On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his “Day Of Infamy Speech”. That evening, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave a radio address about the need for Americans to focus on the war effort, trying to calm fears for the future, and calling upon women and young people for their support of the President and the nation’s leaders in the difficult days ahead. Then she was off to the west coast, travelling to Oregon and San Francisco to help organize Offices of Civilian Defense in that area. Her “My Day” columns were filled with information about the efforts to prepare for the war on the home front, and seeking to rally citizens to do their part by volunteering for organizations like the Red Cross. In later years, she wrote, “In retrospect, the thing that strikes me about these days is my triple barreled effort to work with the Office of Civilian Defense, carry out my official engagements and still keep the home fires burning.” I wonder particularly how I ever managed to get in all the trips I took.” Yet at the time, she felt that she was not doing enough. When FDR approached her about taking a trip to England to observe the women’s role in the war effort and visit American servicemen, she was delighted.
By October of 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt was on her way to visit a country in the midst of war, where the shrill sounds of air raid sirens and the whistle of German bombs were a part of daily life. Despite the danger, Eleanor Roosevelt was determined to go because she wanted to be doing something useful. Security and secrecy were essential to ensure the safety of the First Lady. Therefore, her name was not mentioned in official communications. Instead she was given the code name “Rover”. Although the Secret Service assigned her that code name, she suspected that her husband had something to do with the choice. People who officially accompanied her were dubbed “Rover’s Rangers”.
While touring England, Eleanor Roosevelt’s typical day began at 8:00 AM and ended at midnight. Each day included writing a My Day column. She visited clothing distribution centers, military and naval bases. She spent time with hundreds of wounded servicemen and offered to write to their families when she returned home. She collected hundreds of names and followed through on her promise.
There was nothing that she did not want to see and experience. At one point she even inspected a parachute battalion and insisted on having the pilots help her into the seat of a cockpit of a plane. One reporter wrote, “She walked 50 miles through factories, clubs and hospitals. She walked me off my feet.” During the course of her travels, Mrs. Roosevelt was impressed with all the work women did to support their country. She also felt that the effort to win the war erased the lines of social class among the British citizens. She wrote, “These British Isles, which we always regarded as class-conscious, as a place where people were so nearly frozen in their classes that they rarely moved from one to the other, became welded together by war into a closely knit community in which many of the old distinctions lost their point and from which new values emerged.” Doubtless she was hoping this kind of positive change could eventually occur in the United States with respect to racial differences.
When the time came for Mrs. Roosevelt to travel home, the question of how she should make the trip became an issue. The President did not want her to take a military plane and the U.S. Ambassador and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, felt a commercial aircraft would be dangerous for her as well as her fellow passengers, should the Germans discover she was on a specific flight. After much discussion the President said, “I don’t care how you send her home, just send her.”
This was not the only trip she took into a dangerous war zone. In 1943, her husband suggested that she make a good will trip to the other war front, the Pacific. The President felt that she needed to visit Australia and New Zealand, a somewhat safe journey since that area that had not been under attack, but perhaps needed a visit from the First Lady for a bit of a morale boost. However, Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to take the trip one step further and go to Guadalcanal and other nearby islands which were in a dangerous area. She pleaded with her husband for permission, and he finally gave in provided that she promised it would not interfere with the conduct of the war. Before leaving, Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to the chairman of the Red Cross, offering to visit their installations in the Pacific. He agreed to the inspection and suggested she wear a Red Cross Uniform. Being a very practical person, Eleanor Roosevelt decided the uniform was good idea because it meant carrying less luggage for changes of clothing. Howeve,r she did take a typewriter to do the daily “My Day” columns since she would not be accompanied on the trip by her secretary.
When she arrived, the area commander Admiral William Halsey, told the First Lady how much he dreaded her visit because of the security issues involved. He would not promise to allow her to visit Guadalcanal. He said the decision would be made after she her trip to Australia and New Zealand. Again, she visited hospitals, factories, and other installations, keeping up a pace that was difficult for most to follow. As on her other overseas journey, she was interested in seeing what the women on the home front were accomplishing. She was impressed with an all woman ambulance corps who did their own maintenance of vehicles and lifted stretchers in and out of the ambulance.
The First Lady was allowed to go to Guadalcanal where she visited many hospitals and again made offers to write to the families of wounded soldiers. During the course of her trip she had visited 17 islands and it was estimated that she saw over 400,000 soldiers. In the end Admiral Halsey said, “she had accomplished more good than any other person or any group of civilians that had passed through my area.”
For Eleanor Roosevelt, the extensive travels to war zones made her even more determined to try to find a road to lasting world peace after this horrific war was over. She wrote in “My Day” “if the generation that fights today is to lay the foundations of which a peaceful world can be built, all of us who have seen the war close range must remember what we see and carry a crusading spirit into all of our work.”