The 100 diplomatic couriers assigned to the U.S. Department of State face long hours, endless trouble-shooting, constant travel, and the ever-present risk of road, rail, water, and air accidents.
Established during the peace negotiations at the end of World War I, the Diplomatic Courier Service marks its 100th anniversary in 2018. During the past century, at least six couriers have paid the ultimate sacrifice while transporting the nation’s vital classified documents and equipment.
This Memorial Day, the Diplomatic Security Service honors the Department’s fallen couriers, among the more than 140 people named on the Diplomatic Security Memorial who have given their lives in the service of protecting U.S. diplomacy. Each of the fallen couriers perished in airline crashes, particularly in the pre-jet era. In the 1950s and 1960s, a typical diplomatic courier logged 135,000 miles of annual air travel.
Diplomatic couriers who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty include:
James Nugent Wright, 28; February 22, 1943
Wright, a first sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, was serving on diplomatic courier duty when he was among 24 passengers and crew who died in the crash of a Pan-American Airlines Boeing 314 clipper seaplane that was attempting to land at dusk on the Tagus River near Lisbon, Portugal. Fifteen passengers and crew survived. Wright’s body was reportedly found with his diplomatic briefcase still handcuffed to his wrist. He became the first diplomatic courier to die in the line of duty and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.In the 1930s, Wright had been a reporter for the Evening News in Newark, New Jersey. After enlisting in the Marine Corps, he began writing articles for The Leatherneck magazine and the Foreign Service Journal. He had been on temporary assignment as a diplomatic courier for eight months and was on a trans-Atlantic mission when he was killed in the Pan-Am crash en route from the Azores to Lisbon (then scheduled to fly onward to Ireland). The seaplane was carrying other diplomats, as well as entertainers heading to Europe as part of a wartime USO tour for service members. Wright was survived by his wife, who was buried with him after she passed away in 1990.
Homer C. White, 39; December 4, 1945
White was one of 17 people on board a U.S. Army military transport aircraft that went missing after departing Roberts Field, Liberia, en route to Accra, Ghana (then known as Gold Coast in British West Africa). The 15 military members and two civilians aboard the Air Transport Command twin-engine C-47 aircraft were declared dead a year after their disappearance. An Army accident report said the aircrew never radioed to the first way station, Cape Palmas, Liberia, which should have taken place one-quarter of the way into the five-hour flight. From New Albany, Indiana, White was a postal clerk in Louisville, Kentucky, for 18 years. In World War II, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army Courier Service until his discharge in 1944. He then joined the Diplomatic Courier Service. In a letter shortly before his doomed flight, White wrote to the Louisville Courier Journal about listening to the 1945 World Series on shortwave radio broadcasts in the midst of his courier travels aboard Pan-Am clippers. An avid baseball fan, he described hearing the first game in Bermuda, games two through six while waiting out storms in the Azores from October 04-08, 1945, and game seven two days later, having just arrived at a U.S. Army camp outside of Dakar, Senegal. White was married with four children. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom.
Richard True Dunning, 29; June 22, 1951
Dunning was among 31 passengers and nine crew members who were killed in the crash of Pan-Am Flight 151 in Liberia. The Lockheed Constellation aircraft was en route from Johannesburg, South Africa, to New York, with planned stopovers in Kinshasa, Accra, Monrovia, Dakar, Lisbon, and the Azores. According to news reports, the aircraft departed Accra, in present-day Ghana, on the evening of June 21. The aircraft planned to stop at Roberts Field, Liberia, and radioed at 2:45 a.m. that it intended to land in 30 minutes. It was not heard from again. Following a massive multinational air search, the wreckage was found the next day on a 1,000-foot mountain near the village of Sanoyie. Dunning had served in the U.S. Army in World War II. After his discharge, he joined the U.S. Department of State and was a diplomatic courier based at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Born in Dallas, Texas, he grew up in Glendale, California, where his mother lived. His father was working at the time in Paris with the Economic Cooperation Administration, the agency that oversaw the postwar Marshall Plan and which was a precursor to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Willard M. Fisher, Jr., 27; March 29, 1953
Fisher was among eight passengers and five crew members who were killed in the crash of a Central African Airways plane that broke apart in storms over Tanganyika, near Kitara in the Handeni region of present-day Tanzania. The twin-engine British Vickers Viking 1B airliner was traveling in stormy conditions between Blantyre in present-day Malawi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (then known at the British territory of Tanganyika). Heavy winds reportedly caused structural failure. Fisher, from Wilmington, Delaware, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II in the South Pacific. After the war, he attended the University of Delaware, graduating in 1951. He joined the Foreign Service in March 1952 and initially served as a diplomatic courier in a temporary post in South America. In November 1952, after visiting his parents in Delaware just before Thanksgiving, he was assigned to a permanent home-base in Cairo. At the time of the crash, he was on a five-week mission throughout sub-Saharan Africa. He was buried in Tanga, Tanzania.
Joseph P. Capozzi, 29; May 10, 1963
Capozzi died from injuries incurred in a May 4, 1963, plane crash in Cameroon. He had been transporting diplomatic pouches from Douala, Cameroon, to Lagos, Nigeria, when the Air Afrique DC-6 airliner crashed halfway up the side of the 13,000-foot Mount Cameroon shortly after take-off on a Saturday afternoon with limited visibility. Capozzi was initially the only survivor among the 55 on board. He was hospitalized in critical condition, but died May 10. Originally from Elmira, New York, Capozzi joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating high school in 1951 and served in the Korean War. After his discharge in 1954, he worked for a year in Japan. He then attended California State University while working in the Los Angeles area, then returned to New York to complete his degree in 1960 at Harpur College. He joined the Diplomatic Courier Service in June 1962 and was headquartered in Frankfurt, West Germany. He was not quite a year into his first tour when he died, and he was survived by his parents in Elmira, New York.
Seth J. Foti, 31; August 23, 2000
Foti was the only American among 135 passengers and eight crew who died in the crash of Gulf Air Flight 072 near Manama, Bahrain. The Airbus A320 passenger jet was en route from Cairo when it crashed into shallow waters north of Bahrain International Airport. U.S. Navy divers secured Foti’s diplomatic pouches. Originally from Browntown, Virginia, Foti joined the Diplomatic Courier Service in 1999 and was based in Bahrain. In the early 1990s, he had worked as a contractor at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and he completed a degree in Russian Studies from George Mason University. Shortly before his death, he earned a Department of State Franklin Award for managing the shipment of 127 six-wheel trucks from Italy to Sierra Leone for a UN-sponsored peacekeeping project. Two months before his death, Foti married Anisha Goveas Foti, a native of Bangalore, India, who handled travel arrangements for the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, where the two met in June 1999. Following Foti’s death, Congress passed a private bill granting his wife permanent U.S. residency status, and she became a U.S. citizen and elementary school teacher in Virginia. For a profile on Foti, see “Honoring DS Fallen: Seth Foti.”
Interested in the proud history of the Diplomatic Courier Service? Learn more here.
About the Author: Vincent Crawley serves in the Public Affairs Office of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.