By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Franklin Roosevelt’s ship model collection is truly remarkable for its size and for the variety of models. During the latter part of his presidency he received many models of war ships.
Having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in WWI, President Roosevelt became the Commander in Chief of the largest and most powerful Navy ever assembled during World War II.
Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson presented this model of the battleship USS North Carolina to FDR as a Christmas gift in 1937. The ship was then under construction as part of Roosevelt’s naval expansion program. FDR wrote Swanson that he was “thrilled” with the model. “It makes me long to go for a cruise on her just as soon as she is commissioned,” he noted. Roosevelt kept this model in his White House study before putting it on display at the FDR Library. The North Carolina was commissioned in 1941 and participated in operations throughout the Pacific during World War II.
One of the most interesting models comes from one of FDR’s least favorite people.
Based loosely on a French submarine called the Surcouf, it can submerge, fire its guns, and launch its torpedoes. The model was built by an unknown French petty officer in Bizerte, Tunisia while it was under German occupation. General Charles DeGaulle gave FDR this model submarine while visiting Washington in July 1944. A delighted Roosevelt tested the model in the boat basin at the Taylor Naval Research Center near Washington D.C. He later gave it to his grandson, Curtis Roosevelt.
When Eleanor Roosevelt noted that he couldn’t give away a state gift, FDR said DeGaulle was only president of the French Committee for Liberation, not a head of state.
It was not the first model given to FDR by the French. This photo shows Admiral Raymond Fernard presenting the President with a model of the battleship Richelieu, on March 19, 1943. This is a detailed wooden model that is still a part of the collection, although it needs conservation.
The USS Wichita was a 614-foot heavy cruiser constructed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Commissioned in 1939, the ship was part of the naval expansion program undertaken by President Roosevelt during the 1930s. Frederic A. Craven of La Porte, Indiana built this model of the Wichita and sent it to FDR in January 1941 as a gift. It delighted the President, since he did not own any models of this class of cruiser. “Your gift,” he wrote Craven, “will have an honored place in my collection in the Library at Hyde Park. . . . I consider it a distinct addition to my collection.”
Some of FDR’s ship models were gifts from defense contractors. This model of a motor torpedo (PT) boat was presented to him on June 1, 1944 by Andrew Jackson Higgins, president of Higgins Industries of New Orleans, Louisiana. Higgins built thousands of specialized boats and landing craft for the military during World War II.
These vessels made it possible to stage massive amphibious invasions in Europe and the Pacific. Five days after Higgins gave this model to FDR, thousands of American soldiers came ashore on D-Day in Normandy aboard Higgins landing craft. Roosevelt quickly put the model on display at the FDR Library.
This 50” inch model of the destroyer USS Benham was placed in front of a mirror. It was built by George Maynor and sent to FDR by Maynor’s grandfather. The president invited George to the White House but he had already enlisted in the Navy.
George Maynor was on the deck of the USS Hornet on April 18th, 1942 when the Doolittle Raiders took off on their bombing run to Tokyo. He survived its sinking in October 1942 at the Battle of Santa Cruz.
There are several aircraft carriers in the collection. This model of the USS Casablanca was presented to FDR by Henry J. Kaiser on March 18, 1943. The actual Escort Carrier was christened the following month by Eleanor Roosevelt, the first of 50 Casablanca-class carriers built during the war.
One of the largest models is this World War 1 German Light Cruiser of the SMS Emden II , a Konisberg Class Light Cruiser. It was sent to FDR in Oct. 1944 by Lt. Gen. George Patton after his troops discovered it during the Battle of Metz near the Moselle River. Its slightly over TEN feet long.
Watch Director Paul Sparrow lead a special tour inside the FDR Library’s Behind the Scenes storage area where FDR’s priceless collection of rare ship models is kept:
Special Thanks to Herman Eberhardt and the museum staff who curated the Treasures of a President: FDR and the Sea exhibit at the South Street Seaport from which much of this information is derived.