2 World Leaders, Their Boats
+ 1 Giant Coverup

By Donald Breslow
Published: August/September 2012

A secret meeting between FDR and Churchill, before signing the Atlantic Charter in 1941, sparks drama, rumors, and three dashing impersonators.

Illustration of WWII bombers

The headline, by modern-day standards, would seem like a public-relations faux pas. But more than 60 years ago, when The New York Times screamed, "President Sails For Weeks At Sea Vacation," it didn't cause much public consternation. By then, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, familiarly called FDR, had more or less established himself as "the oceangoing president" in people's minds. Indeed, his love of boats and the sea, and how that shaped his presidency, was the subject of a book by Robert E. Cross, Sailor In The White House, several years ago. Boating since he was a child, and a former Secretary of the Navy, in his early days at the White House he decided the wooden presidential yacht, the Sequoia, was a fire hazard and too small for his needs. So, he had a Coast Guard cutter, the Electra, re-fitted — a significant change being the addition of an elevator in the dummy rear funnel to facilitate his wheelchair moving from deck to deck — and he renamed her the Potomac. He was known to take the boat for frequent summer cruises up and down Washington, D.C.'s Potomac River in summer, to beat the stifling heat of the city. As it turned out, the new yacht was destined to play a significant and somewhat deceptive role in the course of its Commander's and its country's history.

By 1941, England was already at war with Germany, and many German submarines prowled the Atlantic. Germany had captured much of Europe, and was making rapid advance on the Russian front. The pressure on the U.S. to join the war effort was building. In August, FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to meet in secret in Placentia Bay, off the town of Argentia, Newfoundland, to plan war strategy. The location and duration of the meeting had to be kept top secret, and required that FDR be away from the White House for two weeks. In order to conceal the president's whereabouts, an elaborate plan was concocted.

On Sunday, August 3, the White House issued a press release — the one that spawned the aforementioned New York Times headline — that the president would be taking a week's vacation cruising New England aboard the Potomac, his "Floating White House." By Sunday evening, FDR and his entourage had arrived by train at the U.S. Navy submarine base in New London, Connecticut, where the base commander and the governor met them. The boarding party included several very high-ranking military and State Department officials. Although the public was only provided with skimpy details of FDR's itinerary, word of his whereabouts leaked out and many people lined the railroad tracks and bridges approaching the base to wave.

Photo of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill chat on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales
President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill chat on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales following church services during the Atlantic Charter meeting.

In the best of naval traditions, FDR was piped aboard, and the presidential ensign was hoisted on the mast of the Potomac, indicating the yacht was the flagship of the commander- in-chief, who was in residence. With that, the press, which had accompanied FDR on his trip from Washington, was dismissed. The White House announced there would be no press coverage of the Potomac (this was the president's vacation, after all) and that communications would be limited to those provided by White House press releases based on Navy ship-to-shore radio messages. Even the crew of the Potomac had no idea what was about to take place.

On Monday, August 4, the yacht cruised around the south coast of Massachusetts and the president was observed operating a small powerboat in Dartmouth Harbor, and providing a tour of the Potomac for several exiled royals from Scandinavia. All the visitors disembarked at the end of the day, and FDR's activities seemed consistent with White House press releases. But to a shrewd observer putting two and two together, something unusual was taking place. The first clue was that there were two U.S. Navy warships – the heavy cruiser Augusta, and an unnamed destroyer escort – anchored off Menemsha Bight on the southwest corner of Martha's Vineyard. The second clue came minutes before sunrise the next day, when the Potomac pulled alongside the Augusta, and FDR and his party were quietly and quickly ushered aboard. In a notable break with naval tradition, the presidential ensign was very deliberately not transferred to the Augusta. Shortly afterwards, the Augusta and escort headed out to sea at high speed … toward Newfoundland. At sea, they met the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa and other escorts along the route.

Meanwhile, the Potomac spent the next two days cruising around Buzzards Bay, a body of water approximately 20 miles long in southeastern Massachusetts. At various points in its cruise, three impersonators were stationed on the deck disguised as the president, his press secretary Steve Early, and his aide General Edwin Watson. In later years, there have been various rumors and speculation as to the identity of the impersonators. Some claim they were actors, others that they were members of FDR's Secret Service staff, or Potomac crewmembers. Whichever is true, it's generally agreed upon that the FDR impersonator had a build close to the president, and frequently kept a cigarette holder dangling from his lips at a 45-degree angle, similar to FDR's habit. It was also noted that the three sat in what appeared to be very fancy deck chairs on the quarterdeck. Although FDR depended on a wheelchair for mobility, he was rarely seen in public or photographed in one.

Photo of the big guns of the HMS Prince of Wales, overlooking a gathering of senior British and American staff
Big guns of the HMS Prince of Wales, overlooking a gathering of senior British and American staff, during the Atlantic Charter meeting. FDR and Winston Churchill are seen seated in front of the group, chatting.

1 | 2 | Next


 


Online Extra

The Boats Used In The FDR And Churchill Rendezvous — Where Are They Now?

The boats that were crucial in the 1941 summer meeting between U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill went on to have colorful histories of their own.

The Prince of Wales was sent to Singapore where it was sunk by Japanese land-based torpedo bombers in the waters between the east end of Singapore and Malaysia on December 10, 1941 – just three days after Pearl Harbor.

The Potomac was used as a sonar research vessel after Pearl Harbor, and when FDR died in April 1945, it was transferred back to the Coast Guard. The ship was bought and sold several times. When drug trafficking by a private owner was detected, the Coast Guard reclaimed it. The ship sunk on its mooring at Treasure Island (San Francisco), was refloated, and sold to a group in Oakland, California, who restored it. It's now a floating museum in Oakland, and listed as a National Historic Landmark.

The USS Augusta later took part in the invasion of Normandy, and transported President Harry S. Truman to and from the Potsdam Conference. After the war, the Augusta performed "magic carpet" duty, bringing American servicemen home from Europe. Decommissioned in 1946, the ship was part of the Navy's reserve fleet for 13 years before being sold for scrap in 1959.

After FDR jumped ship to the Potomac, the Sequoia continued in government service as the yacht of the Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt continued to use it occasionally to meet with foreign dignitaries (Winston Churchill is alleged to have complained about the wooden deck chairs). President Harry S. Truman installed a piano on the boat in 1947, and it was the site of President John F. Kennedy's 46th (and final) birthday celebration. President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to make use of the boat at first, but warmed to the idea, eventually making it, once again, the official presidential yacht, after lowering the shower floor to accommodate his height and replacing FDR's elevator with a wet bar. Richard Nixon used it frequently during his presidency, and retreated to the yacht during the Watergate scandal. President Jimmy Carter sold the yacht in 1977, to symbolize the importance of government cutbacks. The Sequoia is now under private ownership in Washington, D.C., and available for charter.

The USS Arkansas, which was also present at the Atlantic Charter Conference, spent the early part of World War II escorting troop ships across the Atlantic. Later, the ship took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the shelling of the German forces at Cherbourg, and the invasion of Southern France, before heading to the Pacific to support troops at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After several trips transporting troops back to the U.S. after the war, the aging Arkansas took part (as a target) in nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. The ship survived the first test — a bomb that burst in the air – but was crushed by a second test, an underwater explosion. Today, the Arkansas rests upside down in 170 feet of water off Bikini, and is a popular dive spot, along with the rest of "Bikini Atoll's Nuclear Fleet."

The USS Tuscaloosa received seven battle stars for her World War II service, a varied career that took her from patrolling the neutral zone around the U.S. in the years before entering the war, to supporting troops invading Casablanca, Normandy, Cherbourg, and Iwo Jima. The Tuscaloosa survived German air raids off the coast of Italy and Japanese kamikazes in the Pacific. In 1946, the ship was decommissioned, and in 1959, it was sold for scrap.

The HMS Oribi was originally going to be named The Observer, after the pre-eminent British newspaper of the time. Despite the name change (an oribi is a type of antelope), the publisher supplied them with the Sunday Observer newspaper for free throughout the war. In 1943, the Oribi took part in the defense of a North Atlantic convoy, ramming and sinking a German U-boat. That skirmish is considered a turning point in the larger battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from 1939 until 1945. In 1946, the ship was transferred to the Turkish navy, where it served until 1965.

Of the small boat Morning Glory, which carried Winston Churchill from Scotland to the HMS Oribi, no further information could be found. If you happen to know where it is, or what happened to it, email us at LettersToEditor@boatus.com.