140 FDR, supported by his son Elliott, welcomes Churchill aboard the Augusta

FDR, supported by his son Elliott, welcomes Churchill aboard the Augusta.

(Aug. 6, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was on a fishing trip in the waters off of Cape Cod. At least that is what he told the First Lady, before he left the White House on Aug. 3. Then the president smiled, and Eleanor knew there was something else afoot.

The president was driven to Washington’s Union Station, where he boarded a special train, to which was attached his personal car, bound for New London, Connecticut. The presidential train arrived at 8:15 p.m. to a welcoming party that included Connecticut Gov. Robert A. Hurley. He then boarded the presidential yacht, Potomac, which was accompanied by the Coast Guard cutter, Calypso. The two ships sailed up the coast to Harbor of Refuge in Point Judith, Rhode Island, where the two ships spent the night.

On the morning of Aug. 4, they arrived in Buzzard’s Bay along the coast of Massachusetts, for a previously arranged assignation with Crown Princess Märtha of Norway. The princess was the niece, on her father’s side, of Gustav V, King of Sweden. She was also the niece on her mother’s side, of Haakon VII, King of Norway, and married to the Norwegian King’s son, Crown Prince Olav.

When the Germans overran the Norwegian Kingdom, the king, his son and the government evacuated to London and established a government-in-exile, while the princess, concerned for the safety of her children, accepted an offer of asylum from President Roosevelt, whom she had met when she and her husband were attending the World’s Fair in 1939. The princess was tall and willowy and very attractive and the president enjoyed her company immensely and spent much time in it.

The president, driving a Chris-Craft speedboat picked up Princess Märtha, her two children and her brother, Prince Carl, and provided them a tour of the Potomac, fished a bit, had lunch, and fished a bit in the afternoon. At the end of the day the royal guests left the Potomac and it then sailed to Martha’a Vineyard, where it rendezvoused with the heavy cruisers, Augusta and Tuscaloosa, and five destroyers.

On the decks of the Augusta were Gen. George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army; Adm. Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations; Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commander of the U.S. Army Air Force; and Adm. Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The president was transferred to the Augusta and the little fleet sailed north. At the same time a gentleman in a wheelchair, smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder, much as the president, dressed like the president, and from a distance resembling the president, appeared on the deck of the Potomac as it continued its “fishing trip” off Martha’s Vineyard, still flying the presidential ensign, which was only flown when the president was aboard.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Sir Winston S. Churchill was giving everyone the slip, as he boarded the British battleship, Prince of Wales, for a trip across the Atlantic to meet the American president.

In the meantime, Harry Hopkins, who had arranged the meeting, and then flown to Moscow to meet with Stalin, was flying to Scapa Flow, via the White Sea port of Archangel, to join the British prime minister for the voyage across the Atlantic.

Harry Hopkins had no title in the United States Government, but his importance was probably only second to that of the president, since he was the president’s closest advisor, and the man to whom the president entrusted the most important missions overseas.

It came to be understood that a visit from Harry Hopkins was, in essence, a visit from FDR himself. Indeed, Harry Hopkins resided in the White House during the war, and like the president, he would literally work himself to death for his country.

Although Churchill and Roosevelt had met, briefly, at the end of The Great War, they had not spent any time together. On the transatlantic voyage, the prime minister continually quizzed Hopkins for insights into FDR’s personality. At the same time, the American president was doing the same to Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who had known Churchill before WWI.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 9, 1941, the Prince of Wales hove into sight of the Augusta. The British band played, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The location was Placentia Bay, Dominion of Newfoundland, where, under the Lend-Lease Program, the United States had established a small naval station at the village of Argentia. This was several years before the dominion became a part of Canada as the 10th province.

As the British battleship arrived, the PM could see Roosevelt standing on the deck of the Augusta, supported by his son, Elliott. Once the Prince of Wales was securely at anchor, the British prime minister came aboard the American cruiser, where he was greeted by the president.

After a moment of silence, Churchill said, “At long last, Mr. President.” Roosevelt replied, “Glad to have you aboard, Mr. Churchill.” The prime minister then handed the president a letter from King George VI.

The first day’s discussions concerned Japan. Roosevelt knew that ultimately the United States must enter the war and that Germany had to be the first order of business. He believed that an early war with Japan would mean, “...the wrong war in the wrong ocean at the wrong time.”

The president had resisted economic sanctions against the Japanese Empire until mid-July when Japan occupied Indo-China. He then froze all Japanese assets in the United States; notified Japan that the Panama Canal would be closed for repairs; and announced he was cutting off all high-octane gasoline.

At the Atlantic Conference, Churchill wanted more but the president demurred, fearing that anything stronger would lead to war. As to the Atlantic, the president agreed that American ships would escort both British and American ships as far as Iceland. There the Royal Navy would assume escort duty.

Sunday morning, Roosevelt attended church services on the Prince of Wales. Aided by his son, Elliott, the president crossed the narrow gangway from the Augusta to the British battleship and then walked the entire length of the ship to his designated place, beside Churchill, on the quarterdeck.

Recalling the moment, Air Vice-Marshal, W. M. Yool, said, “One got the impression of great courage and strength of character. It was obvious to everybody that he was making a tremendous effort and that he was determined to walk along the deck if it killed him.”

The following two days the two leaders and their staffs engaged in discussions. These resulted in anticipated cooperation between the two countries and their military, as well as the issuance of a statement which was released on Aug. 14, and has come to be known as the “Atlantic Charter,” a term coined by the London newspaper “The Daily Herald.” They also agreed to a joint conference with the Soviets in Moscow.

At the close of the conference, as the Prince of Wales departed, sailors from both navies lined their ships and Churchill stood at salute until the ship was out of sight, while the band played the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The Prince of Wales then sailed to Iceland where the prime minister reviewed the troops there before continuing to Scapa Flow, the base of the British Home Fleet, in Scotland.

Next week: The Battle of Kyiv

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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