Seventy years ago today, on August 27, 1943, American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt touched down in Auckland in a Liberator bomber converted for personnel transport. Her stop was part of a courageous humanitarian mission that touched many thousands of lives and became an iconic part of the narrative of the great struggle in the Pacific.
As I discussed in a previous post, back-and-forth conflict between the Allies and the invaders raged in the South Pacific during August and September 1943. Southeast Asia and New Guinea, Bougainville, Tarawa, the Marshalls, the Marianas, Palau, Guam, the Philippines, and numerous other islands remained under enemy occupation. Naval, air, and jungle battles continued across the Pacific, from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to the coasts of Australia.
Into that maelstrom flew the First Lady. A mother with four sons in the armed forces, she wanted to see the face of war for herself so that she could more effectively fight to prevent it in the future. She wanted to raise morale, rally the troops, demonstrate that those battling on remote islands were not forgotten, insure that the wounded were being properly cared for, and thank our allies for their steadfastness and fortitude during the long struggle.
In order to address strong military and political opposition to her trip, she traveled in a private capacity as a representative of the Red Cross, inspecting the group’s hospitals and other facilities in battle zones. To avoid complicating military operations or drawing undue enemy attention, she traveled unescorted in a single airplane.
For obvious reasons the trip was a closely guarded secret, and Mrs. Roosevelt arrived at most destinations without advance notice. In one of my favorite entries in her diary 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.’”
Her trip quickly became legendary. Over the course of five weeks she traveled 25,000 miles, made more than 20 stops, and spent scores of hours in the air flying through dangerous skies in the small plane. She carried less than 40 pounds (18 kilos) of luggage (including her typewriter). She consistently wore a plain Red Cross uniform. 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, in all speaking to more than 400,000 military personnel before returning home.
She was indefatigable, maintaining a relentless pace throughout the mission and losing more than 30 pounds along the way. Her strength, courage, patience, warmth, and good humor beguiled and uplifted those she met. One soldier, Corporal Terry Flanagan, summed up the phenomenon beautifully: “She reminded one more of some boy’s mother back home than the wife of the President of the United States — and we all loved it.”
Her commitment and the powerful impact she had on the troops won over skeptics, including the notoriously irascible Admiral Halsey, who had tried to prevent her tour. The Admiral later wrote with great admiration:
“Here is what she did in twelve hours: she inspected two Navy hospitals, took a boat to an officer’s rest home and had lunch there, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2th Marine Raider Battalion (her son Jimmy had been its executive officer), made a speech at a service club, attended a reception, and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmom.
“When I say that she inspected those hospitals, I don’t mean that she shook hands with the chief medical officer, glanced into a sun room, and left. I mean that she went into every ward, stopped at every bed, and spoke to every patient: What was his name? How did he feel? Was there anything he needed? Could she take a message home for him? I marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental, she walked for miles, and she saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”
From August 27 through September 2, 1943, Mrs. Roosevelt toured facilities here 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 to emphasize their critical role not only in the war effort but in maintaining and expanding vibrant, inclusive, and fair civil society.
The First Lady was as well received here as elsewhere on her trip, taking the country by storm in the view of commentators. For example, the Auckland Star argued that her name alone “carries its own title” and that “[t]here is no better known woman in all the world … and that includes all the most glamorous film actresses.” The Star praised her for consistently dedicating herself to “the quest for a better way of life, not only for her own people of the United States, but for all the peoples of the world.” She was accorded the honor of speaking on her own behalf on marae that she visited.
The most compelling chronicle of the iconic 1943 island-hop tour comes from Mrs. Roosevelt herself. She was a prolific writer and communicator. Six days a week from 1935 until 1962, she published a newspaper column called My Day which talked about her travels, activities, passions, and issues of great importance to her, including human rights, civil rights, and equal treatment of women. The column appeared in hundreds of newspapers and reached many millions of readers.
For security reasons, from the time she left San Francisco on August 17, 1943 until she arrived in New Zealand on August 27, 1943, newspapers published pre-drafted editions of My Day about lumbering, wartime music, and other general matters in order to create the impression that she was still in New York City rather than in the Cook Islands or battle zones around Fiji and New Caledonia. Her mission was made public only upon her arrival in New Zealand.
Starting tomorrow I will republish here on my blog the My Day columns that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote from New Zealand or that later mentioned her time here, on the 70th anniversary of the date each was originally published. They provide wonderful insights into the personality, passions, personal warmth, intellect, and commitment to service of the great American First Lady and global civil rights icon.
I hope you enjoy them.