U.S. Diplomatic Couriers – Behind the Iron Curtain


NARRATOR: In 1918, the
Diplomatic Courier Service was established to support
the work of American diplomats by ensuring that classified
messages and materials were delivered safely and securely
to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Over the 100 year history
of the Courier Service, this mission, critical to the
national security of the United States, has not changed. In the 1950s, before the
onset of the jet age, this small group of couriers
traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, often
spending months on the road. Following World War II, as
tensions between former allies grew into the Cold War and
the Soviets consolidated power on their Western border,
it became increasingly difficult to reach our
posts behind what became known as the Iron Curtain. Because of a continued
mutual respect for international conventions
on diplomatic relations, even during these
complicated times, diplomatic couriers were
among the few still able to travel across these borders. Each week, they took the
Orient Express from Vienna to reach Budapest and Bucharest. MR. JAMES VERREOS: Oh,
the Orient Express. That was, of course,
a fabled train ride. We never got to ride it all
the way to Constantinople or Istanbul, but we would
pick it up in Vienna and ride it in from Vienna
to Budapest to Bucharest. Then we would turn
around and come back out. Sometimes inside Europe,
we’d take train travel because it was more
effective and quicker than trying to take an
airplane, especially when we were providing service to the
Iron Curtain countries, which required two couriers to be on
a trip for security reasons. We were carrying
classified material. Top secret wasn’t always
something that was written. In those days before the
technology we have today, we had to have code machines, equipment that was
highly classified. Outside of the Iron
Curtain you traveled solo. For example, when
delivering the pouches to Southeast Asia or
Africa or South America, the courier went
out on trips solo. However, trips to
the Iron Curtain, we were always in pairs so
that there was no possibility that the couriers
would be unable to have control of their pouches. MR. KENNETH COOPER: I think
I’ve got the history right. The reason we’d make paired
trips behind the Curtain goes back to immediate post-war. An American courier fell off
the train, and he was killed, and his pouch
disappeared for a while. And there was, I
think, a little suspicion that this was not an accident. Henceforth, the
Americans decided it would be a paired trip, and I
think the British did the same. MR. DONOVAN KLINE: You had to
have somebody with the pouches at all times. We’d get out and
walk up and down the aisle in the Wagon-Lits, but
that was as far as we ventured. On the same sleeping cars,
there were other couriers from other nations – Italian, French, Russians. When they were
outside of Russia, they traveled paired,
just like we did behind the Iron Curtain. That’s one of the things
about the Russians. They wanted the same
treatment in the West that we were given behind
the Iron Curtain, which was decent for the most part. MR. PHILIP OLIVARES:
Well, your job was to take care
of those pouches. I don’t think we ever felt
that somebody was threatening us or trying to
try to steal them, but we always have
to assume that. In fact, I remember
Jim Vandivier and I got off the
train with our pouches. There was quite a load. We pulled over one
of these baggage cars that was already half
loaded, the porter said, and there were Russian
pouches on that. There were two Russian couriers. So here were the four of us. He’s got the pouches,
watching our own bags. There was only one baggage cart. We tried to get a separate
one, but they said no, and that was it. I thought how ironic – the four of us in
this situation. We were stationed in Vienna. There were two of us then. Monday we would
go into Budapest and spend the night, and then
the next day on to Bucharest. MR. COOPER: Vienna itself
was a lot of fun, and so was Budapest. Except for
the brief hiatus in Bucharest, which was dull as dishwater, the rest of it was fun. MR. ERNEST HOHMAN: We
used the Arlberg Orient Express, which
came out of Paris but we picked it up in Vienna. It’s just a delightful city. It showed the
grandeur that it had as part of the
Austro-Hungarian empire, even though it was
somewhat damaged from the rubble after the war. [MUSIC – JOHANN STRAUSS – “THE
BLUE DANUBE”] The Austrians – one of the
first things they thought was important to rebuild
was the Opera House. And now to see the change,
the transformation, the rebuilding that
was going on there. Loved going to the opera. Of course, the
Danube is not blue. It’s only in the eyes of
a poet and a composer. [MUSIC PLAYING] [VOCALIZING] MR. KLINE: I attended my first
and only opera, sung in German, which I did not understand,
and as a result never went to another opera in my life. [LAUGHS] We did a lot of eating
and a lot of sightseeing. All of us did, because it
was a fantastic city. I repeated that Vienna
detail several times thereafter in later years. It was always enjoyable
for me because we got out of the air for a while. It was restful.
On those trains all we did was
sleep, eat, and play chess or pinochle or
something like that. MR. VINCENT CELLA: The courier
would come down from Frankfurt every week or twice a week to
give us the stuff to take in. Then we’d go shopping to get
our food to take on the train, made sure we had enough wine
or scotch and reading material, cards, et cetera. And we’d leave at night from
the West Bahnhof in Vienna and made one stop, I guess it’s called
the North Bahnhof. And then into the border,
which on the Austrian side is Nickelsdorf. And it would stay there
for some long time. So, even though Vienna is
not that far from Budapest, it was an overnight trip. MR. VERREOS: The train,
the Orient Express, would set up a
single sleeper car for the diplomatic couriers. That would be the British,
the Queen’s Messenger, King’s Messenger, the
Italians, whoever – any courier from any nation
that was making a trip would be on that train. MR. HOHMAN: The other people
in the sleeping compartments, they were all
diplomatic couriers from various countries. There were Italians and the
British and the French, also, because the air travel
was not possible, particularly during the winter months there. We usually dressed rather
casually at that point. And the Italians would dress
in their silk pajamas or a silk robe and so on. The English, which were
the Queen’s Messengers, they were great storytellers, raconteurs, and had
fantastic tales to tell. MR. COOPER: The Queen’s
Messenger was usually a very senior officer, an army officer or
a military officer or sometimes civil servant. They traveled in pairs also,
but their junior courier was usually a retired
policeman, so there was a very distinct
difference in rank. So when the Queen’s
Messenger had his dinner, the number two
courier would lay out a white tablecloth
in his compartment and proceed to
serve him his meal. We got a kick out of that. MR. OLIVARES: The primary
car for us was the old Wagon-Lits Cook. They handled all
the sleeping cars. The first class car was
practically all couriers. There was a dining car next
to it, but the food was awful. We had to cook our
own food, so we all carried a little alcohol stove
we’d set up in the sleeping compartment and we’d cook on that. MR. VERREOS: The ride in would
leave early in the evening, and we would have dinner
while we were on the train. We had developed an international
society of couriers, and we’d set it up in
advance so that the couriers from this country would
bring in an entree, the couriers from the other country would
bring in the salad, who would bring in the dessert,
who would bring in the wine, and what have you. And we would just
merely leave notes so that next week’s couriers –
we didn’t know who they’d be, but you’d get into Vienna
and say, hey, it’s this week, I would say, well, if
Ken and I were on a trip, we got the note
at the embassy we were supposed to
provide the wine. We knew there’d be x number
of couriers on board, and we’d bring that much on. Coming out was
totally different. The train left
Bucharest near midnight, so everybody was sacked
in, and it was dawn by the time you
arrived in Vienna. MR. CELLA: We slept
in one compartment on that portion of that trip. Then it would
cross into Hungary, and that town was
called Hegyeshalom. After they stopped
there for a long time, we’d go into Budapest, and we’d
arrive there in the morning. MR. KLINE: We’d
get off the train and have a full 24
hour period in Budapest where we could
shop, look around. And the parliament
building there was magnificent, especially
from across the river where you could see it so plainly. MR. HOHMAN: It was
an interesting city. It was still
showing war damage. The bridge across the
Danube River was destroyed. It was laying there
in the river itself. But, you see, it
had a glamor to it yet, and it was trying
to restore that. And it was an exciting
and interesting city with a bit of the schmaltz
that you had in Vienna, Austria too, with evening
dinners that were excellent and violin music to go with it. MR. COOPER: We’d have a
layover sometimes, a day or so in Budapest,
which was fun. It was still a lively city, and
it was before the revolution. MR. OLIVARES: Budapest itself – I loved the city. A lot of people consider it
the Paris of Eastern Europe. It still had some damage
though, from World War II, actually. And then after the
revolution, of course, it really got torn apart. In spite of communism
and all the restrictions they imposed on
their society, they were a really fun loving people. I remember going to a nightclub
and seeing the people dancing and having a ball, and I
thought, this can’t be. Everywhere else usually is
so drab, like Moscow itself. To see those people enjoying
themselves and having fun, they were a fun people. MR. VERREOS: Hungary was
the nicest place in the Iron Curtain for couriers. Even though you were
always under surveillance by the local KGB – they were called
AVOs in Hungary – they were less intrusive
than they were in Moscow. MR. CELLA: We spent the
whole day and the night at the Hotel Duna, which
was really a nice hotel right on the Danube. They had a nice restaurant,
a little nice bar, and there was a guy there that we
used to refer to as AVO Joe, and he would always
befriend the couriers. And we were sure that he
were being paid by the AVO just to keep an eye
on the couriers, but we all sort
of liked the guy. He was helpful, a funny old guy. And you enjoyed walking
around Budapest, even though it was
still pretty well shot because of the revolution. In fact, they did more damage,
I think, during that time than they did during the war. What I always understood was that
the Russian troops didn’t want to fight against the
Hungarians, and the AVO were tougher on the
Hungarian citizens than the Russian soldiers. The revolution started right
in front of the Hotel Duna, and the two couriers were stuck
in there for about a week. They were Woody Vest
and Phil Olivares. MR. OLIVARES: We
got off at the station. We went to the Duna Hotel. The Duna is the word for
the Danube, of course. It was right on the river. It was quite a hotel. It’s an old fashioned hotel with
the high ceilings and all that. We liked the place. And I remember Woody Vest and
I, we went to see the opera. They were doing
“Eugene Onegin.” We came back from
the theater, and then we got into the
elevator, and we heard some noise and such about. We thought something’s
going on around town. I think we heard a shot or
two, if I’m not mistaken. But I remember – and in the elevator was the
New York Times correspondent and his wife. And we said, well, we asked him, I said, “You know,
what’s going on?” He said, “Oh, it seems to be
a minor thing” and all that. Well, [CHUCKLES] we
went up to our rooms. The next morning, we got
a call from the Legation saying, “Stay put. You’re not going anyplace. Everything is closing down. We’re in the beginning
of an insurrection.” And that’s when it started. And the shooting starts. And we just stayed
put a couple of days. There was British
couriers in there as well. There was some shooting. I think I walked out to see
what was going on at one point. I walked a few feet, and I heard
bullets whizzing by my ear, and I said, I better
get back into the hotel. And then I realized
it was really bad. And they even brought
in a Russian soldier who had been hit by a sniper.
One of the Hungarian insurgents was up on the roof. [GUNFIRE] The Legation wanted to
evacuate most of the personnel. In fact, most of legations –
the British as well. They put us in Embassy
cars with dependents, and we drove out of
Budapest with the flag flying on the fenders
like Ambassadors’ cars. But I remember the people
applauding and clapping when they saw Americans
and British flags. All around them were Russians. [MUSIC PLAYING] I remember, even in the hotel,
the men behind the desk, the reception
desk, kept saying, “Where are you Americans? Why don’t you help us?” They said, “Your Voice
of America tells us to rise up, do
something about it, and now we need your help.” RADIO COMMENTATOR:
[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN] RADIO COMMENTATOR:
[SPEAKING HUNGARIAN] MR. OLIVARES: I felt so
embarrassed by all of this, in a sense. Why aren’t we
helping these people? And I felt a little
guilty that we were like rats leaving this ship. They were applauding
but we’re not really doing anything for them. We should be doing
something for them, and we should have
our tanks in here. But I know that’s not
something for me to decide on. And I always felt a little
guilty about that going out. We’re going out to
safety, and these people got to be here and live with
the Russians on top of them. [MUSIC PLAYING] MR. CELLA: The longest part was
when you got on the train the next morning to Bucharest
because that was overnight from the morning to
the next morning. After going all through
the Ploiesti oil fields. Oh, you see them burning
the gas off the top. It was really something. Yeah, that was pretty close
to the end of the trip because they were up still
in the mountains. Not long after that, you
came down into Bucharest. You’d get in in the morning,
and leave late at night. So you’d spend the
whole day in Bucharest. For most of the
time I was there, we stayed with the Military
Attache, no matter who he was. MR. KLINE: We would
arrive in Bucharest early in the morning,
six o’clock or so, something like
that, and we would go to the Military
Attache’s residence. He provided us with breakfast. They couldn’t get fruits and
vegetables and stuff like that. We would carry oranges
into them and give them oranges or bananas. The diplomatic colony there, the Western diplomatic colony, had a six hole golf course
at a club that they had where they had a bar. And you could play six holes. And I did. I played six holes of
golf there more than once. A place for
the Western community to relax without anybody
around spying on them – and I’m sure there was plenty
of that behind the Iron Curtain at all times. I don’t know whether
I was followed. I wasn’t looking for it. But we were briefed beforehand: “Don’t fraternize. Don’t get caught with
any women behind the Iron Curtain, period.” MR. CELLA: Well, we
went out a lot of times to that diplomatic golf course,
especially in the good weather. We would bring cigarettes and
razorblades and instant coffee to pay for our golf lessons. And there was a
little lake there where you could go
out in a little boat to help spend the day
because it wasn’t that long and we left again that night. We had to check in
and get the pouches and leave to go back. MR. COOPER: I found Bucharest
a very uninteresting city. Now they were really
behind the Curtain there. I can’t recall having
any interaction at all. For their sake and our
sake, it was better not to. That was my impression. Perhaps if I were to go back
today, I’d be dead wrong. MR. HOHMAN: Bucharest – yeah. We had time there too,
and it’s a poorer country. It was a dictatorship for
quite a while under Ceausescu. As we well know, the people
were really dominated with the secret police,
although the communist elite led a very gracious and a
very luxurious lifestyle. I found it rather a poor
city, by contrast even with Budapest which still
had a glory aspect to it. MR. CELLA: Going back
it was a little different. We would get some
food in Bucharest, buy bread and buy
this and buy that at these little outlet stores. You know, you had to stand
in line to buy some stuff. It was depressing, in a way – for the people, I mean. As we came back on
that trip, we would leave in the night
from Bucharest, get in the next night
into Budapest. The train would stop in
Budapest for quite a long time. You could see that red
star in the foggy night mist. Not until the next morning
we’d end up back in Vienna. MR. OLIVARES: We’d
enjoy those trips. I think we all did. I still think it’s a more
civilized way to travel, by train. Train stations were
fascinating in those days. They had all the excitement
that airports took on. I remember in Europe, the
railroad stations themselves – they were big, cavernous
affairs, mostly wrought iron and such. There was an aura about
them all that fascinated me. I felt so proud to be
part of all of that. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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