by William A. Harris, Deputy Director
For the car and truck enthusiasts, as well as those fascinated by the operation of Federal agency motor vehicle fleets during World War II (and really, who isn’t?), we provide a glimpse into the operational world of the FDR Library in the early to mid-1940s, including the paperwork nightmare of a pre-computer era, as well as the challenges involved in supplying non-military vehicles during the war. This is history with a capital “H.” Though seemingly routine (well, perhaps truly routine), this little endeavor offers a hint of insight into the workings of a Presidential Library with an incumbent President deeply involved in its operations. No other Presidential library has experienced this operational challenge.
That a van was needed to support onsite work became immediately obvious as staff occupied the new building in the spring and summer of 1940. The President was sending and receiving a host of materials from the White House and the Library. Cases of books, ship models, furniture, filing cabinets stuffed with papers and all manner of equipment. Initially, a Federal van used by staff at his home, Springwood, served the purpose. But Library needs soon began to interfere with home operations as the Library sprang to life throughout 1940 and 1941.
The Library’s first government vehicle was a 1935 International C-1 Series panel van, a rather apt brand for the FDR Library, which almost certainly outraged the isolationists. This van proved a workhorse, though it was not without problems–a lot of problems. Someone (not to name names, but staffer and frequent driver Stephen Bielski perhaps?) clearly rode the clutch too hard. Hyde Park Motors quoted a $14.00 repair including parts. Oh yes, throw in another $7.00 to replace the pressure plate and a row of springs. It never is cheap, right?
The onset of World War II brought about many sacrifices that Americans embraced as their patriotic duty, recognizing that ceding some personal conveniences and even certain freedoms for the fight against Fascism was well worth it and part of the common good. This included gasoline which severely limited movement throughout the nation and even in one’s local area. The rules also applied to the government itself, as evidenced by the rather extensive documentation we have on this topic in our files.
The initial paperwork involved a couple of telegrams and several memos between the Library Director, Fred Shipman, and Frank Wilson, chief of the Division of Purchase and Supply, at the National Archives in Washington. Confusion arose immediately as the Library, ever eager, had already requested ration coupons from Dutchess County, New York. Alas, the International was part of the National Archives fleet, thus it would fall under their ration program. All that initial work to comply with the new rules went out the window.
So, as good civil servants and citizens, let’s get our paperwork in order. First, the Library completed OPA Form R-536, Application for Service Gasoline Ration. Unfortunately, requirements had changed (as they do), and in the fall of 1942, the Library needed Transport, versus Service, ration stamps, necessitating the submission of an additional form. In order to receive this ration, the Library completed CWN-4, Request for Application for Certificate of War Necessity. Only with this certificate could the appropriate decal be displayed in the front window.
Unfortunately, the International was entering its death throes. First, there was the need for a new carburetor and then a generator. This was followed by another coil. Next, the fuel pump began to leak. And then the final blow. Disaster! Mr. Harry Kasch of Buchanan, New York, made a grievous error and crossed in front of the van. Mr. Bielski was unable to stop in time. Cue sound effects: screeching brakes and crunching metal. There was a smash-up. Poor Mr. Kasch, who was uninsured, couldn’t have picked a more complicated vehicle to broadside his Buick. He asked that the crash go unreported. No chance… I mean, really, we have paperwork for these sorts of things. The van at the time was carrying a load of President Roosevelt’s gubernatorial records, too. Everything had to be by the book. Ultimately, repairs for the International would come to $52.50, including straightening the axle and grill work.
The National Archives offered in its place a used 1941 Chevrolet AK-3105 Series panel van. The van had seen some action, but considering the condition of the International, it was like a shiny, new Lincoln Continental (which wasn’t on the acquisition schedule just to be clear). Alas, 18 months later the clutch failed to the tune of almost $24.00. Mr. Bielski again… Someone needed to show him how to use a clutch. Two in eighteen months? Call employee relations. Let’s get him some training.
There was no question that a van was essential, a necessity. With a living President often in residence, and with papers going back and forth to New York City and Washington, a used government van was better than nothing, and, well, let’s be frank (but polite), it was also bound to require work. And gosh, we haven’t even mentioned tires… Tires were key to gas rationing–fuel efficiency and all along with rubber shortages. They were rationed, too. But one tire in particular was always flat. No patch seemed to hold. I told you this was history with a capital “H.” When the van was out of action, Library staff used their private cars (and sometimes their own ration stamps) for official business. It was wartime, after all.
The fate of the 1942 Chevy with its ever-increasing mileage and mechanical troubles remains somewhat cloudy. There were battery problems, of course, and batteries were hard to come by. But staff made it work. The Library faced issues no different than many individual Americans on the home front. During a crisis, inconveniences abound. Accepting them helped everyone–shared duties and small sacrifices with major benefits for the entire nation. In the summer of 1945, with victory near, rationing remained in place, but the end was in sight and would come very soon indeed. But the paperwork continued.
So just this once, as I wrap up this magical trip down memory lane, just for sentiment’s sake, let’s celebrate the FDR Library’s under-appreciated government panel vans–the International and the Chevrolet. Let’s recognize their efforts along with their 8 to 10 miles per gallon fuel average. Let’s praise the garage that attempted to plug that leaky tire and Hyde Park Motors for all that work, though 25 cents a day for a loaner seems a bit high. Long may the memory of the International and the Chevy live. But there’s probably a form for that. I’ll get to work on the paperwork. Oh, and why not, while I’m feeling nostalgic, let’s also throw in kudos for Mr. Stephen Bielski. He seems like a nice fellow, and clutches were as prickly as opera singers. Or so I’ve been told. And if I’m being honest, from the looks of him, I don’t want to be on his bad side. I’m no better with a clutch either, so who am I to judge?