(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.
(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.