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.

A Roosevelt Tradition

 

roses-mhead

 (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

judy-fdr-lib

(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.