While digging through archives to prepare for this year’s 70th anniversary commemorations we uncovered a treasure trove of photos, letters, and other historical material from the 1940’s. I thought I’d share today a couple of photos related to a 70th anniversary that we will be commemorating next year.
As a back-and-forth battle with the invaders continued in the South Pacific during August and September 1943, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a goodwill trip through the region to raise morale, rally the troops, and thank our allies for their steadfastness and fortitude. In order to address military and political opposition to the tour, she traveled in a private capacity as a representative of the Red Cross, inspecting the group’s facilities in battle zones.
Her trip quickly became legendary. Over the course of five weeks she made more than 20 stops, traveling in a small airplane without escort in order to avoid complicating military operations. In places she braved rugged terrain, thick jungles, malaria, and risk of attack to see as many rank-and-file servicemen and women as possible, speaking to more than 400,000 personnel before returning home. Her strength, courage, patience, warmth, and good humor won over skeptics along the way, including the irascible Admiral Halsey.
For obvious reasons the trip was a closely guarded secret, and Mrs. Roosevelt often landed without advance notice. In one of my favorite of her diary entries she recorded the reaction when she stepped off the plane on Guadalcanal: “At first there was complete surprise on the faces of the men, and then one boy in stentorian tones said, ‘Gosh, there’s Eleanor.’”
From August 27 through September 2, 1943, the First Lady toured facilities here in New Zealand, spending time in Auckland, Rotorua, and Wellington. She met with American and New Zealand troops, support personnel, and civilians. She visited marae, spent extensive time with wounded soldiers, and engaged with women’s groups and other NGOs.
Next year, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the dates that she was actually here, we will celebrate her trip, her passion, and her accomplishments as First Lady. Among other things, we’ll draw on the daily “My Day” newspaper column that she wrote as a very public diary to chronicle her activities, including while she was in New Zealand. But more about all that later.
For now, I just wanted to share the two photos that we uncovered from her stop on Tutuila, as well as the sentiment she expressed after her return to Washington: “The Pacific trip left a mark from which I will never be free.”