A First Lady on the Front Lines

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Tour of the South Pacific – August & September 1943

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

The summer of 1943 was a critical time for the Allies. The tide was just starting to turn as the Allied forces marked a series of hard won victories. The capture of Sicily was a stepping stone to the invasion of Italy. German forces surrendered in North Africa, and the brutal island hopping campaign in the South Pacific had brought American forces all the way to the Solomon Islands. The war in the Pacific stretched across thousands of miles, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska all the way to Australia. The book “Guadalcanal Diary” by Richard Tregaskis was published in early 1943 and was an instant bestseller. It immortalized the heroic efforts of U.S. Marines to secure the island, and it had come to symbolize the struggle of ordinary boys in extraordinary circumstances.

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On August 17th, Eleanor Roosevelt began a month long journey to the South Pacific to visit our Allies in New Zealand and Australia, but more importantly to meet the soldiers and sailors stationed on remote islands cut off from their families and friends. Military commanders, especially Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, were unhappy with the First Ladies’ plans, and were deeply concerned that she would be a distraction from the war effort. They would soon change their minds.

In her first My Day column about the trip, delayed until August 28th for security reasons, she wrote this:

“I am about to start on a long trip which I hope will bring to many women a feeling that they have visited the places where I go, and that they know more about the lives their boys are leading. “ She knew how those mothers felt. All four of her sons were serving in uniform, and two had been stationed in the Pacific. Her son James had told her to eat with the enlisted men, not just the officers, if she wanted to know what was really happening. And she did.

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Eleanor was traveling as a representative of the Red Cross. She arrived on Christmas Island on the 19th, and toured the island’s hospitals and Red Cross Center.  Her itinerary was exhausting. From Christmas Island she traveled to Penhryn Island, Bora Bora, Aitutaki, Tutuliua Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia in six days. She wrote this in her diary regarding her visit to Bora Bora.

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“I went through the hospital, saw the Red Cross man, the headquarters building, tents, and mess hall and day room and outdoor theatre in a colored troop area. There seems to be no trouble anywhere out here between the white and colored. They lie in beds in the same wards, go to the same movies and sit side by side and work side by side, but I don’t think I’ve seen them mess together, but their food is as good and everything just as clean in their quarters. Southern and Northern Negroes are in the same outfits.” Her efforts to end segregation in the military had not been successful, but she never stopped trying.

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She arrived on Noumea in New Caledonia on August 25th.  From there she would travel to New Zealand and Australia, then return to Noumea on Sept. 14th.

Admiral Halsey had complained bitterly about the stream of military leaders, congressman and “do-gooders” who insisted their duties included a personal inspection of the frontlines. They were a drain on resources, took up badly needed space on planes and in barracks and distracted Halsey and his staff from the duties of fighting a war. But protocol required that he meet the First Lady on her arrival, and so he did.  As she stepped off the plane wearing her Red Cross uniform the Admiral asked her what her plans were. Mrs. Roosevelt answered  “What do you think I should do?” In his war weary voice he grumbled, “Mrs. Roosevelt, I’ve been married for some thirty-odd years, if those years have taught me one lesson, it is never to try to make up a woman’s mind for her.”

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Eleanor then handed the Admiral a letter from the president asking him to let her visit Guadalcanal. In his autobiography he described their conversation: “Guadalcanal is no place for you, Ma’am” he answered firmly.  Mrs. Roosevelt said she would take her chances, but Admiral Halsey insisted that with the battle currently raging he needed every fighter plane he had and “If you fly to Guadalcanal, I’ll have to provide a fighter escort for you, and I haven’t got one to spare.”  Seeing how disappointed she was, the Admiral relented a little. “I will postpone my final decision until you return.”  Eleanor was particularly interested in visiting Guadalcanal because one of her close family friends, Joe Lash, was stationed there, and she had promised his wife she would try to see him.

Admiral Halsey’s initial misgivings were replaced with awe the next day. In less than 12 hours Eleanor inspected two Navy hospitals, traveled by boat to an officer’s rest house, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (her son James had served with them) delivered a speech at a service club, attended a reception and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmon. Even the crusty old sea salt Halsey was impressed, particularly with the amazing impact she had on the wounded in the hospitals. Astonished that the First Lady was talking to them, many came to life, smiled and appeared rejuvenated by her mere presence. She spoke to everyone.  Halsey recounted “I marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental: she walked for miles, and saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled the most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”

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Eleanor left the next day and arrived in New Zealand on the 26th where she was greeted by cheering crowds. The Auckland Star described her as dedicated 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 made a determined effort to highlight the work women were doing while the men were off fighting the war.  She visited Australia and was hailed as a beacon of hope. In Sydney she declared, “Perhaps here is the germ of an idea that in the postwar period women will be encouraged to participate in all activities of citizenship.”

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When she returned to New Caledonia on her way home, Admiral Halsey agreed to let her visit Guadalcanal, and he expressed his new found appreciation for her efforts. ” I told her that it was impossible for me to express my appreciation of what she had done, and was doing, for my men.  I was ashamed of my original surliness. She alone had accomplished more good than any other person … who had passed through my area.”

The Admiral’s initial concerns were well founded. The night before Mrs. Roosevelt arrived on Guadalcanal the Japanese bombed the island, and there was an air raid warning while she was there. They bombed it again the night after she left.

Her trip to Guadalcanal was rough, flying lights out at night to prevent detection by the Japanese in an unheated military transport.  She had been traveling non-stop for a month. She was exhausted and had lost thirty pounds. She was anxious about causing problems for the men stationed on Guadalcanal, and about seeing her good friend Sergeant Joseph Lash.

Eleanor’s friendship with Lash began five years earlier when Eleanor was finding ways to help the nation’s young people and he was a leader of the American Youth Congress. They had become political allies, friends, and something more. He was like a son to her, and she kept his photo with her at all times. When he was shipped overseas, she wrote him, “All that I have is yours always, my love, devotion and complete trust follow you.” Eleanor was also very close to Trude Pratt, Lash’s fiancée, and had helped her decorate their apartment.

The First Lady arrived in the early morning and met with General Twining. Eleanor asked the general if she could see Sergeant Lash, and soon Joe and Eleanor were reunited, upsetting military protocol with a warm embrace. Joseph and Eleanor met privately and discussed the war and its devastating impact on the soldiers.

Relieved to be with such a good friend after a month among strangers, Eleanor may have let him see the fatigue that she tried to hide from others. He wrote Trude telling her he had seen “a very tired Mrs. Roosevelt, agonized by the men she had seen in the hospitals, fiercely determined because of them to be relentless in working for a peace that this time will last.”

This photograph of Joe Lash taken during the war was still in Eleanor’s wallet 19 years later on the day she died.

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Eleanor visited the island chapel and the cemetery which made a deep impression on her. She wrote in her My Day column,

“On the island there is a cemetery and, as you look at the crosses row on row, you think of the women’s hearts buried here as well and are grateful for signs everywhere that show the boys are surrounded by affection. On their mess kits their buddies engrave inscriptions, such as “A swell pal, a good guy, rest in peace.”

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She also visited the hospitals once again, spending time with each and every patient. One reporter on the scene wrote, “Every time she grasps a new hand her face lights up with a resolute effort to feel sincere, not to leave this a mere empty gesture. She tries to feel a genuine impulse of friendship towards the person she is greeting.”

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“Hospitals and cemeteries are closely tied together in my head on this trip,” she wrote, “and I thought of them even when I talked to the boys who were well and strong and in training, ready to go wherever they had to go to win the war.”

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Mrs. Roosevelt with sentry, Pvt. Clarence D. Robertson, Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking over wrecked Zeroes at Guadalcanal

Eleanor’s visit to Guadalcanal made a deep impression on her. In her last column before returning to the United States she tried to find meaning in her experience, and in the experiences of the many people she had met. Her closing lines summarize her feelings, and her hopes for a better world.

“Long ago a man told me the big thing men got out of a war was the sense of shared comradeship and loyalty to each other. Perhaps that is what we must develop at home to build the world for which our men are dying.”


You can find interactive maps of Mrs. Roosevelt’s trip here and here.

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