On Sunday December 7, 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a luncheon for 31 people at the White House. All present hoped her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, would join them. At the last minute FDR demurred, choosing instead to eat privately with his friend and aide Harry Hopkins.
[text_ad] When her luncheon was over Mrs. Roosevelt retired upstairs to the family quarters, where she found a whirlwind of activity. It was then that she learned what her husband had only just found out: The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
In the months leading up to the war, Eleanor had been active with the Office of Civil Defense, and in this capacity she now swung into action. The following day she accompanied her husband to the capitol where he delivered his famous “Day of Infamy” speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan. That night she boarded a plane along with former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who worked with her on the OCD. Their destination was the West Coast, where they planned to inspect and discuss preparedness for civilian defense against an anticipated Japanese attack.
While in the air, a rumor reached them that San Francisco was under attack. All were relieved when the rumor was proven untrue. Eleanor’s tour of West Coast preparedness took a week, and on December 15 she was back in Washington. It was the first of many wartime trips that she would take on behalf of her husband and the government.
Even before the war, Eleanor Roosevelt was the most active of any First Lady, and certainly the most prolific activist. Her fight on behalf of civil rights, the poor, and women made her the lighting rod of the administration. During the war all of her activities, including her tours overseas, were scrutinized by enemies of the New Deal. During war it might be considered unpatriotic to attack the commander in chief so Eleanor was a highly visible scapegoat.
By the summer of 1942, representatives from most of the Allied governments had visited the White House, and many of them tendered invitations for Eleanor to visit their countries, including China and the Soviet Union. When the Queen of England discreetly inquired if Mrs. Roosevelt would be willing to visit Great Britain, Franklin got involved. He was keenly interested in having his wife visit the English ally.
When the official invitation came, it offered Eleanor the opportunity to see what the British women were doing for the war effort and to visit with recently arrived American soldiers. FDR encouraged her to accept. He did not tell her about the evolving plans for Operation Torch, the upcoming invasion of North Africa.
On October 21, Eleanor and her friend and aide Malvina Thompson (known as Tommy) boarded a Pan Am clipper on one of the first passenger flights to England since the war began. Foul weather forced the plane down in neutral Ireland, where they were met by the American ambassador David Gray, Eleanor’s uncle by marriage. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a plane for them to complete their journey, and the travelers were soon at Buckingham Palace, where they were the guests of the King and Queen for two nights.
The First Lady was Shocked by the Extensive Damage Caused by the Blitz
The royal palace was a surreal place in wartime England. Eleanor noted that while they dined off gold and silver plates, they ate the same rationed diet as everyone else in the country. In her bathroom a black line running around the bathtub indicated how high she could fill the tub. With limitations on the use of the fireplaces, the ornately decorated rooms were uncomfortably cold.
Mrs. Roosevelt inspected the damage that German bombs had done to the palace and at the King’s request accompanied the royal couple on a tour of their devastated city. The extent of the ruins caused by the blitz shocked the First Lady.
After two nights at the palace, she moved to the vacated lodgings of the U.S. ambassador and began her tour of the countryside. Her itinerary included visits to factories, farms, airfields, shipyards, American and British bases, and hospitals. It was in England that she began the practice of asking soldiers if they would like her to write to their loved ones when she got home. She would eventually write hundreds of such letters.
The First Lady also became the GIs’ advocate. When she learned that the men were not getting woolen socks and that they were getting blisters from wearing cotton ones, she passed on their concerns to the highest levels of both the military and the government. The supply and distribution of woolen socks got priority.
Lois Laster, a Red Cross worker and eyewitness to one of Eleanor’s visits would later say, “She was a very gracious woman. She didn’t rush in and rush out. She mingled … (and) sat down and talked with the troops.”
The month-long English trip was a tiring ordeal for a woman in her late 50s, but everyone was impressed with her endurance and fortitude, so much so that invitations from other countries began to pour in. Back home in the United States the critics and the press assaulted Eleanor by harping on the expense of the trip (which she had paid for herself), but she was used to criticism and handled it gracefully. Yet, the malice of her political enemies was the reason why she stayed at home for almost a year.
In the meantime, she continued to visit American factories, bases, and hospitals for her husband and was greeted everywhere with friendly and accepting crowds. She also continued her role as hostess to foreign visitors to the White House.
Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the Nationalist Chinese leader who was often in the United States during the war years, traveled with an entourage of 40 people to tend to her security and every need. She marveled at how Eleanor could travel anywhere and everywhere in the country accompanied only by her friend Tommy.
In the summer of 1943, FDR began to consider invitations for a visit from the governments of Australia and New Zealand for a visit. He did not think that he could afford to spend the time away himself but believed that it would be useful for Eleanor to pay them a visit.
When he approached his wife with the idea of traveling to the two countries, she requested to visit America’s island bases as well, especially Guadalcanal. Eleanor had visited many wounded men from that great battle in stateside hospitals and felt that it would be important for her to see for herself where they had been wounded or lost their health.
When the plans for the trip were firmed up, she called upon her friend Norman Davis, chairman of the American Red Cross. She proposed to visit Red Cross facilities in the South Pacific. Davis was pleased with the offer and suggested that Eleanor be his official representative and that she wear a Red Cross uniform while on her tour. After discussions with FDR, she agreed to the idea and bought uniforms for the trip.
All the preparations were completed in secret. Further, she decided to go alone and leave her aide and typist Tommy behind. The two had received such criticism from the Republican press that Eleanor thought some of it might be diverted if she went alone. She was wrong. Her profile was too high to avoid criticism of anything that she did.
The night before her departure, she and Franklin were at their New York home, Hyde Park. Winston Churchill was their houseguest at that time as both he and Roosevelt were due to leave for the Quebec Conference the next day.
Eleanor Secretly Flew to Hawii in a B-24 Liberator Bomber
Over dinner Eleanor casually mentioned that she was leaving for the South Pacific in the morning. Churchill was aghast. He was caught completely off guard by the news, but he would wire his people in the British territories that she would visit to take good care of her.
Eleanor secretly flew to Hawaii in the belly of an army B-24 Liberator bomber. There were no heated accommodations for her or the few other military passengers, so the crew offered her blankets to keep her warm in the drafty metal flying box.
The First Lady arrived in Hawaii on August 17, where she was met and hosted by the military brass. However, it was typical of her that she wanted to meet and speak with the ordinary GI. When her caravan came across a stalled truck, she learned that the driver, a young private, was taking a load of 300-pound ice blocks to remote bases on Diamond Head crater. She immediately determined to go with him and announced to her startled and flustered entourage that she would be riding in the ice truck. That done, the officers who had been following her in their army Plymouths hustled to find four-wheel drive vehicles that could make it up the steep grades. As would happen everywhere on her trip, the GIs were glad to see her.