(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.
“Aiguillete, United States,” Wikipedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aiguillette#United_States, (last accessed 1.30.2017).
Wilson Brown, “Aide to Four Presidents,” American Heritage 6, No. 2 (February 1955), http://www.americanheritage.com/content/aide-four-presidents?page=show (last accessed 1.30.2017).
Vice Adm. John L. McCrea, Captain McCrea’s War, (New York; Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).