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by ETR2(SS) Dick Brown (ret.)

Over the past 75 years, 99 countries have issued a total of 460 submarine stamps depicting everything from naval submarines to deep-sea research vessels and Jules Verne’s fictional Nautilus. Some of those stamps have interesting stories to tell, as the following examples show.

The First Submarine Stamp
The first country to issue a submarine stamp had no submarines in service, although it did have one boat on order from the Italian Naval Shipyard at Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia). On Oct. 14, 1936, Romania issued a stamp on the occasion of its first naval exhibition (Prima Expozitie Marinareasca) showing a submarine identified as Delfinul (Dolphin) operating in rough seas.

The world’s first submarine stamp.

The picture was actually from Delfinul’s sea trails, and she was still fitting out when the stamp was issued. Although the submarine had been laid down in June 1927, disputes between the shipyard and the Romanian government delayed her construction, and she would not be commissioned into the Romanian fleet until 1938.

When Romania joined Germany in declaring war on the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Delfinul was still the country’s only submarine—compared to more than 40 in the much larger Soviet Black Sea Fleet. Nevertheless, she completed nine war patrols before being laid up to repair depth charge damage, and her mere existence presumably forced the Soviets to devote more resources to protecting convoys and the approaches to naval bases. The victorious Soviets seized Delfinul in port in August of 1944, eventually returning her so heavily damaged that she never went to sea again.

The First Submarine Stamp Issued to Raise Money
It has become common for small countries to issue stamps honoring other countries’ submarines in the hope of raising money from stamp collectors. However, the first country to issue stamps for this purpose had a sizable undersea fleet of its own.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Spain’s Republican government kept the Nationalist rebels from seizing any of Spain’s 12 submarines. Nevertheless, with German and Italian help, the Nationalists gradually wore down Republican forces both at sea and on land. In 1938, with the Republican government desperately short of funds, someone came up with idea of instituting a special submarine mail service called Correo Submarino, whose unique stamps could be sold as souvenirs.

One of six stamps in the Correo Submarino series.
Although C-4 was the only submarine that actually
delivered Correo Submarino, she did not appear
on the stamps, which depicted three other boats:
A-1, B-2, and D-1 shown here.

The Nationalists had clamped a naval and air blockade on Minorca, the only Spanish Mediterranean island still in Republican hands. Submarine C-4, then operating between the Republican-held cities of Barcelona and Cartagena, was assigned to deliver the Correo Submarino to the Minorcan port of Mahon.

C-4 left Barcelona on the morning of Aug. 12, 1938 carrying souvenir postcards and postal covers (souvenir envelopes) plus a number of regular letters to Republican naval personnel at Mahon. All of the mail bore the new stamps, the postmark “Primer Correo Submarino Barcelona-Mahon” and the date 11/agosto/1938. Ironically, C-4 carried the submarine mail to Minorca mostly on the surface, only submerging briefly to avoid enemy aircraft and patrol boats outside the port of Mahon. On the return voyage, she carried mail with the same postmark but dated 13/agosto/1938—even though she did not actually leave Mahon until after dark on Aug. 17.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the single voyage of the short-lived Correo Submarino raised little revenue. Not until long after the Spanish Republic finally collapsed in 1939 did these rare stamps finally begin to command high prices from collectors and postal history buffs. As for C-4, she was taken over by the victorious Nationalists and came to an ignominious end in 1946, when she was rammed by a destroyer during maneuvers and sank with the loss of all hands.

The First Stamp Honoring Submariners
It’s not surprising that the first country to issue stamps specifically honoring its submarine service was Nazi Germany, which relied on the U-boats as its primary naval force.

One of Germany’s most prolific U-boat skippers was Kapitšnleutnant Erich Topp. Topp sank six ships as skipper of U-57 and 30 more after taking command of U-552, known as the “Red Devil” boat for the devil figures painted on her conning tower. One of his victims was USS Reuben James (DD 245), the first U.S. warship lost during WWII—torpedoed under debatable circumstances on Oct. 31, 1941, while America was still technically a non-belligerent.

(Left) This 1943 German stamp shows a Type VII U-boat like Erich Topp’s U-552.
(Right) This 1944 German stamp featured an officer generally believed to be
U-boat ace Erich Topp.

Nazi propaganda trumpeted the U-boats’ victories and made successful skippers national heroes. When Germany decided to honor its U-boat men with a stamp, it naturally depicted a submarine commander at the periscope. Several sources identify the officer as Topp, but the stamp bears no inscription identifying either the scene or the man. There would have been no need. Germans had already heard a great deal about submarines, and many had no doubt seen photo or newsreel coverage of the popular U-boat ace.

Ironically, the man who sank the Reuben James and was chosen to embody the ideal submariner on a Nazi postage stamp rejoined the German Navy a few years after the war, eventually rose to two-star rank, and rendered valuable service to the Free World during the Cold War. He even spent four years in the United States as a staff member of NATO’s Military Committee.

Honoring America’s World War II Silent Service
A greater irony is that it took the United States nearly half a century to issue the first U.S. postage stamp honoring our own World War II Submariners. Meanwhile, honoring the World War II Silent Service on postage stamps became a source of revenue for several small countries—appropriately including several Pacific island states that owed their liberation from Japan at least in part to the exploits of American Submariners.

Not until 1993 did the U.S. Postal Service finally honor America’s World War II Submariners. The U.S. stamp resembled its German predecessor, but with one significant difference: It showed not only a skipper at the periscope, but also enlisted men at the controls. Because many Americans were unlikely to get the picture’s point half a century after the events it symbolized, the stamp also explicitly credited U.S. Submarines with hastening the end of the war.

Not long thereafter, the U.S. Postal Service more than made up for lost time by handsomely recognizing the centennial of the world’s oldest Submarine Force. The 16-page prestige booklet it issued in 2000 featured two five-stamp souvenir sheets celebrating U.S. Submarines from the original USS Holland (SS 1) to today’s Ohio-class, which for 30 years has served as the ultimate guarantor of America’s freedom.

The 100th anniversary souvenir sheet.

ETR2(SS) Dick Brown (ret.), a Submariner from 1961 to 1967, served on USS Barbero (SS 317) and USS Lafayette (SSBN 616). He is an avid submarine stamp collector and played a leading role in the effort to have SSN 779 named New Mexico, for his adopted state.