President Franklin Roosevelt, on a secret tour of national defense plants and military facilities, arrives at Fort Lewis on September 22, 1942.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/20/2016
  • Essay 11190
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On September 22, 1942, a special train carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) on a secret nationwide tour of World War II defense plants and military bases arrives at Fort Lewis near Tacoma. The president observes Fort Lewis soldiers, tours the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard near Bremerton, and views Boeing bombers being assembled in Seattle. The next day he visits an aluminum plant in Vancouver, Washington, and witnesses his daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger (1906-1975) christen a Liberty ship built in a record 10 days at the Kaiser shipyard in Portland, Oregon. The press has been ordered not to cover the two-week trip until the president is safely back in the White House. Unaware of the order a small Seattle weekly for Boeing union members prints a September 24 article on his visit, but the Secret Service is able intercept and destroy most of the 30,000 copies. Following the president's return, three reporters on the tour will file general accounts, but given the delay and absence of local coverage the trip is underreported.

Secret Tour of the Nation's Defenses

President Roosevelt left Washington, D.C., on September 17, 1942, aboard a special train for a cross-country tour and inspection of defense plants and military bases. The government office of censorship instructed newspapers, radio stations, and other media that there would be no reporting the tour until it was completed. News coverage would have to wait until the president returned to the White House, when stories from three wire-service reporters and photos from eight navy photographers, all of whom accompanied the president, would be made available.

The tour made its first stop, at the new Chrysler tank plant in Detroit, on September 18. The president sat in a convertible watching a tank demonstration. (Paralyzed from having had polio, and in order to avoid drawing attention to his disability, Roosevelt frequently made public appearances without leaving his automobile.) He laughed when an M4 Sherman tank drove toward the car and made a dramatic stop 10 feet from it. However, his Secret Service agents were not amused. Following a tour of the Willow Run bomber plant, the president returned to his train and more stops on the way west.

On September 21, Roosevelt toured the Camp Farragut naval training station near Sandpoint, Idaho. Boarding the train at this stop were his daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger and her son and daughter from her first marriage. The two grandchildren -- Eleanor "Sistie" Dall (later Seagraves) (b. 1927) and Curtis Roosevelt "Buzzie" Dall (b. 1930), who dropped his last name in 1949 to become Curtis Roosevelt -- provided enjoyment and relaxation for the president. Early the next day the president had breakfast with his daughter and grandchildren and his cousin Laura Franklin Delano (1885-1972).

FDR at Fort Lewis

At 8:45 a.m. on September 22, 1942, the presidential train pulled into a siding in the Fort Lewis warehouse area. Fort Lewis, the massive army base south of Tacoma in Pierce County, had been selected as a stop on the secret tour because it was valuable as one of a few army posts in the West with sufficient land to accommodate large-scale training maneuvers. Alongside the train were 10 automobiles including a convertible for the president and a 1930s touring car for his Secret Service agents. An honor guard, composed at the president's request of soldiers from New York City and his home area in the Hudson Valley, presented the flag. A band with musicians from the different units at Fort Lewis played the national anthem. A 21-gun salute was not been allowed because it would have identified the presence of the commander-in-chief.

To start the tour of the base, Roosevelt was seated in the front passenger seat of the DeSoto convertible. In the rear seat sat senior Fort Lewis officers Major General Charles H. White (1883-1971), commander IX Corps, and Major General James I. Muir (1888-1964), commanding the 44th Infantry Division. The motorcade first drove past new wartime cantonment construction that the president had asked to see.

The next stop was the main parade grounds (later Watkins Field). Generals White and Muir climbed out of the car and stood alongside it. Standing with them was the president's naval aide, Captain John L. McCrea (1891-1990), who was on the tour. President Roosevelt stood up in the front passenger seat to observe the parade, which demonstrated the training that was underway at the post. Soldiers from the two divisions training at Fort Lewis, the 44th Infantry Division and 33rd Infantry Division, marched in front of the presidential party. The 33rd had a greater presence because many from the 44th were in the field guarding beaches, defense plants, and strategic bridges around the state.

The parade included both regular infantrymen and an unusual sight: ski troops with skis and poles carried over their shoulders. The ski-troop unit, the recently formed 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, contained many of the nation's top skiers. Established at Fort Lewis and trained at Mount Rainier, the unit would be the basis for the 10th Mountain Division that would go on to fame in World War II. Coming after the ski troops were engineer trucks carrying pontoons for river crossings. Armored cars, other tactical vehicles, and towed field artillery were also part of the parade. As the parade was underway nine observation planes flew overhead. At the end of the parade four armored cars stopped opposite the president and the crews saluted. The president returned their salutes. He spoke to the assembled troops and thanked them for enduring hard training.

The day had started foggy, but as the fog lifted and the sun came out the president's dog Fala was taken for a walk among the equipment displayed on the parade grounds. Following the inspection the presidential car drove the short distance to the commanding general's house. The senior officers' wives had prepared a tea reception for the president, but he was too rushed to partake. However, he pulled up to the house and chatted with the wives.

Bremerton, Seattle, Boeing, Mercer Island

Roosevelt departed Fort Lewis at 10:30 a.m. by car with Secret Service agents standing on the running boards. For security, soldiers were stationed along the route to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard on Sinclair Inlet near Bremerton. The presidential tour took a ferry across the Tacoma Narrows, where the bridge built in 1940 had collapsed later that year (it would not be replaced until 1950). At the navy shipyard, Vice Admiral C. S. Freeman (1878-1969), commander 13th Naval District, and Rear Admiral S. A. Taffinder (1884-1965), Puget Sound Naval Shipyard commandant, sat in the rear of the president's car.

The first stop was the Naval Hospital located on the hillside above the industrial area. The president's car parked at the front door of the hospital and patients on foot or in wheelchairs came alongside the car to shake hands with President Roosevelt as he sat in the front passenger seat. The president thanked the wounded navy personnel for their sacrifices. He then went to the shipyard's shops and industrial area and dry docks to observe ship-repair activities. In brief comments to the workers he told them the tour was a secret trip, which brought laughter. He also recalled his World War I time at the shipyard, when he played golf on a course that he described as now covered by machine shops (he was off somewhat, as the golf course had been located landward of the hospital in the northwest section of the yard above the industrial area).

The president had lunch at Admiral Taffinder's house. After lunch the tour went by ferry to Seattle and the army's Seattle Port of Embarkation at Piers 36 and 37 on the city's central waterfront. At the port another Seattle grandchild, Anna Boettiger's son John Roosevelt Boettiger (b. 1939), joined the tour. The presidential party drove through the massive warehouses at the port, then left the harbor and traveled down Marginal Way to Boeing Plant No. 2. At 4:00 p.m. Roosevelt's car pulled into the plant. Boeing president Philip G. Johnson (1895-1944) and Washington Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) were in the back seat. The car stopped under the wing and fuselage of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The Boeing workers had had no idea that the president was coming, but word soon spread throughout the plant and workers rushed to see and greet him.

The Boeing plant was the president's last stop of the day. He spent the night at the home of his daughter Anna and her husband John Boettiger (1900-1950) on the northwest tip of Mercer Island. All during his stay at the Boettiger home patrol boats cruised around the island safeguarding the president.

Clark County, Portland, California, and Home

The next morning, September 23, still accompanied by his daughter, Roosevelt traveled south to Clark County and toured the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) plant located near the city of Vancouver with plant superintendent Charles S. Thayer (1890-1978). Next, the presidential tour went across the Columbia River to the Kaiser shipyard on Swan Island in Portland. Here the president observed the launching of the SS Joseph Teal. A special ramp had been constructed for his car so he could have an unobstructed view of the launch. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (1882-1967) and Oregon Governor Charles A. Sprague (1887-1969) sat in the rear seat.

Anna Roosevelt Boettiger christened the ship, breaking a bottle of champagne on its bow. A large sign on the bow proclaimed "10 Days," noting that this Liberty ship had been constructed in 10 and a half days after the keel was laid. The total construction time was 14 days. It was a remarkable feat and was symbolic of how industry helped win the war. At the ceremony President Roosevelt told the crowd that he was not supposed to be there and that they possessed a secret. He continued that even the newspapers did not know it. The president asked the assembled shipyard workers to keep the secret because he was under military and naval orders to keep his movements secret. Again, the audience cheered and laughed.

The president continued his tour, visiting Mare Island Navy Base in Vallejo, California, northeast of San Francisco, on September 24, before traveling on to southern California and the dedication of the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. The train then headed east with a variety of stops along the way. The president returned to the White House on October 1. The two-week trip had covered 8,754 miles with visits to 26 defense plants and military bases. With the president safely back in the White House, the navy photographers who had traveled with him released photographs that were published in newspapers. The reporters who had accompanied the tour provided press coverage but the stories lacked specific details of local events and people. Many papers around the country accompanied those stories with varying degrees of editorial criticism of the extent of restrictions on freedom of the press during the presidential trip.


One small Seattle newspaper did report on the secret visit while it was still in progress. On September 24, editor W. N. Mahlum (1903-1959) had headlined an account of the president's September 22 Boeing tour in the Aero Mechanic, a weekly newspaper serving Aeronautical Industrial District Lodge No. 751, as the Boeing local of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) was then known. The story in the Aero Mechanic was the only violation of the silence requirement from the censorship office. The Secret Service learned of the violation before the papers were distributed. With Mahlum's cooperation most of the 30,000 copies were recovered from post offices and destroyed. Mahlum said he was not aware of the silence requirement. His mistake led some union members to call for his firing. The editor was able to keep his job, but after the war left the publishing business. As of 2016 the Aero Mechanic continued to serve Boeing machinists union members.

During the 1943 Christmas season, Anna Roosevelt spent four weeks at the White House. Franklin Roosevelt so enjoyed and could relax in her presence that he asked her to become his social secretary. She and her children moved into the White House in 1944. She was with her father when he died. Following his death she and the children did not return to Seattle. Anna and her husband purchased an Arizona newspaper. They divorced in 1949 and in 1952 Anna Roosevelt married James A. Halsted (1905-1984), a physician with the Veteran's Administration.

Sources: Curtis Roosevelt, Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of My Grandparents Franklin and Eleanor (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2008); Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014); FDR's Fireside Chats ed. by Russell D. Buhite and David W. Levy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992); "Now It Can Be Told: FDR Made U.S. Tour, President Sees Fort Lewis on Nationwide Trip," Morning Olympian, October 1, 1942, p. 1; "Roosevelt Visited Seattle-Tacoma Area Plants," Bellingham Herald, October 1, 1942, pp. 1, 8; "President's Visit to Boeing Headlined By Weekly -- Copies Nabbed," Ibid., October 1, 1942, p. 1; "Kaiser Workers Launch Liberty Ship in 10 Days," The Seattle Times, September 24, 1942, p. 13; "President Found Northwest Geared to Fast War Effort," Ibid., October 1, 1942, p. 8; "Union Paper Told of F.R.'s Visit; 30,000 Copies Seized," Ibid., p. 9; "F.R. Inspection Tour in Detail," Ibid., October 2, 1942, p. 8; "Many Editors Find Grave Fault with F.R. Secrecy," Ibid.; "Aero Mechanic Editor Retained," Ibid., October 16, 1942, p. 18.

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