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When the president came to dinner: FDR in Alaska

  • Author: Peter Porco
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 11, 2014

In August 1944, with a year of hard fighting left until the end of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt visited Alaska as part of a three-week journey to the Pacific, the only trip he ever made here.

After he met with top military commanders in Hawaii, FDR stopped off at Adak, where he consulted with his Aleutian commanders, had lunch with the troops and fished off the side of his warship, catching several Dolly Varden. Dutch Harbor was too blustery for a planned visit there, so his next stop was Kodiak, where he caught a single fish. A passionate angler, Roosevelt fished most successfully near Juneau, then left for the Lower 48.

Altogether he spent three weeks on the high seas or in the U.S. territories that in 15 years would become the 49th and 50th states.

Another look at FDR is coming to us in the new Ken Burns film, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." The seven-part documentary, which runs for a week starting Sunday, Sept. 14, on PBS, examines the lives and works of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the nation's 26th president; FDR, its 32nd; and Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's wife who was also his cousin a few times removed, as well as Theodore Roosevelt's niece.

When the series gets around to Franklin Roosevelt near the end of the week, it will discuss his role as president during the Great Depression and especially World War II. FDR's wartime speeches, his actions, his meetings with Churchill and Stalin, the background of a world engulfed by total war -- all of it by now is iconic and almost numbing, so often have we seen and heard it.

Not nearly as well known, his Pacific trip was important for several reasons. In Honolulu, FDR made a key strategic decision about where next to take the fight to the Japanese, which had an impact on the rest of the Pacific War. Also, his poor health became apparent to onlookers during the trip.

Help from a little dog

Overall, Roosevelt was away from the White House for more than a month, yet the journey failed to restore him as his close aides had hoped. Just before leaving California for Hawaii, he suffered a type of seizure. Immediately upon his return from Alaska, standing on the back of the destroyer that took him down from Lynn Canal to Bremerton, Washington, FDR suffered a 15-minute angina attack while giving an address -- a very poor one, many said later.

In the biography "FDR," Jean Edward Smith writes that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, following his meeting in Honolulu in late July with Roosevelt and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, confided in his wife that he believed Roosevelt would be dead in six months, so thin and feeble did he look. MacArthur was astute. The president was dead in 8½ months.

The trip to Alaska is noted historically for another event -- or rather, non-event -- one that gave Roosevelt the means to bounce back from the disastrous Bremerton speech. The president had left the White House on July 13 and got back on Aug. 17. During most of that time, his large party included personal aides, military officers, Secret Service agents, his wife (on the train to San Diego) and "my little dog, Fala." That's how FDR referred to his black Scottish terrier the following month in what many judge to be his best political speech.

Now famous as the "Fala speech," it was delivered Sept. 23 to a gathering of the Teamsters labor union. The serious talk was an extended attack against his Republican opponents generally, and those in Congress specifically. Two-thirds of the way into it came the bit about Fala.

Some Republicans had ripped Roosevelt, accusing him of leaving Fala behind in Alaska and therefore having to send a warship back to retrieve the dog, costing many millions of dollars in taxpayers' money. But his critics stumbled badly.

According to the official logs kept by the White House, staying clear of Japanese submarines had been a pressing security issue throughout the trans-Pacific journey. While crossing ocean waters, FDR traveled on the USS Baltimore, a heavy cruiser, escorted by a pack of destroyers. But after Kodiak, the presidential party wanted to steam down the Inside Passage for the final leg. That required smaller vessels. Roosevelt and the rest, therefore, changed ships in Auke Bay, transferring from the Baltimore to one of the destroyers, the USS Cummings.

"They were tied up side by side and the President walked from the Baltimore to the Cummings accompanied by a dog, and that dog was Fala," a Secret Service agent, Michael P. Reilly, wrote in his 1947 memoir, "Reilly of the White House."

"To be sure," Reilly wrote, "the Cummings was sent to Auke Bay to pick up Fala, but she also picked up the President of the United States, an Admiral named [William D.] Leahy [chief of staff and highest-ranking person in an American uniform], and another named [Ross T.] Mclntire and all their staffs."

"These Republican leaders," Roosevelt told the Teamsters with measured deadpan confidence, "have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them!"

The speech had the members of his ultra-friendly audience splitting their sides. Smith, the biographer, wrote that the talk socked the Republicans so effectively that they never recovered, and several weeks later FDR won his fourth term.

'A big country'

Once the Japanese had been defeated on Attu and withdrew from Kiska, fighting in the Aleutians was finished, although a very active bombing, reconnaissance and deception campaign was kept up against the Kuril Islands just north of Japan by planes taking off from bases on the Chain. One result of the end of the Japanese occupation, however, was that the Aleutian garrisons suffered some of the worst morale of any wartime American military posts, due in no small part to the absence of women and the persistence of foul weather.

"FDR came north to bring attention to a forgotten front and boost morale," said John Cloe of Anchorage, a retired Air Force historian and author of "The Aleutian Warriors." Moreover, Cloe wrote in an email, "at the time, he was suffering from severe hypertension and heart problems and needed a respite before engaging in a presidential campaign. It's fairly well known that FDR enjoyed going to sea on naval vessels and liked to fish."

On Adak, Roosevelt had lunch in a large Quonset mess hall near the head of Finger Bay with about 160 enlisted troops, according to the presidential logs. The servicemen were members of the Army, Navy and Marines, and they had been chosen by lot. An Army man sat on the president's left, a Marine on his right. A soldier carried FDR, a paraplegic, to the table.

"The bill of fare," the logs say, "consisted of boiled ham, stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, string beans, chocolate pudding, bread, butter and coffee, and the meal was served to the President in a regular 'GI' aluminum tray …"

After lunch, the president spoke extemporaneously. He started off by saying he liked the GIs' food and their climate, getting laughs with that one. Roosevelt told them he marveled at Adak, a place that had been uninhabited in August 1942 and two years later was one of the largest U.S. military facilities in the Pacific. Engineers had drained a swamp, re-channeled a stream and put down a steel-mat runway in 10 days on which bombers could take off and attack Kiska to the west.

"I wish more people back home could come out to Alaska -- and see what we have done here in an incredibly short time," Roosevelt said to the troops.

"The mere fact of what we have done in regaining the islands west of here from the Japs has had a tremendous morale effect on all of the United States."

Not only did U.S. forces throw the Japanese out of Alaska, they were keeping them from coming back, he said. "(W)e are all doing a great deal to make it impossible for them to repeat this particular route of access to the United States. That is why it is important, this work we are all doing on this spot."

Roosevelt next spoke of what he called "the problem of a lot of people -- people in our services who want to go places after this war. … And although this is not the best climate in the world up here in the Aleutians, it isn't the worst, and Alaska -- the mainland of Alaska -- is a big country. … Well, it is going to open up for those in the services who want to start life in a new spot and there are people like that."

Indeed there were. Many veterans, like those who bought surplus military property in Haines after the war, found a life in Alaska. They still do. According to Alaska Department of Labor economist Neal Fried, as a percentage of the population, Alaska has the highest number of veterans in the nation.

"I am not particularly sorry for a lot of people in the services," Roosevelt told the enlistees. "Alaska opens up a new field and a very promising field too from all that I hear of the possibilities."

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