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.

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).

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).

January 30 – FDR’s Birthday

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(Returning from the Casablanca Conference during a flight from Trinidad to Miami, President Roosevelt celebrates his 61st birthday. Seated (L to R): Guy Spaman, secret service; Admiral William D. Leahy, FDR’s chief of staff; Lt. Cone, captain of the plane; and FDR. Standing (L to R): Charles Fredericks, secret service, Capt. John L. McCrea, presidential naval aide; Elmer Hipsley, secret service; Lt. George Fox, naval medical corps; Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, surgeon general of the navy)

On January 30, 1943 on the return trip from the Casablanca Conference, President Roosevelt celebrated his 61st birthday in an unusual venue, aboard a Pan Am Clipper flying from Trinidad to Miami. The event was organized on the initiative of John McCrea during the journey to Casablanca. There were champagne toasts, a birthday cake, and the president received a gift, a book of prints showing scenes of Trinidad, where the presidential party had had overnight layovers on the way to and from North Africa. It was the first time—and possibly the last—that a president of the United States had celebrated his birthday in the skies.

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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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.

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.