D-Day, the FDR Library, and a Remarkable Story

D-Day has been the subject of countless articles, books, and motion pictures, but many  aspects of this pivotal moment in world history remain unknown or unacknowledged. Perhaps surprisingly, one involves the FDR Library, according to the Library’s first director, Fred Shipman. His tale of events in late 1943 and early 1944 regarding a misfiled document, Library staff, and D-Day deserves attention. Our administrative files lend credence to his account, and those who knew Shipman spoke of a him as honorable, dedicated, and truthful. He certainly wasn’t prone to hyperbole.

Above, Fred Shipman, first Library director, at his desk in the recently completed FDR Library, early 1941. FDR Library collection.

Since the FDR Library holds the unique distinction of being the only Presidential Library in which the incumbent President worked during his White House tenure, we still deal with issues resulting from the sometimes orderly and occasionally confused manner in which materials flowed into the Library from the White House and the President’s homes in the 1940s and sometimes flowed back to those locations. FDR worked informally in many ways, and he trusted the staff here, especially the first director, Fred Shipman.

Above, FDR Library staff, mid-1940s, including the three principals in this story, William Nichols, Fred Shipman, and Edgar Nixon who stand in the back row. FDR Library collection.

Shipman had been recommended by the first Archivist of the United States, R.D.W. Connor. He was neither a noted historian nor a political associate. He was an archivist, and the President was committed to the National Archives and the profession. Mr. Shipman had conducted a review of White House records during the Library’s planning phase in 1938-1939, so the President was familiar with him. He was self-effacing and thorough, committed to his work and humbled by the selection.

Above, Mr. Shipman, center, with FDR in the President’s Room at the Library, 1941. FDR Library collection.

Astute in his assessment of FDR, Shipman learned quickly to recommend approaches, but never press FDR; to listen closely to the President, who sometimes expressed his views subtly or through humor; and to respect the boundaries of his own position as director. He did not involve himself in politics and proved tactful and discreet with those seeking access to FDR through the Library. FDR enjoyed working with Shipman and his trust in him was evident when they would sit on the floor of his Library office, working together sorting books and papers.

Above, the FDR Library stacks, early 1940s. FDR Library collection.

Above, the attic level of the FDR Library, early 1940s, with boxes and crates of materials from the President’s homes and the White House. Shelving would not be installed until the late 1940s. FDR Library collection.

The President’s regard for Shipman and Library staff ultimately came to be shared by his own staff. Thus, by late 1943, records and papers of the highest sensitivity were making their way to Hyde Park. The Library’s Day Book, an enormous bound volume, documents the arrival of routine and confidential materials from the White House, such as items from the Big Three conference in Teheran. Some of these materials were intended only for Shipman’s care. He stored them in his office safe.

Above, photographers and cameramen capture images of the Big Three in Teheran, 1943. National Archives.

Above, the FDR Library Day Book today. FDR Library collection.

Perhaps the Big Three’s most important decision in Teheran was the commitment to launch a second front by a cross-channel invasion of France in 1944. Next to the atomic bomb, D-Day was perhaps the biggest secret of the war. Very few people knew that initial plans called for a May invasion, though a sense of anticipation grew across the nation as time passed. With plans underway for D-Day, the President spent Christmas 1943 in Hyde Park and attended a festive party at the Library where he regaled staff and his Hyde Park military security with stories about his recent travels, including the Teheran Conference. 

Above, the Library Daily Log maintained by Mr. Shipman’s secretary, Alma Van Curran, December 1943, revealing details about the President and the Library Christmas party at which FDR spoke about the Teheran Conference. FDR Library collection.

What happened next comes from an oral history with Shipman, conducted by the National Archives in 1973. During the interview, as an aside, Shipman told a tale that the administrative records here at the Library suggest could be true. Shipman wasn’t a boastful man and never sought attention for himself, though he had grown into his role as Library director and was confident in his work with President Roosevelt. His recounting of this unexpected story, therefore, takes on a credibility that would perhaps be lacking in one of a more self-promotional bent.

According to Shipman, the Library’s assistant curator, William Nichols, who handled much of the sorting and accounting for new collections prior to formal accessioning into the holdings, made a startling discovery. Tucked within otherwise routine files that Shipman had received relating to Tehran, was a draft note, now well known to historians, the purpose of which was to inform Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that D-Day would commence in May 1944. The note includes FDR’s hand edits including on the reverse the date and a note that it was the original.

Above, November 30, 1943 note regarding D-Day with FDR’s hand notations, including the codename, Overlord, and the proposed date of D-Day. FDR Library Collection.

Above, Library Deputy Director Edgar Nixon in the Library stacks, 1940s. FDR Library collection. Note: Photo edited by Library staff to focus on Nixon for this blog.

One can assume that Nichols must have been astounded, even alarmed, by his find. With Shipman in Washington at the time, Nichols informed the Library deputy director. Upon the director’s return to Hyde Park on the President’s train on February 23, 1944, Nixon and Nichols presented Shipman with the document and their dilemma. Nixon wanted to tell the President. The description of what happened next says something of the director’s approach to his work and faith in his staff, but also demonstrates a striking calm even thirty years after the fact. As he related, “Ed Nixon, my assistant and Acting Director, brought to my attention that he was concerned and what we should do. And the question was that now we were involved, we know about it, what do we do?” 

As he recounts, quoting his own words to Nixon and Nichols in 1944, “‘There are three of us here that know, and the only thing to do with that is put it in an envelope, seal it, and put it in our safe, which has a regular combination lock on it, you never saw it; I never saw it; no one of us ever saw it. And we’ll never mention it again until after all this has happened– all the invasion is over. Then we can tell the story, but if we try to tell the story now– or anybody–as it stands, it will get everybody into more confusion than we’ll perhaps be wishing for.” Clearly, he trusted his staff.

Above, Shipman’s Library office with the enormous secure safe into which he placed the D-Day note, early 1940s. FDR Library collection.

Though there is no way to prove with certainty that this happened, we can look at the Library’s administrative files and determine that indeed after the President’s return from Teheran in December, a number of crates and boxes, as well as individual envelopes, some marked confidential, others not, arrived from the White House. On December 24, 1943, after the President’s arrival from Washington, the Day Book reflected new confidential files as well as materials marked directly for Shipman’s care and handling.

Above, Library Day Book pages, December 1943-January 1944.

On January 22, 1944, a few additional materials from the White House arrived, but these were marked specifically for Library staff member and FDR’s distant cousin and confidante Daisy Suckley’s care (as pre-determined by the President) and materials marked “A” and “B”, FDR’s classification for documents and books intended for his personal use or for the Library collection. The next arrival from the White House clearly came on the President’s train upon which Shipman travelled to Hyde Park arriving on February 23, 1944. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the Tehran materials came in December or January.

After staff completed Day Book entries, they accessioned materials intended for the permanent collection. This is the formal process of accounting for new holdings. Generally, a gap exists between the initial record in the Day Book and formal accessioning as staff undertook an initial review of the additions. Most likely, it was during this process that Nichols discovered the D-Day note. Clearly recorded in the Accession Logs on January 24th, February 2nd, and 9th are materials directly from “The President” as recorded in the “Donor or Source” column. 

Above, the Library Accession Register, December 1943-March 1944. FDR Library collection.

One particular accession stands out when considering the Shipman story. On February 9th, Nichols entered accession 44-106-1, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Official File 200. (Trip to Cairo and Tehran, November-December 1943) 1 pky [probably intended as pkg for package].” Could this have been the materials in which Nichols found the note inadvertently misfiled? Curiously, a handwritten notation states that these “confidential” materials were “moved to the regular files, 9/28/44.” Perhaps after the files were more thoroughly reviewed, it was determined that absent the D-Day note, they were, in fact, routine.

Above, Fred Shipman with the President’s dog, Fala, on the Library lawn, early 1940s. FDR Library collection.

Thus ended this curious incident, this Library’s unusual D-Day story, one recounted thirty years after the fact, as an aside, by Fred Shipman, a man not known for colorful tales or expansive stories. Taken together with his modest account, the tantalizing references in Library records, which Shipman hadn’t reviewed since his 1948 departure for another position, certainly suggests a truthful story. It also evidences the complex operational environment of the first modern Presidential Library with an incumbent President who took an active hand in operations and a detailed involvement in collections.

Above, June 6, 1944.

D-Day was a dramatic and remarkable success which came with the tragic loss of so many people of character and courage. We must never forget and always honor the bravery and the sacrifice of those who fought against the forces of fascism on the stormy shores of Normandy eighty years ago today. They were joined in spirit and dedication by millions on the battlefronts and home fronts around the world fighting and working for ultimate victory. We still have much to learn from that remarkable generation and remain inspired by them as we face the challenges of the future.