Collecting Paquebots – A Korean adventure (1957)

Articles Paquebot

At first glance, it would appear strange to find an article on Paquebot collecting in our publication, which deals primarily in the study of Korean philately. Nevertheless, the writer is certain that the readers will find it interesting, as after all, there is a distinct Korean flavor. Over a year ago I had an article in the WEEKLY PHILATELIC GOSSIP, entitled, “Paquebot Cancels in Korea”. This is an elaboration on the same subject, broadened in scope and brought up to date. A number of K.S.S. members read it, and suggested I write something along this line for our own publication. My very good friend, Mr. Talbert B. Fowler, Jr., was the first one; followed by our sterling Editor, Mr. Stanley P. Billey, who did some mild arm twisting. 

Before telling the story I must explain what a Paquebot is. To my great surprise even some of my philatelic friends were considerably in the dark on the subject of Paquebots. One such friend to whom I sent Paquebot from Japan wanted to know how I got away with sending a letter from Japan to the U.S. with only a three cent U.S. stamp then foreign surface mail rates pro eight cents. That’s just it. A Paquebot is not foreign mail, no matter what distant country it comes from. Posted on an American vessel, while that vessel is at sea, is just like posting a letter in the United States, for no matter where that vessel happens to be, it is a piece of the country under the stars and stripes. Actually a Paquebot letter is POSTED AT SEA; then it is forwarded by any foreign maritime post office whose country belongs to the Universal Postal Union. It is as simple as all that.

Frankly it is not as simple as it sounds. The foreign P.O. first makes certain that the letter WAS posted at sea. Often a sworn statement to that effect is required from the posting officer. It is also required that the person bringing the letter for Paquebotting is a qualified ship’s officer or its authorized agent. All this is very complicated. It is much simpler, and definitely easier, to buy the required amount of foreign stamps, stick them on the letter, and let it go. The letter will travel faster, too. It is possible to Paquebot air mail, but this involves so much rod tape that it is hardly worth the effort. In the old days, before the advent of the air mail, seamen and passengers used the Paquebot method quite freely to post their letters home. Nowadays only fools like I and hundreds of other Maritime Shipmark Collectors subject themselves the trouble and uncertainty of paquebot cancels. Just the same, Paquebot collecting is very interesting. It also presents a challenge, and who amongst us collectors refuses to accept a challenge?

Unfortunately there is no image available of a Paquebot cover sent by captain Kirby from a Korean port, but here is one sent by himself (and to himself) from the Philippines in 1957, the same year he wrote this article.

So in a nutshell: a Paquebot is a letter, the envelope, or as we philatelists call it a cover, which is posted at sea franked with a stamp of the country under whose flag the vessel is registered. All maritime countries in the Universal Postal Union, reciprocally forward letters posted at sea.

Each port has its own distinctive cancel. It is these cancels that we collect. A cover with a TRUE PAQUEBOT cancel from some ports is very difficult to obtain. Pusan Korea was one of them. I have a score of covers with a Fusan cancel; but until the adventure I am about to tell, I had been unable to secure a TRUE PAQUEBOT from Pusan.

It was early in 1952 that I first gazed upon the naked hills which almost push Pusan into the sea. A few months before, this was the fighting perimeter. All that remained of the Republic of Korea, was just what my eyes could take in. Now the war was being fought far to the North, but the refugees remained in the city. Originally a port of 300,000, Pusan now tried to shelter nearly 1,500,000 souls. From the decks of my anchored vessel I could see the tent city clinging to the barren rock. It looked like a large army in bivouac, whose camp fires by night danced like myriads of fireflies. In the city all was bedlam. It was an ordeal to go ashore, and at that time there was nothing to go ashore for. Refugee children without parents roamed the streets in wolf packs, awaiting an opportunity to swoop down on an unsuspecting stranger. Their rags and hunger quite often moved me to tears. No matter how much money I went ashore with, there never WAS one hwan left by the time I returned. No matter how much I gave away one day, I would find hundreds the next day who needed help more. In time I began to realize that I alone couldn’t alleviate the misery that was Korea.

In 1952 my stamp collecting did not include Korea. But in Manila, in a stamp shop while buying some Philippine issues, I saw a display of the “Countries Participating in the Korean War”. The large poster like stamps interested me, and I promised myself to get a set when I reached Korea. So with that in mind, and a few covers that I hoped to send via Paquebot, I braved the streets of Pusan on my way to the Post Office. Here I was confronted by a smiling clerk, who shook his head negatively to all my questions, but answered in the affirmative.

“Countries Participating in the Korean War? Yes. We have them, no more. All sold out long time now. Let me see. I know one man who has some. I think he will sell. Blocks? Yes I don’t think so. Pairs maybe, but no blocks.” Later I found that this clerk’s name was Mr. Han and that he was the supervisor of foreign mails.

In a tea shop over a hardware store just off “PX” street, in company with Mr. Han, I met his friend, a student from the University at Seoul. They both spoke understandable English, and in no time I became the owner of e complete set, in pairs, of the perforated Flags, and a set of the souvenir sheets, watermarked vertically, Years later, I came into possession of another set of the souvenir sheets, this time watermarked horizontally. The latter are a second printing, and. they are comparatively scarce. In the first printing 20,000 of each stamp were printed for all countries participating in the war, with the exception of the following countries of which only 10,000 were printed: Denmark, India, Italy (with crown), Luxembourg, Norway; while of the United States 50,000 were run off on the first printing. In February of 1952 7,000 of Italy (without crown) were printed. It was at this time that the second souvenir sheets were issued. As the names of the countries were poorly designed on the first issues, those were corrected. A fine comparison can be made in the sheets of the Union of South Africa. In the second printing of the sheets, the crown in the Italy issue was omitted, for it was discovered that the crown stood for the Kingdom, which no longer existed. Scott does not mention the two printings of the sheets, nor does it mention the imperforates. For that matter, Scott doesn’t mention a lot of things.

Having learned that my friend Mr. Han was in charge of the Foreign mail, I buttonholed him on the matter of cancelling the few cacheted Paquebot covers I had with me. He appeared vague on the subject, but obligingly accepted the three or four covers I gave him, looking with troubled eyes on the U.S. stamps affixed to them. I tried my best to explain the U.P.U. rules on Paquebots, to which Mr. Han nodded his head and smiled.

The 300 hwan surcharges were currently selling over the counter at the Pusan G.P.O. At that time, not yet being a Korea collector, I was firmly convinced I had never seen a more miserable excuse for a stamp. I have had a change of heart since then. I now find them quite appealing. All they needed was a little study and understanding. I was an antique collector before the war put me in the Navy and took me off to strange and distant lands. The collecting of antiques stopped, but I had to collect something; so I turned to stamps. They fitted better with my new life.

So I bought the surcharges and three or four other stamps including all the air mails available. With my Flag sets this was quite an acquisition. In my lonely and quiet hours at sea, I began to study these stamps of Korea, searching through my large accumulation of philatelic literature for any and everything on Korea. It was then I began to see the beauty in these stamps. The soft old looking paper, not unlike the pages in 17th and 18th century books I had picked up in my antiquing days. The simple and almost primitive designs. The perforations laboriously run out by hand with every known perforating implement from a needle to a sewing machine.

While the glue set me to dreaming of girls with glue pets and calcimine brushes furiously smearing sheets of stamps and throwing them up on clothes lines to dry. If you still don’t have the feel of what I mean dear reader, just compare the wartime issues of Korea with those issued this year. It’s just like comparing an original lithograph of Hiroshigi or Utamaro with any of the modern calendar art. This reminds me of Mr. Kim Bok, a minor official at the Pusan post office, and what he said as he pushed over the newest emission for my inspection.

“The world laughed at us” Mr. Kim said, “They called us a backward nation, pointing with contempt at our crude stamps. Now we show them who is backward nation. Look at these beautiful stamps. We have new schedule now. Our stamps will soon equal any countries in the world.”

I sighed as I-bought them, thinking of the antiques which soon, no longer will be on sale at this or any other post office throughout the Land of the Morning Calm.

In 1952 all my Pusan Paquebots turned out to be a flop. I made three voyages to Korea that year, seeing Mr. Han twice in that time, yet every time I’d come home I’d find my Paquebots had come via the Pusan Army Post Office. In 1953 I gave up trying to get Paquebots from Pusan although by then I was hooked on the stamps of Korea and made my routine visit to the P.O. where I bought up all the new issues. In 1954 I took my vacation, after which I was assigned to the European run where I continued posting Paquebots from every port of call. In 1955 I was again back on the Far East run, and it is in this year that I finally broke through the Pusan Paquebot barrier.

A paquebot cover from Busan, cancelled on 9 September 1977, using British “Machin” stamps. Notice that one could send an international cover for a grand total of 6(!) pence at that time.

I read an article in the WEEKLY PHILATELIC GOSSIP by Mr. Talbert B. Fowler, Jr., our Publicity and Membership Chairman. This article convinced me that it was possible to obtain a Pusan Paquebot cancellation if one went about it in the proper manner. In my absence the great fire had burned out all of the business section of Pusan, including the post office. My interpreter, of course, knew the location of the new post office, and it was no trouble finding it. The present building looks as if it was a school or church at one time.

The first person I saw at the new post office was my erstwhile smiling supervisor of foreign mails, Mr. Han. He remembered me quite well. After shaking hands we went around and around on the subject of Paquebots. I produced Mr. Fowler’s article in the W.P.G. Mr. Han, as most educated Koreans, reads and writes English better then he speaks. He read the article from beginning to end. I saw he was a bit worried. He didn’t recall any Captain Milbury, and he was certain he had never cancelled any Paquebots before.

There must be some mistake. Korea did belong to the U.P.U., but Pusan received its orders from the Bureau of Communications at Seoul, and so far they had received no authorization on this matter. I decided that I might as well get a decision, a final one, once and for all. I demanded to see the Postmaster. Mr. Pak, the P.M., did not understand English very well, but through my interpreter, I managed to explain everything. Mr. Han and Mr. Pak went into a huddle after I was finished.

They talked for a half hour, having been joined by two or three others of the post office staff. It was a heated conversation. It appeared that I had stirred up a hornet’s nest. It was terminated by the P.M. walking away, but not before he came over and shock hands with me. Mr. Han then told me that Seoul would be immediately contacted and a directive on Paquebots obtained. Could I wait a day or two? Luckily we were in Pusan for three weeks that time.

Next to the last day of our stay, just as I was about to give up hope, a message came down to me that the post office wanted to see me. Mr. Han was all smiles. Yes. Word had come down from Seoul. He now could accept all legitimate ship’s loose mail. I had gathered the covers which had been accumulating at our Agent’s office, and with the few new ones on hand, gleefully turned over the entire lot to Mr. Han, who in turn handed them to his assistant, Mr. Chen.

Another cover, this one sent by Kirby in 1957 to a collector friend. The note he sent inside the cover is especially interesting: it shows that sometimes paquebot collectors “created” new paquebot cancellations by making an actual canceller with a paquebot marking for a post office. What he and other collectors did was walk into a post office in a port, ask for a paquebot cancellation, and if there wasn’t one, give a canceller to the postmaster and get him to use that one from then on. So far so good, but some collectors went further. Lee Chang Sung, a collector mentioned in this article, often used the exact same(!) canceller in different ports… (Scan and background information from Mike Dovey, co-author of the largest handbook/catalogue of paquebot cancellations ever published.)

This promptly proceeded to cancel them, in what I was happy to see, a controlled manner. The stamp was tied to the cover in just the right way, philatelically speaking. When they were all cancelled, I asked for the Paquebot chop, pointing to a similar chop on the few covers I had with me from Japan and the Philippines. Mr. Han and Mr. Chen were very sorry. They had no Paquebot chop. Would they apply it if I gave them one? Of course, they would.

Pusan, like any other city in the Orient, is full of shops where they make rubber stamps called chops. All business houses use chops. Even individuals sign their names with chops. In no time at all I had a chop made. A simple boxed PAQUEBOT not unlike the 1953 Yokohama type. I presented it to Mr. Chen, who accepted it with a deep bow, and proceeded to cancel my covers. I noticed that though he used the purple ink for the date cancel, he now used a blue pad for the Paquebot cancel. This is unique, for now in 1957 that I have a goodly number of Paquebots from Pusan, these few original covers are the only ones with a blue Paquebot chop, all subsequent ones are in purple the same as the date stamp.

I couldn’t wait to get home. But when I did get home two months later, there were Paquebots from many ports, but none from Pusan. I was completely disgusted with Korea and Pusan in particular. It was not until after the coastwise voyage, two or three weeks later that my Pusan Paquebots came home. It took them three months, but they got home, and that’s all that matters. Since then I have been in Pusan a number of times, and I have had no trouble with Paquebots. In fact, I am some sort of a respected personage at the Pusan post office. Everyone bows to me when I make my infrequent appearances. I am known as “Capt. Paquebot”.

So in conclusion, I want to thank Mr. Han, Mr. Chen and Mr. Pak, for their patience and kindness. No doubt this article will come to their attention as LCDR. Lee Chang Sung, a member of K.S.S., is the President of the Pusan Stamp Club. I also wish to thank Mr. Talbert B. Fowler, Jr., who is now my very good friend, for the timely assistance he gave me with his article in W.P.G.

Written at sea, 3 Feb. 1957
Stanley John Kirby.

Background to Kirby and paquebot covers
This article was originally published in KP Vol. VI No. I, the April 1957 issue. At that time Busan was still written as Pusan (earlier, during Japanese times, even Fusan and Husan). The article mentions several well known KSS members, but the most important one in relation to paquebot covers is Lee Chang Sung, who was for a long time president of the Busan Stamp Club. An article showing his paquebot covers will be published in the future. If you have any Korean (or Korea related) paquebot covers in your collection please contact us. We are currently looking for paquebot covers with cancellations from Korean ports, from all eras.
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2 thoughts on “Collecting Paquebots – A Korean adventure (1957)

  1. Look for ca. 1950-55 paquebot covers produced by Jesse B. Thomas, purser aboard MS “Sword Knot” of the American President Lines APL. She was deployed between Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the Ryukyus back then. I think Thomas occasionally was on other ships, too.
    A purser usually gives the received mails together with a mail list according destinations to the harbour p.o. for further handling, so Thomas was in the right position to make lots of covers and guarantee paquebot handling. Despite of philatelic origin, today they are documents of what existed in handstamps back then.
    – Thomas was an ISJP (and probably “seaposter” and the like specialist societies) member and died in the 1970s.

    1. Update: parts of the vast the collection of the late LEE Chang Sung were sold via ebay the last years. This included paquebot “products” he received back from his net of helping hands aboard ships with korean masters. I bought two of them with Seoul olympic airletters with Taiwan paquebot marks of 1987 and 1989. The interesting thing were the copies of the UPU-list form AV2 listing the numbers of entires and destinations handed over to the harbour p.o. with all the handstamps/signatures. These were ships with korean masters (MV Jovian Lotus, a 20.000gt bulk carrier built 1985, later renamed and now scrapped, and M/V Spring Condor built 1984 and under this name 1987/92, still active) , but the UPU form “Borderau AV2” form used was a japanese one, form yu (mail) 137 “storage 1 year 6th months”. The late Lee added forms and covers to his collection and most probably korean versions of this UPU form were ?are still around at ebay.

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