After New Zealand, Eleanor Roosevelt’s epic wartime expedition took her to Australia, New Caledonia, Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal, and Wallis and Christmas Island. She finally departed for home on September 19, 1943, arriving in San Francisco on the 23rd. The five-week mission did great good in the field, but it also deeply affected Mrs. Roosevelt. As she wrote shortly thereafter, “The Pacific trip left a mark from which I will never be free.”
Eleanor certainly treasured her time in New Zealand. On the day she departed Auckland she wrote that “one cannot leave such a charming country without the hope that in some future happier days, one may return.” Although she did not have the opportunity visit again, she mentioned New Zealand many times in her My Day column over the subsequent two decades until her death. To cap our celebration of the 70th anniversary of her visit, I reprint below two of the later columns that I particularly enjoyed.
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OCTOBER 6, 1943
I have been here in Hyde Park the past few days and have written and sent off my report on American Red Cross activities in the South-west Pacific to Mr. Norman Davis, Chairman of the American Red Cross. Of course, I could not see all the work which is being done. Still, in every place, I saw as many of the Red Cross workers as possible and all the different types of work which are being carried on, so that I have a very comprehensive picture of the whole field covered by Red Cross activities.
I have also written one article since I have been here. Even though I have had time to enjoy long walks and rides through the woods, it has not been a wholly free time, because the mail in itself is taking a good many hours daily.
Many people are hungry for even a scrap of news from the part of the world where those whom they love have spent many months, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity that has been mine to see conditions and activities which are of interest to so many individuals. Over and over again on this trip, I wished I could be the mother, wife or sweetheart whom the boy really longed to see. Since that was not possible, I hope that someone who came from home, who often knew and could remember something about the particular place that was home to him, brought the people and the country which he loves a little nearer.
The hospitality which many families in New Zealand and Australia have extended to our boys is something for which we women here are very grateful. I brought home some letters which a Red Cross worker in one of our hospitals in New Zealand gave me, because I knew families in this country would be glad to see how wholeheartedly their boys had been taken into the family life and what wonderful ambassadors they have proved to be. I quote from only one today, but I shall quote from several more in future columns.
“May I say how much we enjoyed having your men? They were the finest ‘ambassadors’ that America could have sent to any part of this country. Each hostess thought her boys the best, and we have adopted them into our families. We have never had greater joys in our Red Cross experience and feel that we have been highly honored in having these men.”
(Copyright 1943 by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)
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MAY 2, 1947
The other day, I received from Sir Carl Berendsen a most beautiful wooden case made by disabled veterans of New Zealand. Of every variety of New Zealand wood, it contains three drawers. In one of them there was a bound collection of photographs taken during my visit to New Zealand a few years ago. In the second drawer, there was a bound collection of newspaper clippings, and in the third, a volume of clippings which appeared at the time of my husband’s death.
I spent quite a little while looking over the photographs and remembering the very beautiful New Zealand countryside. How courageous and independent her people are, and how well her men and women alike stood up under the sacrifices of the war!
New Zealand is largely an agricultural country. I remember how amused I was to see cows wearing coats in the fields. Women left alone during the war ran these large dairy and sheep farms without any help, for men were just not to be found. There is very little great wealth in New Zealand but, as far as I could see, no great poverty, either.
Hunting and fishing are popular sports. I was amused to have it pointed out to me that, though some of their trout had come from the United States, the transplanting had done wonders and the trout were now many times larger than they were in their original habitat.
There must be hundreds of young American men who spent some time in New Zealand during the war. And I am sure that none of them will ever forget the kindness and hospitality shown them by people who were harassed by troubles but who nevertheless found time to show their gratitude to us by being kind to our men stationed there.
It was Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s kind thought in sending me the wooden cabinet that has led to all of these reminiscences. I hope he will be pleased that, because of their historical value, I am putting the cabinet and the bound volumes it contains into the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, where future students can examine them.
(Copyright 1947 by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)
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Mrs. Roosevelt continued to write her My Day column six days a week until shortly before her death in November 1962. To the very end of her life she continued to speak — and act — on issues and causes of importance to her. She lived her core philosophy with great passion and energy: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
She was a warm, smart, engaging, independent, collaborative, authentic, very human force of nature, and her 1943 visit to New Zealand is part of the foundation on which the close relationship between our two societies is built. We would do well to remember what her very American life, her very global work, and her very simple but courageous trip stood — and still stand — for.
I cede the last word to Mrs. Ynys Fraser of Rotorua, who met Mrs. Roosevelt here in 1943. I think Eleanor would have treasured as the highest of compliments Ynys’ brief evaluation of the First Lady: ”She had that ability to give you everything at that moment. She was a very gracious lady.”