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From the National Archives:
Report on Hazards of the American Foreign Service, 1942

by David A. Langbart

The image of the Foreign Service Officer (FSOs) as a “cookie pusher” who enjoys a cushy existence overseas is persistent. This was certainly the case at the time of World War II, when the Foreign Service of the United States was not even twenty years old.1 This picture was not true then, and it certainly is not true today, when every American embassy and consulate is a potential target for terrorist attack. In addition to physical danger, Foreign Service Officers experience family inconvenience, exposure to exotic disease, and other adverse factors.

Although rarely receiving proper credit for being so, American diplomatic and consular officers overseas have always been the first line of defense for the United States. In addition to serving as the eyes and ears of the United States abroad, the Foreign Service is responsible for the protection of Americans and their interests in foreign countries, the promotion of international trade, and various consular matters, such as adjudicating visas. During the early part of World War II, largely before the United States entered the war, many American Foreign Service Officers endured incredible hazards and challenging experiences far out of the norm for overseas service. In general, the specifics of those experiences were largely unknown to the American public.

Representative Foster Stearns, a Republican from New Hampshire, and himself a former Foreign Service Officer, wanted to change that.2 In early 1942, he asked the Department of State for information about the experiences of Foreign Service officers since the beginning of World War II for use as background for his work in the House of Representatives. In response, the Division of Foreign Service Administration and the Division of Foreign Service Personnel in the Department of State worked together to prepare the following anecdotal descriptive report. It was handed to Stearns on April 20, 1942.


Even when the world is at peace members of the American Foreign Service are subjected to diverse hazards while representing this country abroad. In the Department of State in Washington hangs a plaque commemorating Foreign Service officers who while on active duty lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances.4 Among the causes of death appear yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, malaria, drowning, earthquake, hurricane, volcanic eruption, murder, and “tropical” and “African” fever.

During wartime the hazards are of course much greater, particularly since the mass bombing of centers of population has become widespread. This is especially true during the present World War.

For more than four years the American Ambassador6 to China and his staff were subjected to frequent heavy air raids, first, in Nanking and Hankow, and, during the past three years, in Chungking, where such raids resulted in the destruction of more than two-thirds of the city. On numerous occasions bombs fell within one hundred to three hundred yards from members of the staff, causing damage to their residences and to the Embassy’s chancery. On one occasion several bombs fell within fifty yards of the entrance to the Embassy’s bomb-shelter, in which the staff had taken refuge. From May through October the air raids in Chungking occur almost daily, frequently with more than 100 planes participating.

While Warsaw was under siege in September, 1939, the staff of the Consulate General was moved to the chancery of the American Embassy. A few days later the Consulate General was very seriously damaged by shell-fire. Had the staff remained in the building, a large loss of life would inevitably have resulted.

Commencing with September 1st, Warsaw was subjected to daily bombings from the air. Thereafter the raids became steadily more intense and so numerous that all count was lost of them. On some days there were as many as nine raids by waves numbering up to sixty or seventy planes. Beginning about September 9th, the city was shelled by field guns of various sizes. Two officers and two clerks who returned to the Consulate General for some necessary records had just left one room of the office when a shell entered the room and exploded. A difference of perhaps two minutes was all that saved their lives.

When out in cars endeavoring to obtain food for the refugees of American, British, and French nationality needing assistance, officers had to pass through streets on which buildings as well as other automobiles were being hit by artillery fire. Nightly the sky was red from fires in many quarters; the number of civilian casualties reached into several thousands and the bodies were hastily buried in lawns of the nearest square or park; human corpses and mangled bodies were to be seen as officers and clerks went out on necessary errands. For a period of twelve days they found themselves living in the midst of a battlefield, yet not in a position to fight back, and responsible for the welfare of a large number of civilian refugees.

It is of course well known that the American Minister7 to Norway, in order to remain in touch with the Norwegian Government after the German invasion began in 1940, proceeded successively to Hamar, Elverum, Holjes, Nybergsund, and Sarna. Elverum and Nybergsund were mercilessly bombed by the Germans in attempts to kill the Norwegian Royal family and members of the Norwegian Government, who narrowly escaped in both instances and were compelled to move frequently to avoid similar attacks. It will also be recalled that the Assistant Military Attache8 accredited to Finland, Sweden, and Norway, was killed in a German bombing attack on Dombås, Norway, while proceeding to the assistance of the Minister’s party.

The viciously ruthless German air attacks which completely destroyed the center of the city of Rotterdam in 1940 also destroyed the American Consulate located in that section but not before the Foreign Service Officers stationed there had proceeded through the bombed and burning area to the office where they destroyed the codes and confidential documents and prevented them from falling into German hands.

At Antwerp, Belgium, five incendiary bombs fells in the garden of the Consulate General and one came through the roof of the building, pierced two floors, and landed at the foot of the staircase where it was extinguished.

Following the declaration of war, Paris lived through a period of nine months of comparative calm marred only by nocturnal descents into air raid shelters upon the approach of German planes. It will be recalled, however, that during the summer of 1940 a bomb aimed at the Air Ministry plunged half way through the ceiling of the dining room where the American Ambassador9 was attending an official luncheon, showering the party with plaster. Fortunately the bomb did not explode until the party had reached safety. Not far away a Foreign Service officer, speeding in his car to a shelter after hearing the alarm, passed through a shower of flying stones and metal fragments, and upon reaching the shelter barely escaped a deluge of big caliber cobbles from a nearby hit in the street.

Upon being ordered to leave Havre, France, after a week of bombardment by German planes, two subordinate officers assigned to the Consulate there embarked on a ferry to cross the Seine. Two steamers about two hundred yards distant from the ferry, one upstream and the other downstream, were struck by bombs and one burst into flames. The German planes came lower and machine-gunned the steamers and the members of the crew who had jumped into the water. They then attacked the ferry and dropped approximately twenty-five bombs, all of which fell near the boat but none of which hit it. The planes afterward machine-gunned the ferry at leisure.

When the Consul in charge returned to Havre after the fall of Paris he found his apartment was being used as sleeping quarters by fifty German soldiers and that, in addition to looting it, they had spread destruction and filth everywhere. When these conditions were reported, the German commander indicated that the Consul would perhaps eventually be reimbursed if he would submit a detailed report including a statement of articles lost and their value, a valueless suggestion as subsequent developments have shown.

British Isles
During the terrific German air attacks on London during the autumn of 1940, the personnel of the American Foreign Service assigned there continued to perform their duties without interruption. Yet air raid hazards experienced by Foreign Service officers in the British Isles were characterized not only by their intensity at frequent and unpredictable times but also by their spread over a longer period than at any other post in the Service except Chungking. From the early raids on Liverpool and the outskirts of London in August, 1940, until the last sporatic [sic] raiding efforts in June, 1941, officers at one or another of these posts (except possibly Edinburgh) were under fire nearly all the time. At some (as Sheffield, Glasgow, Bradford, Cardiff) there were only two or three intense raids. At others (as London, Liverpool, Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton) there were raids all through the period, including weeks of almost constant nightly (and sometimes also daytime) visitations. In still others (as Birmingham, Manchester, and Newcastle) there were occasional heavy raids throughout the period. One Consulate (Plymouth) was hit and burned out, although luckily at night. Other Consulates (as at Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester) were in downtown sections which were almost completely gutted by fire and explosions. Belfast (Northern Ireland) suffered its severest raids in May, 1941, when many civilians were killed and injured and large numbers rendered homeless by the destruction beyond repair of some thousands of modest homes largely in a workmen’s residential section of the city. After one air raid an unexploded bomb, lodged in the mud under a house next door to the Consulate, caused the policing off of the Consulate, as well as some twenty-five other buildings, for a period of two weeks. Toward the end of the first week police permission was obtained to enter the Consulate from the rear in order that sufficient consular equipment, fee stamps, seals, etc., might be recovered to make possible the operation of a small emergency consulate in the Consul’s residential hotel some six blocks away. The London Embassy, although not hit, had scores of bombs within three to four hundred yards, one of which hit former Ambassador Page’s10 old Embassy three doors away and killed some British Airforce personnel and another exploded in the living room of a Foreign Service officer’s apartment while he was in the kitchen. No officer then in Great Britain will forget the sound of the bombs and guns and how it felt to have a hundred or two German bombers invisible overhead. Nor will he forget the whistle of screaming bombs and the sight of incendiary fires scattered through his particular city. Luckily none of our American personnel at these British posts was killed or injured.

When Belgrade, Yugoslavia, was attacked from the air by waves of dive-bombing Stukas, one side of the residence of the American Minister11 was completely torn away by a bomb which destroyed the adjoining house and rendered the Legation uninhabitable. About one-half of the Minister’s personal effects were lost or destroyed as a result. A block away, an employee of the Legation, returning from the railway station after saying goodbye to his son who was being mobilized, was killed by another bomb. A junior Foreign Service officer, under orders to report for duty at Belgrade from a nearby capital, reached the outskirts of the city during the height of the first bombardment. Realizing that if he delayed, the bridge across the river which separated him from Belgrade might be destroyed, he proceeded directly into the bombardment, fortunately arriving safely with the diplomatic pouch which he was carrying. Throughout the subsequent bombardments of Belgrade, the Minister and his staff, ignoring danger, continued to move about the city in the discharge of their official duties at great personal risk. While this group of officials in Belgrade carried on their activities, working under every conceivable disadvantage, without communications with the outside world, with diminishing food supplies, and with only limited means of local transportation, another officer of the Legation was under similarly difficult conditions following the retreating Yugoslav Government, which made successive moves across the country until finally, after escaping the enemy’s bombs and machine-gun fire at Sarajevo, Bosnia, it left Yugoslavia for Greece. This officer later succeeded in returning to Belgrade through areas in which the German and Italian armies of occupation were in process of installing themselves, bringing with him a score of Americans who had been stranded on the coast. All railway bridges over the Danube having been destroyed, the only feasible means of exit from Yugoslavia was at the time by river boat to Budapest. The Minister arranged for the chartering of such a boat, which came down from Budapest, and eventually all Americans who desired to leave made their way safely out of the country in company with the Minister and his staff.

In Greece American Foreign Service personnel underwent not only the hazards of actual warfare, bombings, etc., but also they suffered from the food shortage. During the five months in 1939, when hostilities were limited to the forces of Greece and Italy, the Athens area escaped damage, despite frequent Italian raids, but Salonika was repeatedly bombed and badly damaged, happily without injury to any of our consular personnel. Later, when the Germans joined the fight against the Greeks, air raids over the capital were so continuous that the alarm system was soon abandoned, the inhabitants being simply warned to take shelter whenever they heard nearby anti-aircraft fire. While Athens itself was spared, the port of Pireus was demolished and airfields, factories, and other military targets in the metropolitan area were repeatedly bombed and machine-gunned.

The strain of working day and night under such conditions may well be imagined and yet all members of the Legation staff at Athens agreed that it was even more nerve-wracking to witness the German invasion and their looting of the country and to have to deal with the invaders in their efforts to protect American interests and to arrange for the evacuation of the remaining Americans. Perhaps still more terrible was the food shortage. In Greece, which even in normal times imports a large percentage of her foodstuffs, the food shortage began to appear soon after the outbreak of the war in 1939. Later even our Foreign Service personnel found it increasingly difficult to maintain a proper diet. For example, meat obtainable at first only three times a week, was soon obtainable only twice and still later only one day each week. In this respect the situation became desperate after the German occupation of the country and their seizure of the small remaining food stocks. Our people left Greece in July, 1941, three months after the German occupation and yet, before their departure, they were already witnessing the early stages of the distressing starvation which is still taking such a grim toll of life and health in that heroic country.

As a result of the food shortages in Greece most of the American Foreign Service personnel who returned to the United States after their evacuation from Greece have been found to be suffering from serious blood deficiencies and general impairment of health requiring medical treatment which often involves considerable expense which falls upon them at a time when they are also faced with the necessity of trying to replace, also at considerable expense, the personal and household effects necessarily left behind in Greece.

All American Foreign Service personnel did not return home after their evacuation from Greece. Many of the staff stopped in Rome until they completed the repatriation of Americans. Later many, despite their experiences in Greece and without first returning home for recuperation or rest, immediately undertook a long and exhausting journey back through Southern Europe, under most trying travel conditions, in order to fill urgent needs for Foreign Service personnel in the Near East.

The American Consul in Malta12 has survived the more than one thousand air raids made on that island since Italy entered the war.

Aden, Arabia, where an American Consulate is located, was subjected to some thirty or more bombing attacks when the Italians held bases in East Africa. When the Consular officer13 there was transferred to another post he traveled on a vessel which was subjected to the dangers of a bombing raid when calling at an African Red Sea port.

In May, 1941, the late Minister14 to Iraq with his staff and nearly two hundred American and other nationals were besieged in the American Legation at Baghdad for over a month. The Minister’s death occurred some months later due to an infection picked up under war conditions in this distant country.

Penang, Straits Settlements, was bombed repeatedly by the Japanese while American Foreign Service personnel were at their post and before the city was evacuated by the British.

The American Consul General,15 two subordinate officers, and two United States Military Observers left Singapore for Australia on February 12, on the last convoy to depart from that port, only three days before the capitulation of the port on February 15th.

All other places
The foregoing examples of the hazards and sufferings and work of the American Foreign Service personnel both in peace and in war times have been chosen almost at random, no mention at all being made, due to lack of space, of Egypt, Italy, Spain, Finland, Russia, Hongkong, the Netherlands East Indies, Burma and still other places, from some of which reports are still incomplete and yet in all of which hardships and hazards, similar to the examples already reported upon, are being borne with credit by the Foreign Service personnel involved.

Personnel Awaiting Repatriation
Still another group of Foreign Service personnel not to be forgotten who are suffering hardships and undergoing experiences, yet to be revealed, which may affect unfavorably the rest of their lives, are the American Foreign Service officers and employees who are now being detained abroad pending their exchange for Axis personnel still in the United States—fifty by the Italians, ninety-five by the Germans, and approximately two hundred and fifty by the Japanese.

Travel and shipwrecks
The risks of travel have not diminished the necessity of moving Foreign Service personnel from one distant point to another, and transfers dictated by the needs of the Service continue as in normal times. Although perhaps safer, air transportation is not always available. Travel by vessel through mined and submarine infested waters is therefore often necessary. For example, quite recently a vessel on which a Consul from Africa and the wife of the Consul at another African post were passengers was torpedoed off Cape Hatteras, after having completed all but twenty hours of a long sea voyage from East Africa. Their ship sank within twelve minutes. Afterward they drifted about in a lifeboat for thirty-six hours on stormy seas before being picked up by a United States destroyer. Another Foreign Service officer has but recently completed nearly three months’ sea travel in returning to this country from his last post in the Dutch East Indies, now in the hands of the Japanese. As he had to travel all this time on an unescorted vessel, he was exposed to hazards which were truly serious and yet no more serious than the hazards other Foreign Service officers are frequently undergoing in traveling to and from their posts under present war conditions. They are facing the same risks as are our armed forces.16

In connection with this account it should be emphasized that the specific hazards and perils cited above were encountered by members of the Foreign Service while acting in line of duty. In other words, these dangers were incident to the performance of their normal functions.

The Foreign Service as a whole is charged with a wide variety of duties, among which may be mentioned: the conduct of negotiations with other governments, political and economic reporting, the promotion of American trade, the general protection of American interests, the issuance of passports and immigration visas, the performance of notarial services, the issuance of consular invoices for goods exported to the United States, assistance to American shipping, and reporting on a wide range of subjects for all branches of the Federal Government. Since the outbreak of the War in Europe the Service has likewise been charged with representing in a number of countries the interests of foreign governments.

It is apparent that the performance of all of these functions has been made immeasurably difficult by the conditions of war now existing and the dangers to which many members of the Foreign Service are subjected almost daily.End.

1. The Foreign Service was created in 1924 by combining the Diplomatic Service and the Consular Service.

2. Foster W. Stearns was State librarian of Massachusetts (1917); served in the U.S. Army (1917-19) serving in France; the assistant military attaché in the U.S. embassy in Belgium in 1919; in the Department of State as a drafting officer (1920-21); assigned to the office of the U.S. High Commission in Constantinople (1921-1923); assigned to the American embassy in France (1923-24); the librarian of Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass. (1925-30); a member of the New Hampshire State house of representatives (1937-38); and elected to Congress in 1938, where he served until 1945.

3. Source: Memorandum Regarding the Hazards of the American Foreign Service, n.d., file 120/311, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives. This document was used in the preparation of THE FOREIGN SERVICE OF THE UNITED STATES: ORIGINS, DEVELOPMENT AND FUNCTIONS by William Barnes and John Heath Morgan (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961) which includes mention of some of the events recounted here.

4. The American Foreign Service Association maintains two plaques in the C Street Lobby of the Department of State. As of May 2016, those plaques list 248 names.

5. The source text includes headings in the left margin. These have been placed in the body of the text.

6. Nelson T. Johnson from 1930 to May 1941 and Clarence E. Gauss beginning that month.

7. Florence Jaffray Harriman.

8. Captain Robert M. Losey.

9. William C. Bullitt.

10. Walter Hines Page served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1913 to 1918.

11. Arthur Bliss Lane.

12. Frank A. Henry.

13. Robert T. Cowan. Cowan left Aden on August 15, 1942, and reached his new assignment in Zurich on September 30.

14. Paul Knabenshue.

15. Kenneth S. Patton.

16. The final draft prepared by Division of Foreign Service Administration (FA) and the Division of Foreign Service Personnel (FP) ended at this point. In response to a comment by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long (A-L), the following three paragraphs were added in the office of Assistant Secretary of State G. Howland Shaw (A-S).

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author David A. Langbart is an archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives. Any opinions expressed in the introduction are those of the author and do not reflect those of any agency of the U.S. Government. The author thanks former Foreign Service Officer Charles V. Hawley for his assistance.


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