Scottish Spirit: A Memory of Fala

During the spring or summer of 1942, John McCrea visited the home of President Roosevelt at Hyde Park. On that occasion, the president decided to give John a personally guided tour of the area. For this outing, the president took the wheel of his automobile, specially fitted with controls that allowed him to operate the accelerator, brake and clutch by hand. John sat in the front seat next to the president. In the back seat were Charlie Fredericks, the president’s Secret Service bodyguard, and Fala, his Scottish terrier.

The president thought John should see the Vanderbilt Mansion near the village of Hyde Park. Here I will let John take up his story:

Off we went at what I thought was a pretty good rate of speed, all things considered. … On arrival at the Vanderbilt mansion, just a short distance north of the village of Hyde Park, the president thought I should go into the house. He said that, at the very least, I should look at the elegant ground floor. This I did.

The president decided that this was a good chance for Fala to have a run. From the high rate of speed at which the dog took off, he evidently thought well of the idea, too. On my return from a quick tour of the Vanderbilt mansion—indeed, it was a mansion— the president indicated that we should be getting on. He called to Fala. Charlie Fredericks called to Fala. But Fala either didn’t hear or, hearing, thought little of returning to the car.

Finally, Charlie Fredericks took off after Fala. He cornered him under a low-branched pine tree, picked him up, and returned him to the car. Charlie, who was slightly on the stout side, was puffing. The Scottish Terrier was so little winded by the chase that the president gaily remarked, “You know, Charlie, I think Fala is in a lot better shape than you.” The three of us had a good laugh. Fala, the silent one, only wore a pleased look.

Perhaps he was enjoying the thought that he’d shown the President of the United States that dogs have a Declaration of Independence, too.

Source: Captain McCrea’s War, pp. 80-81.

 

 

This Ship Was Named for a Joke

USS_Shangri-La_(CV-38)_underway_in_the_pacific,_1946

(USS Shangri-La CV-38), an Essex-class aircraft carrier in August 1946)

This U.S. aircraft carrier is the USS Shangri-La, built during World War II and commissioned on 15 September 1944. Most aircraft carriers are named after battles or earlier U.S. Navy ships. Why was this one named after a fictitious place in a novel, the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton? The answer lies in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sense of humor and the daring “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo on 18 April 1944.

The early months of U.S. involvement in the Pacific war were marked by Japanese advances and Allied defeats. To shake Japan’s sense of invincibility and boost U.S. morale at home, the Navy developed a plan to bomb Tokyo and other targets in the Japanese homeland by launching bombers from an aircraft carrier. This project was no mean feat. The bombers—U.S. Army B-25B Mitchell medium bombers—were land-based planes that had to be significantly modified to carry out the mission. Most particularly, they had to be fitted with larger fuel capacity for their long range deployment. The crews of the planes, all volunteers, were specially trained to take off on a short runway. The planes were too big to land on an aircraft carrier so after delivering their payload, they were supposed to fly to Allied fields in China to land.

On 18 April, sixteen bombers, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Corps, took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. They dropped their bombs over Japan, doing little physical damage but delivering a psychic blow to the Japanese and a lift to the American public. Then the planes flew on to China and the Soviet Union. Because the planes had had to launch further east of Japan than initially planned, they didn’t have enough fuel to reach their target air fields, and most of their crews had to crash land or bail out. Despite all, most of the plane crews survived the war.

President Roosevelt was at Hyde Park on the day of the raid. John McCrea, his naval aide, called him from Washington the following day to deliver his morning briefing. In Captain McCrea’s War, McCrea described their conversations about the raid:

“The most important item of the morning’s report, Mr. President, is that U.S. planes made an air attack on Tokyo.”

“Really?” said the president with a laugh. Of course, he was privy to the whole operation, and the raid was no surprise to him. “And where, John, do you suppose those planes came from?”

“That, Mr. President, is what the Japanese want to know. According to our intelligence sources, that question is on the lips of everyone in Tokyo.” I moved on to the other items of my report.

About one o’clock that afternoon, the president called me. “I think I can answer the Japanese who are asking where the air raid came from. Ask Ernie King if he doesn’t think it would be a good idea to say the raid came from Shangri-La. If we do, when this story reaches Japan, every Japanese will be busy looking at his or her equivalent of the Rand-McNally Atlas trying to find Shangri-La.”

I called Admiral King and told him what the president had said. Admiral King laughed softly and said he thought rather well of the idea. Soon a press release was issued stating that it was “rumored” that the attack planes were from their base in Shangri-La.

The name of the carrier USS Shangri-La derives from FDR’s little joke on the Japanese people. When the carrier was launched on 24 February 1944, the ship was christened by Mrs. James H. Doolittle, wife of the leader of the Doolittle Raid.

 

Sources

McCrea, Vice Adm. John L. Captain McCrea’s War: etc. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. Pp. 89-90.

 “Doolittle Raid,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid, last accessed 4.19.2017.

“USS Shangri-La (CV-38),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid, last accessed 4.19.2017.

Mr. Molotov is Photographed at the White House

John McCrea was personally involved in arranging for the photograph of President Roosevelt and Vyacheslav Molotov, the minister of foreign affairs of the Soviet Union, in the president’s office. McCrea vividly described how he managed to find a photographer to take the picture and still preserve the secrecy of Molotov’s visit.

Molotov visited the United States in June 1942. He came to meet with President Roosevelt to discuss Lend-Lease aid and the opening a second front in the war. The visit was top secret, and Molotov traveled incognito under the name of Mr. Brown. On his last morning in Washington, Molotov went to the White House to say his goodbyes to the president. From here McCrea takes up the story.

 

[Mr. Molotov] was accompanied by his bodyguards, a tough-looking three or four, who were carrying sidearms, much to the distress of the Secret Service chaps on duty. Mr. Molotov presented this group to the President.

Shortly before Mr. Molotov’s arrival at the White House, the President called me on the telephone, and here is about the way it went. “Mr. Brown will be in my second floor study in half an hour. I want a picture made of this event. Get a photographer from the pressroom whom you can trust. Bring him upstairs and have him stand by to photograph our meeting on signal.”

“I recognize the secrecy connected with this occasion, Mr. President. I know no photographers in the pressroom, let alone one who could be trusted. And this being Saturday morning, there may not be any photographers in the pressroom anyway. But rest assured, Mr. President, I will have a photographer here when you give me the signal.”

I immediately rang up Captain Leland Lovette, the head of the Navy public relations office. I told him I wanted a photographer at the White House at once. Lovette replied that he only had one photographer on duty, and at that moment, he was in the outer office of the Secretary of the Navy, standing by to photograph the Secretary awarding a Navy Cross to someone who had distinguished himself during the Pearl Harbor raid.

“Leland,” said I, “grab that guy, get him and his equipment in a taxi, and send him to the northwest gate of the White House. Do this at once. I will meet him there and give him his instructions. This is an urgent assignment, and under no circumstances are you to question the photographer as to its nature. Do you understand?” Leland replied that he did.

I met the photographer at the Pennsylvania Avenue northwest gate. We walked up the gravel drive to the White House. As we came through the front door, the chief usher, Howell Crim, said that the President wished to see me at once. On the way up to the second floor, I briefed the photographer. “After the photographs are taken, you are to return to your laboratory, develop your film, make no prints, and bring the film to my office on the second floor of the Navy Department, front corridor. You are not to volunteer any information as to the nature of this assignment, nor answer any questions about it. Captain Lovette, your chief, has been similarly instructed by me in this matter.”

The photographer and I went directly to the President’s study. The President introduced me to “Mr. Brown.” The pictures were quickly taken. I sent the photographer back to the Navy Department in my Navy-chauffeured Pontiac and returned to the President’s study. Shortly afterwards, I took off with the official party for the Anacostia Naval Air Station where a Russian plane was ready to fly Mr. Molotov and his associates back to Russia.

The photograph was released by Steve Early, the president’s press secretary, after Molotov had arrived back in the Soviet Union

The President vs. The Press

FDR at Press Conf 1

Every administration attempts to shape coverage in the press. President Trump does so by tweeting, having virtually given up press conferences. Trump’s press secretary supports the boss’s message by defending and validating his tweets. Stung by press criticism of tweets loosely connected to fact, the administration regards the media as the “opposition party,” and the president’s press secretary has attempted to limit the attendance and questions of the mainstream press at White House news briefings. The Trump approach seems focused on damping voices that disagree.

John McCrea described quite different press relations at the White House in 1942, during the first year of WW II. Franklin Roosevelt regarded the press as essential to getting his message out to the country. Unlike Trump, he could not reach people directly and easily through a medium like Twitter, although he did make occasional radio broadcasts to the country. To be sure there were tensions about the quality of reporting and the amount of information released by the administration, but the relationship between president and press was more mutually beneficial than adversarial.

FDR held two press conferences a week, one for the morning papers and one for the evening ones. About 150 reporters attended. FDR enjoyed bantering with the reporters. Most of their questions were impromptu, but complicated ones requiring special briefing for the president could be submitted in advance to Steve Early, the president’s press secretary. Most of the reporters were respectful. McCrea knew of only one incident when a reporter’s insolence and his abusive and inaccurate columns made the president angry enough to consider excluding him from the conferences.

Since it was wartime, the president had to withhold information on matters that might harm the country’s war effort. Once FDR dispatched McCrea, his naval aide, to try to explain to a reporter why the president could not respond to his persistent questioning. Here I quote from Captain McCrea’s War about the incident:

In the late thirties and early forties, Elmer Davis was a well- known newsman and news broadcaster with a considerable following. Mr. Davis was one of the regular attendees of the president’s news conferences, and his pointed questions and remarks reflected criticism of the quantity and quality of the war news released by the administration. He was particularly persistent in asking about U.S. war losses. The president, as always, was exceedingly tactful in handling Mr. Davis.

I vividly recall the distress in the president’s voice one day after a press conference when he said: “John, catch Elmer Davis before he gets away. Take him aside and see if you can get across to him the idea that he can’t publish everything he wants to about our losses. Steve Early [the president’s press secretary] tells me he can make no headway with him, and I haven’t the time to take him on.”

I caught Mr. Davis and tried to explain that the release of information about war losses, particularly those unknown to the enemy, created serious problems for the administration and the armed services. Mr. Davis was, I thought, remarkably naïve. He responded, “The American public has a right to know what’s going on. If the administration released a daily summary of U.S. losses, the information would only be covered in the U.S. press, and the enemy would know nothing about it. I suspect you fellows in the military have something to cover up if you don’t want your losses known in this country.”

“Mr. Davis,” said I, “I don’t know you well, but you have a fine reputation among the news fraternity, and there is hardly anyone in your profession who has a greater following. I have in mind something to tell you, but I shan’t do so unless you are willing to promise that you will never repeat or make reference to it in your writing, broadcasting, or your private conversation or correspondence. If you give me this assurance, I will tell you. If not, we might as well forget any future conversations.” After a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Davis agreed to my terms.

I continued, “You have told me that a daily press report of U.S. losses could not benefit the enemy. You are absolutely wrong in this. Nightly, an embassy here in Washington sends a coded dispatch to its government’s foreign office containing a digest of all military news in our press. The country engaged in this activity is supposedly neutral, but we have proof positive that the military information transmitted by its embassy is reaching the Axis powers. I am not going to name the neutral country or tell you how we know the information is reaching the enemy. You will have to take my word for it. However, I am sure that you, as a patriotic American, would not want to give aid and comfort to our enemies. Do you need further proof of the wisdom of censoring our losses?”

“Well, no. But we can’t let censorship take over.” Mr. Davis still felt the people had a right to know, although he allowed that the issue of “when” they were entitled to know might be relevant. I do not recall that Mr. Davis ever again asked about our country’s losses at a presidential news conference.

Women’s Work

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(Women working at Allis-Chalmers, Milwaukee, WI)

From September 17th through October 1st, 1942, Captain John McCrea accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt on an inspection tour of U.S. war materiel manufacturing companies, military hospitals, and military training facilities. The president circled the country by train, traveling west through the northern states, south along the Pacific coast, and east through the south. On September 19th, the president’s train stopped in Milwaukee, WI for a tour of an Allis-Chalmers plant, which manufactured a variety of war materiel, including steam turbines for ships, submarine motors, generators, and electrical switch gears. Here the president’s car stops to observe a number of women at work. The president is in the back seat, partially obscured by the window. Applauding next to him is the governor of Wisconsin, Julius Heil.

The Commissioning of USS Iowa

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(The commissioning of USS Iowa on February 22, 1943.)

On February 22, 1943, George Washington’s birthday, the USS Iowa, the nation’s newest and largest battleship, was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn, NY, under the command of Captain John L. McCrea. The commissioning took place a record six months after the ship was launched on August 27, 1942.

The ceremonies were held on the stern of the ship. The speakers, including Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Captain McCrea, and others, were assembled facing aft under the big 16″ guns of the ship’s after turret. Invited guests were seated before them, and the ship’s company stood in ranks on either side. Others witnessed the ceremony from adjacent piers and buildings, and from ships moored nearby.

Captain McCrea was the last speaker. He addressed most of his remarks to the ship’s company. He stated unequivocally his demands for the ship: “I expect a clean ship. I expect a smart ship. Above all, I expect a fighting ship.” He then spoke of the need for rigorous training, and as he did so, he shifted to the pronoun “we,” suggesting a common interest shared by captain and crew. He concluded:

“As you all know, much remains to be done. The tremendous amount of work thus far accomplished augurs well for the future which you and I face together–the future which you and I face together with confidence and determination. Our Commander in Chief, our Secretary, and our brothers in arms expect much of us. We cannot and must not fail them.”

It was not the last speech to the ship’s company where McCrea conveyed that he and his men were part of the same team.

After the ceremony, McCrea hosted a luncheon in his quarters. During the luncheon the Secretary Knox hit it off with McCrea’s mother, who had come east from her home in Marlette, Michigan, for the commissioning. According to the Secretary, Mrs. McCrea remarked to him that her son was too young to command such a large ship. He was 52 at the time.

Source

McCrea, John L.. History of the USS Iowa (BB 61) (Unpublished history of Iowa’s first year). John L. McCrea Papers. Library of Congress.

World War II, Krakow and Beethoven (2)

op-74

(The opening Adagio of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s op. 74 string quartet, “the Harp,” in the composer’s hand.)

The story of Krakow’s Beethoven manuscripts begins before WW II in Berlin. At that time, the Prussian State Library in Berlin held the world’s greatest collection of original autograph music manuscripts, including those of the most important works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and many other great composers. In 1941, after Allied bombs started to fall on Berlin, the library began divide up its collections and evacuate parts to various mines, monasteries, and castles in safer parts of Germany. Boxes of manuscripts by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn and others were sent to Lower Silesia, and ultimately hidden at a Benedictine abbey in Grüssau. As the war progressed, the abbey escaped bombing by the Allied powers and destruction by the Soviet forces that invaded Silesia towards the end of the war.

In July 1945, after the end of fighting in Europe, a group of Polish librarians and museum officers were engaged in a search for looted Polish cultural treasures in areas abandoned by the Germans. At Grüssau, the few remaining monks at the abbey informed them about the musical treasure hidden there. The monks were aware that Soviet soldiers stationed nearby were pilfering anything of value, and they thought the manuscripts would be safer in Polish hands.

In the summer of 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany, to negotiate terms for the settlement of the war in Europe. At the Potsdam Conference, Poland’s western boundary was redrawn to the west of its pre-war location. As a result, Lower Silesia became part of Poland. (One repercussion of this change was that German towns in the area acquired new Polish names, to the great confusion of anyone trying to understand local history and geography. Thus, Grüssau, Germany became Krzeszów, Poland.)

In 1946, the manuscripts were quietly transferred from the abbey at Krzeszów to Krakow. They were held in secret and eventually deposited in the Jagiellonian University Library . My recent visit to Poland was to study Beethoven’s op. 74 string quartet, known as “the Harp.” The autograph score of the Harp was one of the manuscripts brought to Krakow. Other Beethoven manuscripts in the group included portions or complete scores of the 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies, several of the late string quartets, and sketchbooks.

Even after the Jagiellonian Library acquired the manuscripts, few inside Poland (and no one outside) knew of their existence and whereabouts. The custodians kept them in secret for decades because of mistrust of the Soviet Union, which essentially controlled Poland’s government until 1989, and Poland’s inability to obtain cultural reparations and appropriate compensation from the Soviet Union and East Germany for wartime cultural losses.

News of the manuscripts’ existence reached the outside world through a Polish musicologist in the late 1960s. Even so, the Polish government did not acknowledge possession of the manuscripts until 1977. In that year, Poland signed a treaty of friendship with East Germany and returned seven scores to Berlin (including Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mozart’s The Magic Flute). Although the transfer was characterized as a goodwill gesture, it may have actually been war reparations forced on Poland by East Germany.

Since then, there have been a series of negotiations between Poland and East Germany, and later unified Germany, about the return of the rest of the music manuscripts to Berlin. However, Poland has refused to act without further repatriation of Polish cultural objects and adequate reparations for Polish cultural losses during the war. The last negotiations took place in 2000. The manuscripts remain in Krakow, and the old wartime disputes persist.

Sources

Włodzimierz Kalicki, “Manuscripts found in the Jagiellonian.” Gazeta Wyborcza (Warsaw, Poland), March 30, 2010 (translation by Gazeta Wyborcza).

Marek Sroka, “The Music Collection of the Former Prussian State Library at the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland: Past, Present, and Future Developments,” Library Trends 55. no. 3 (Winter 2007) (“Libraries in Times of War, Revolutions, and Social Change,” edited by W. Boyd Rayward and Christine Jenkins), pp 651-664.

 

World War II, Krakow and Beethoven (1)

 

(Scenes from Krakow’s town square)

I recently spent ten days in Krakow, Poland, a beautiful city where the ghosts and disputes of WW II still linger. This is the first of two blogs about Krakow’s noteworthy history.

Krakow is in southern Poland east of the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Settled in the 7th Century, the city has a long and remarkable history as a center of trade, culture, architecture, and academics. Like much of Poland, it was invaded many times from the east, and the Polish language, with its spiky clusters of unpronounceable consonants, owes much more to Slavic languages than to Latin.

From the 11th to the 16th centuries Krakow was the capital of the Kingdom of Poland. Its Jagiellonian University, the 2nd oldest university in Central Europe, was founded in 1364, and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who posited that the earth orbits the sun) studied there in the 1490s. One of the early Polish kings was hospitable to Jews, and the city developed a significant Jewish population.

Krakow’s beautiful architecture survived WW II due in part to the quick action of its mayor. Shortly after Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, he declared Krakow an open city, and the following day, September 6th, the Germans took over. While Germany annexed portions of Poland outright, Krakow was in territory administered as a colony and source of forced labor by the Nazi’s General Government, a division of the Third Reich. Hitler’s lawyer, Dr. Hans Frank, was appointed head of the General Government, and he ruled from Krakow’s Wawel Castle, once home to Polish kings.

Under Frank’s brutal regime, Krakow’s Jews were moved from the city into a walled ghetto, and subsequently deported to extermination camps. Oskar Schindler (depicted in the movie “Schindler’s List”), a Czech industrialist and Nazi, operated an enamelware factory in Krakow. Nazi connections and bribes enabled him to save the lives of some 1,000 Jews by employing them in his factory. Another Krakow resident, a very young Roman Polanski (the film director), escaped the ghetto and survived.

When Soviet forces took Krakow on 18 January 1945, the city once again avoided much physical damage. As the war ended, the Soviet Union assumed control of Polish elections and government. Eventually, the Polish People’s Republic was formed, a Soviet-dominated government that suppressed intellectual and academic life and continued until 1989.

And how does Ludwig van Beethoven fit into this picture? Beethoven himself never set foot in Krakow. However, his music—specifically, a priceless collection of autograph manuscripts of his work—resides in the city. How that collection came to Krakow and why it remains there today is a fascinating WW II story of stealth, secrecy, shifting national boundaries, and war-related grievances that continue to this day. This remarkable tale will appear in part 2 of this blog.

While John McCrea was never in Poland or Europe before or during the war, the events that took place there were certainly part of “his world.” Before the German invasion of Poland, John was the executive officer (second in command) of the battleship USS Pennsylvania, the flagship of the U.S. Fleet, based in the Pacific. John followed world events closely. He was aware of Japanese aggression and conquest in Asia and the increasing tensions in Europe. He believed the U.S. might be drawn into war and spent considerable effort on war training and trying to focus the men of Pennsylvania on planning for war. Few, including senior officers, thought the U.S. would go to war. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the breakout of hostilities in Europe only strengthened John’s belief that U.S. involvement in war was a distinct possibility. He proved to be prescient.

Sources

“Jagiellonian University,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagiellonian_University;

“Nicolaus Copernicus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaus_Copernicus;

“Kraków,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak%C3%B3w;

“Hans Frank,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Frank;

“History of Poland,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Poland;  

“Invasion of Poland,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_Poland;

“Open City,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_city;

“General Government,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Government;

“The Potsdam Conference, 1945,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1937-1945/potsdam-conf;

“Oskar Schindler,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Schindler;

all last accessed 2.13.2017.

 

Young In World War II

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(A group of very youthful bluejackets sunbathing on USS Iowa)

My husband and I sent a copy of Captain McCrea’s War to Elmer, my husband’s 90-year-old cousin who, after 20 years of farming, had recently moved to a retirement community in Nebraska. Some years ago, we attended a family reunion at the farm that Elmer and his wife ran in northeastern Nebraska. At the time, Elmer expressed great interest in my wok editing John McCrea’s memoirs because he too had served in the navy during WW II, although at a far lower rank, he hastened to add.

I was moved and intrigued by Elmer’s letter about our gift. He was amazed by the book’s pictures and was thrilled to have this “lesson in history.” He signed off as “a swabby Electrician’s Mate second class,” and I sensed his pride in the role he had played in defending our country and his powerful emotional connection to that important time.

With his note, Elmer enclosed a recent article written about him when he and his wife moved to their retirement community. Entitled “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” the article offers a glimpse of Elmer’s WW II experience, which was very different from John McCrea’s, but important service none the less:

“I was drafted into the Navy. When we went to the induction place, they said ‘Army, Army, Navy, Marine,’ I happened to be the third one so I was in the Navy. This was in 1944.”

[Elmer] graduated from Lincoln High on May 19, and headed off to boot camp in June. He worked on a ship where they delivered ‘frog men.’ These ‘frog men’ were guys dressed in rubber suits, fins, goggles and had good swimming ability. They would set charges out for ships.

Specifically, he was an electrician on an amphibious personnel destroyer, and received his training as such up north in the Great Lakes. [Elmer] said that his most memorable Navy experience out of his two years was WWII’s ending.

“We saw that little boat come up by our ship. We were tied up to the [USS] Missouri, and the Japanese Generals and Admirals were going up the ladder on the Missouri to sign the surrender. We watched, and when it was over, they came back. That was the highlight of my life in the Navy.”

The worst experience [Elmer] remembers about the Navy is a typhoon that came up while his boat was docked at Tokyo Bay. This typhoon ended up destroying two ships and killing 46 men.

I was struck by two features of Elmer’s story. First, his description supports the impression I have from photographs that the lower ranks in Navy ships were full of teenagers and very young adults. It must have been an enormous challenge for commanding officers such as John McCrea to mold these youngsters into an effective fighting team and to maintain their morale when many had never been away from home before. Second, was the randomness that shaped wartime experience. Many battle veterans have spoken of the randomness of death–how some died and others, right next to them, survived. Not only was the draft random, but pure chance determined that Elmer went into the navy and not the army or the marines.

Source

Courtney Upah, “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” in “Golden Years,” Wayne Herald (Wayne, NE), December 13, 2016, p. 2.

What Is A Naval Aide?

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(Captain John McCrea escorting President Roosevelt in the summer of 1942. Note the aiguillettes on McCrea’s right shoulder, indicating a presidential naval aide)

On 16 January 1942 Captain John L. McCrea reported to President Roosevelt as his naval aide. Despite the honor of working for the president of the United States, McCrea was not enthusiastic about this assignment. He knew the job involved many ceremonial duties, and at least during peacetime, was none too challenging. McCrea had hoped for a ship command. He wanted to fight the war.

What exactly is a presidential naval aide? The simple answer is a naval officer assigned to the president who does whatever the president wants him to do. The job is authorized by navy regulations, but it is undefined. By tradition the naval aide serves as a liaison between the Navy Department and the president, but beyond that there are few parameters.
One constant for all presidential naval aides is a feature of their uniforms. Naval aides wear ornamental braided cords, known as aiguillettes, looped over one shoulder. Aides to high ranking naval officers and certain civilians wear aiguillettes on the left shoulder. By contrast, aides to the U.S. president wear aiguillettes on the right shoulder and thus can easily be picked out in photographs.

The man who knew the most about the job of presidential naval aide was Rear Admiral Wilson Brown, who had three tours as naval aide and served four presidents. Two tours were during peacetime. The first was working for Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in the ‘20s, and the second was working for FDR in in the mid-30s. Brown’s third tour was during WW2, when he worked for FDR a second time upon relieving John McCrea.

Brown’s peacetime duties were the sort for which McCrea had little enthusiasm. For Coolidge, Brown commanded the presidential yacht and stood on formal receiving lines to introduce visitors to the president. Anticipating Hoover’s presidency and knowing that Hoover was a fisherman, Brown scoped out good fishing grounds in Chesapeake Bay accessible to the president’s yacht. However, Hoover decided the yacht was an extravagance so Brown presided over its decommissioning and helped to develop a presidential trout fishing camp in the mountains of Virginia. During his second tour at the White House, Brown played the same role at FDR’s receptions and state dinners as he had for Coolidge and Hoover. FDR was an enthusiastic sailor, and Brown commanded FDR’s presidential yacht and went on many fishing trips with the president.

When McCrea arrived at the White House about a month after U.S. entry into the war, his activities were vastly different than those of a peacetime naval aide. He immediately launched into setting up the White House Map Room, the communications hub and repository for war information from all branches of the military and for FDR’s dispatch correspondence with Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek. Coordination with the Navy Department, keeping the president current on war developments, maintaining security, handling the press, and dealing with countless dignitaries visiting the White House all assumed vital importance, and McCrea found himself in the center of the action. He personally briefed the president at least twice a day–in his bedroom in the morning and in the afternoon, often in his doctor’s office–and at additional times, as necessary. Because the secret service discouraged FDR’s use of the presidential yacht because of the danger U-boat attack, McCrea was assigned to set up and administer Shangri-La, now known as Camp David. Highly compatible, FDR and McCrea worked closely together on many matters, and McCrea undertook to alleviate as many pressures on the president as he could.

When Admiral Brown returned to the White House as McCrea’s relief, he confirmed that “the office of Naval Aide in war was a very different, and much more interesting job, than during peace.” He inherited the responsibility of administering the Map Room, and attended all FDR’s wartime conferences with Churchill subsequent to the Casablanca Conference. Brown especially enjoyed morning presidential briefings, but they were more formal than in McCrea’s day. Brown and Admiral William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, briefed the president together, and they did so in FDR’s office.

Sources

“Aiguillete, United States,” Wikipedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aiguillette#United_States, (last accessed 1.30.2017).

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