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).

Casablanca Conference

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(President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill addressing reporters at the joint press conference at the end of the Casablanca Conference)

On 24 January 1943, at the conclusion of the Casablanca Conference, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill held a joint press conference. Seated in chairs on a beautiful sunny day, with the correspondents spread out on the lawn before them, the two leaders discussed what had been accomplished during the conference. The president spoke first. Near the end of his remarks he stated:

“…I think we have all had it in our hearts and our heads before, but I don’t think that it has ever been put down on paper by the Prime Minister and myself, and that is the determination that peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power.

“Some of you Britishers know the old story—we had a General called U.S. Grant. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant, but in my and the Prime Minister’s early days, he was called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan. That means a reasonable assurance of future world peace. It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.

“While we have not had a meeting of all of the ‘United Nations,’ I think that there is no question—in fact we both have great confidence that the same purposes and objectives are in the minds of all of the other ‘United Nations’—Russia, China, and all the others.”

John McCrea attended the press conference in a position where he could clearly see the prime minister. When the president spoke the words “unconditional surrender,” the prime minister sharply turned his head in a manner that suggested to John that this announcement came as a surprise to Mr. Churchill. John learned later that the president and the prime minister had discussed, and were in complete agreement on, this point.

Presidential remarks (click here)

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.

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.