between wars.
The documents provide a glimpse into the life of the first couriers, from their long months on the road to their close relationships with diplomats and military leaders. State Department officials have not yet formally analyzed them for their historical value.
U.S. Army Maj. Amos Peaslee's personal travel diary. (Photo: Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY)
When the Silver Greyhounds disbanded in 1919, their jobs were turned over to civilian management through the State Department, which still depends on its 100-strong Diplomatic Courier Service to oversee the secure transport of everything from top-secret reports to blank passports and visa paperwork to encrypted communications equipment and construction materials for new U.S. Embassies in unfriendly countries.
Diplomatic pouches – and they can be anything from a sealed pouch to an entire truckload of equipment – are exempt from security screenings and customs inspections worldwide. Couriers no longer travel with their bags handcuffed to their arms, although they're required to keep "eyes on" their pouches.
Aside from the ability to charter jets and boats when necessary, the couriers' jobs haven't changed that much as they celebrate their 100th anniversary this fall.
“It’s the best job in the federal government,” said Eddie Salazar, the director of the Diplomatic Courier Service.The diplomatic passport of U.S. Army Maj. Amos Peaslee, one of the few original versions of these passports that exists today. (Photo: Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY)
After his service as a Silver Greyhound, Peaslee served as the U.S. Ambassador to Australia for three years, retiring in 1956. His daughter moved the documents to the garage of her Seattle home after he died, and then her son, Dougall, a Colorado resident, discovered their historical value. Dougall gave the collection to the State Department on Wednesday at a ceremony in Denver. He said some other family members wanted to sell the papers, but he wanted to honor his grandfather's contributions by donating the collection.