IOWA Is Big

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(This photo shows Iowa’s commissioning ceremony at the NY Navy Yard on February 22, 1943. The ceremony took place on the stern of the ship under the 16-inch guns of the ship’s third big gun turret)

As I selected photographs for my talk on December 7th at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, I was struck once again by the enormous size of USS Iowa. She is the first of the Iowa class battleships, the largest battleships ever built by the United States. Her length is 887 feet, about the size of 3 football fields laid end to end. Her beam (width) is 108 feet. She was designed to be able to pass through the Panama Canal with a mere 22 inches of clearance, 11 inches on either side.

However, statistics fail to capture the size of the ship. This shot shows Iowa’s bow with 2 of her three 16-inch gun turrets. The photo was taken from sky patrol, where men with binoculars surveyed the ship’s surroundings.

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(In this photo, taken at Iowa’s christening and launch on August 2, 1942, her hull dwarfs the onlookers on the side of the launching ramp)

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(This shot shows a portion of Iowa’s superstructure)

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USS Iowa’s Big Guns

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(Iowa’s 16” guns at work during a drill in the Pacific.)

Another BIG feature of USS Iowa is the 16” guns. There are 9 of them, 3 in each of 3 turrets. Two of the turrets are forward of the bridge. The third is to the stern. When the guns were operational, they could fire a shell of approximately 2,700 lbs.–roughly the weight of a Mini Cooper car–a distance of 23 miles.

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(Captain John McCrea speaking under the guns of the aft turret.)

When I was 12 or 13, I had occasion to have lunch on board the USS Missouri, one of Iowa’s sister ships, as a guest of the ship’s commanding officer. After lunch I had a tour of the ship, including one of the 16” gun turrets. I was able to get my head and shoulders into a gun barrel. (They wouldn’t let me go in any further.)

The Trip To Casablanca

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[On board the president’s C-54 in North Africa. Seated, 1st row (L to R): FDR and Harry Hopkins. Seated, 2d row (L to R): Lt. George A. Fox and Rear Adm. Ross T. McIntire, FDR’s physiotherapist and physician, respectively; Guy Spaman (back turned), Secret Service; and Captain McCrea. Standing (L to R): unidentified man; Arthur Prettyman, FDR’s valet; Charles Fredericks, Secret Service; E.R. Hipsley, Secret Service; W.K. Deckard, Secret Service; and Captain Otis Bryan, pilot of the plane.]

In the evening of January 9, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt and his party departed Washington by train for Casablanca, Morocco, for meetings with Winston Churchill and British military leaders about the next phase of the war. Among the president’s party were Harry Hopkins, presidential adviser, Admiral William D. Leahy, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Captain John L. McCrea, the president’s naval aide. The president had placed McCrea in charge of all the travel arrangements for the trip to North Africa.

The itinerary from Washington to Casablanca was far from direct. The group was to travel to Miami, Florida by special train. There they would board two chartered Pan American Clippers and fly south to Trinidad and Belém, Brazil, and then east, across the South Atlantic Ocean, to Bathurst, Gambia on Africa’s west coast. From Bathurst, they would fly north in two army C-54 planes to Casablanca. The Clipper legs of the trip essentially followed the route used by U.S. Army Air Transport Command to fly war materiel from the United States to the African theater of the war. This route was chosen because it offered the relatively limited aircraft of the day the shortest passage across the Atlantic.

The Arcadia Conference

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(President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill hold a joint press conference in the president’s office on December 23, 1941)

On December 23, 1941, Admiral Harold R. Stark, the chief of naval operations, asked his aide, Captain John McCrea, to accompany him to a meeting at the White House with President Franklin Roosevelt. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had arrived from London with an entourage of top British military leaders for the so-called Arcadia Conference, the first U.S.-British meetings about the war since the U.S. had become a combatant. Admiral Stark and Captain McCrea were introduced to the prime minister, a man McCrea would come to know much better during the following 13 months. Mr. Churchill said a few words, and drinks were served. The next day top level military planning meetings began, and McCrea served as the secretary for the navy at those meetings.

A Roosevelt Tradition

 

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 (A bud vase of roses on my mother’s dresser)

John McCrea was a gardener. When I knew him, he specialized in flowers, especially roses, dahlias, and amaryllis in the winter. But he had a long history of gardening in various places around the globe. More on that on another occasion.
At our summer house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, John had a rose garden. It was not elegantly designed, but it was substantial. It contained tree roses as well as bush roses, and John spent considerable time tending his charges with water and fertilizer. Although I never thought of him as the organic gardening type, he used to buy shipments of ladybugs, which he launched among the roses to attack the aphids.

The fruits of John’s efforts were prolific and visible. Bunches of fragrant roses arranged by my mother were displayed downstairs in the house. John usually wore a rose in the button hole of his jacket lapel. One particularly fond memory of summer weekends in Marblehead was the appearance of a small bud vase of fresh roses on my bedroom bureau. These bud vases were filled and placed there by John, not my mother.

Some years ago when I toured Springwood, the Roosevelt family house in Hyde Park, I noticed a bud vase of fake roses on a bureau in one of the bedrooms. I felt an immediate flash of recognition and recollection of Marblehead summers past. I wondered whether John’s bud vases could have been inspired by the Roosevelts. He had visited Springwood in the summertime.

After my visit to Hyde Park last week, I emailed Paul Sparrow, director of the FDR Library and Museum, to ask if he knew anything about the bud vase I had seen in a bedroom at Springwood. To my surprise, he responded immediately that roses for guests were indeed a Roosevelt family tradition. John greatly admired the gracious thoughtfulness of the president and his wife. While I can’t know 100% for certain, I feel sure that John’s practice of placing roses in the bedrooms at Marblehead was an homage to the Roosevelts. What a lovely connection!

Pearl Harbor Day

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(Julia C. Tobey reading from Captain McCrea’s Book at FDR Library and Museum)

This past week I had the honor of giving a book talk about Captain McCrea’s War at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. The date was Wednesday, December 7th, 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the beginning of my talk, I read John’s story from Chapter 1 about what he did on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. I have always felt this account was one of the most powerful of the memoir.
At the time, John was a senior aide to Admiral Harold R. “Betty” Stark, the chief of naval operations. John learned that Pearl was under attack when he went to cash a check at the Army Navy Club in Washington, and he departed immediately for the Navy Department. He spent the afternoon listening in on Admiral Stark’s telephone calls from Pearl Harbor about the damage and writing up longhand memorandum summarizing the calls.
The calls were made by Admiral Claude C. Bloch, commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District in Honolulu, Hawaii. Neither Stark nor Bloch was sure whether the phone line they were using was secure, and both understood that damage information could have great value to the enemy. To me, the anguish of that terrible afternoon was captured in the poignant plea of Admiral Block at the end of one call, when he remarked, “If anyone other than Admiral Stark and I have overheard this conversation, I beg them, as loyal citizens, to keep the nature of this conversation to themselves.”
After my talk, a group of us toured the featured exhibit at the FDR Museum, “Day of Infamy, 24 Hours That Changed History.” This excellent exhibit, which runs through the end of the year, tells the moment by moment story of what was going on at the White House during the Pearl Harbor attack up to and including FDR’s delivery of his famous Day of Infamy address to Congress. The exhibit starts with FDR receiving the news of the attack and drafting his own press release about it because it was Sunday, and no one was around the White House but Harry Hopkins, who lived there. It includes audio of Mrs. Roosevelt making the first radio announcement of the attack during her previously scheduled radio broadcast. The original edited first draft of the Day of Infamy speech is on display with the typed words “world history” crossed out and replaced in pencil with “infamy” in FDR’s hand.
Thinking back on my afternoon in Hyde Park, I have the sense that the Washington of December 1941 has mostly faded into the mists of time and forgetfulness. However, two Washington locales remain with us. The top floor of the Navy Department and the nearby White House are still as crisp and three dimensional as they were on Pearl Harbor Day, courtesy of John McCrea’s memory and the research and ingenuity embodied in the Day of Infamy exhibit.

Keepers

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(John wrote “Keep” on the cover of a Proceedings magazine featuring Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. John worked with Admiral Nimitz at the Navy Department after WW2.)

When John McCrea moved to our house, he did not come alone. He brought with him a Filipino steward named Pique, who had worked for him since his navy days, and 17 coffin-size wooden boxes of papers, uniforms, and memorabilia. All took up residence in our cellar, Pique in a renovated space in the old laundry; the boxes, in stacks on the cellar floor.
As a collector and keeper of stuff, John fit right into our family. None of the Tobeys ever threw anything out. This was forcefully brought home to me when, in my 40s, I helped empty our Chestnut Hill house before it was sold. In the attic, I was startled to discover my old toilet training equipment and the birdcage that was home to our canary, who died when I was ten. Still, when it came to saving papers and photographs, the Tobeys were amateurs compared with John.
John was an avid reader of correspondence, newspapers and magazines. When he found things of interest, he would pass them on to Mother to read. If he wanted her to return an item to him, he wrote on it in his compact but powerful script, “Keep.” If the item was particularly precious, he wrote something like “Keep, keep and keep!” These treasures accumulated in piles in his study, and in time some migrated to the wooden boxes.
During John’s lifetime, I had nothing to do with the boxes. I was dimly aware that when John dictated his memoirs, he referred to papers from the boxes to jog and supplement his remarkable memory. No doubt this contributed to the accuracy and completeness of his recollections. I knew that some of the navy materials were classified, and that he had had them de-classified before he used them. Beyond that I don’t know what papers he worked with.
After John’s death, my husband Ken and I undertook to sort through the papers in the boxes. The uniforms, decorations, and swords had long since been distributed. The boxes were a jumble, but what a fascinating experience it was to explore them. There were childhood drawings by, and letters from, his daughters, coins, folders of speeches, and reams of correspondence from his navy and John Hancock careers. We noted famous names in the correspondence files, but we didn’t have time to read, just to sort.
The photographs made the biggest impression. There were thousands of them, collected by John or sent to him by friends. There were pictures of what appeared to be German warships at the surrender of the German navy after WWI. There were shots in unusual formats of other unidentified ships and naval officers of ancient vintage. More modern pictures showed trips with FDR and the launch and early days of USS Iowa. We even found pictures of John with President Harry S. Truman and with a very youthful John F. Kennedy. As musicians, we were intrigued to find photos of conductors Andre Kostelanetz and Arthur Fiedler and singer Lily Pons, but there was no explanation of why John came to be photographed with them. While our photographic tour left more questions than answers, I came away with a powerful sense of the breadth of John’s experience and the importance of his career.
Postscript: We boxed up the papers and gave them to the Naval Historical Foundation. Some years later I was surprised to discover they had been neatly organized, cataloged, and transferred to the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress. I kept the photos, at least for now. After all, I am a Tobey.

Memory

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(pictured L-R, John, Martha McCrea, Julia in 1973)

After retiring from the navy at the mandatory retirement age of 62, John McCrea worked in client relations for John Hancock Life Insurance Co. until he reached the company’s mandatory retirement age of 75. He began to record his memoirs in his early 80’s and continued to work on them for about ten years. One might well question the reliability of the memory of someone of such advanced years. However, having spent considerable time vetting John’s work, I can vouch for him.
At 80, John was a man of great vitality. Every morning without fail he performed a daily exercise routine. I often glimpsed him lying on his back on the floor–“on the deck” as he called it—doing leg bicycles in the air. Wary of the diabetes that ran in his family, he monitored his diet carefully. He loved to travel, he was a hands-on gardener, and he played the ancient Scottish sport of curling, which involves sliding heavy stones across the ice and vigorously brushing the path ahead of his teammate’s stone.
If anything, John’s mental acuity in his 80’s was even more impressive than his physical prowess. His memory was phenomenal. In telling of events long past, he described them with such clarity and detail that you felt that you were present. He remembered who was there, where he was standing, and what was said. On occasion, he would startle by stating that such-and-such event that had taken place some 50 or 60 years before had occurred on—say–a Tuesday. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether he was correct at the time, but in editing I found that these sorts of statements were invariably accurate.
In July 1969, when John was a mere 78, we watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on live TV. At the time, I recall thinking how much John had witnessed–the rise of telephones, the birth of the automobile, radio, airplanes, penicillin, radar, two world wars, and now space travel. He had personal stories about all and how they impacted his life. Likewise, he had vivid recollections of an astonishing number of public figures he had known or witnessed over the same period. These included William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Edison, FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and as President, Justice Louis Brandeis, Winston Churchill, the terrifying Admiral Ernest J. King, and, a personal favorite, Wallis Simpson when she was married to her first husband (a naval officer) and to her third (the Duke of Windsor). The list went on and on. The more I knew of John’s stories, the more I came to think of on him as a sort of human reference work on the first half of the 20th Century.