The day Franklin Roosevelt died America stood still.
It was April 12, 1945 -- and the shock was universal.
Here in New York people went to churches and prayed. The news of Roosevelt’s death was announced in theaters, schools and on the radio. The news spread in crowded subway and railroad platforms, through Times Square, in bars and restaurants.
The Times wrote the next day: “In home communities -- Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Queens -- women left their dinners on the stoves to stand in neighborhood groups, passing the word, or discussing it with bated breath. Groups, small at first and ever-growing, assembled in silence wherever a shopkeeper had turned his radio speaker toward the street.”
I was not in New York. I was on a small ship, the USS PC 470, anchored off a small island thousands of miles away in the South Pacific. Our radio operator picked up the news. We had a crew of 60 enlisted men and five officers. I was the junior officer, in charge of communications.
I rushed to the captain’s cabin with the news. “Captain,” I asked. “Do you think we should have a memorial service?” He glowered at me: “I’m not a minister and I don’t think I want to have a memorial service.”
I should explain that the skipper was a staunch Republican. I knew that because it came out during the three meals the five of us officers had every day in the tiny wardroom. We were divided: three Republicans against, I guess, two Democrats. And some of the Republicans harbored deep feelings against Roosevelt, the man who had been elected to four consecutive terms, two more than any man in American history. If they referred to him at all, it might be as “that man in the White House.”
To some of us on the other side FDR was like a god. The youngsters in the crew -- myself included -- couldn’t remember anyone else being in the White House. The three forbidden topics in Navy wardrooms were: politics, religion and women. But, somehow, the politics seeped out -- even though Franklin Roosevelt was our commander in chief, he had millions of detractors in addition to millions who loved him dearly.
Our ship was getting repaired. We had suffered damage during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and the subsequent Battle of Lingayen Gulf.
I was only a kid, a lowly ensign of 21. I didn’t like the fact that our skipper was going to let this day pass without doing something about it.
So I went into the communications shack, grabbed a typewriter -- they were manual in those days -- and typed out what I considered an “editorial.” (Today we’d call it a blog!) It was titled simply: “FDR.” And I was carried away. I wrote about how this man was one of the greatest leaders in American history, how he had rescued us after the great Depression and how he had led us to the brink of victory in World War II.
I even harkened back to what I had read in high school, in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” the funeral oration by Mark Antony for Caesar. “When comes such another?!”
Then I took my one-page essay and posted it with Scotch tape on the stack in the stern. Soon many members of the crew gathered there to read what I wrote. In a sense I was mutinously conducting my own silent service for FDR. I knew, from conversations I had with many in the crew, that they were as upset as I was. We didn’t need an official service. We were mourning in our own way.
My mother wrote to me from New York. She said that her father had observed that Moses wasn’t allowed to see the Promised Land either, even after leading the Israelites for 40 years through the desert. God let him go up on a mountain and view the land and then he died. For my grandfather FDR had almost reached victory but God just didn’t allow him to see it.
Yank Magazine, read by soldiers and sailors throughout the world, reported: “Nowhere was grief so open as in the poorest neighborhoods of New York. In Old St. Patrick’s in the heart of the Italian district on the lower east side, bowed, shabby figures came and went and, by the day after the President died, hundreds of candles burned in front of the altar. ‘Never,’ said a priest, ‘have so many candles burned in this church.’
“A woman clasped her 8-year-old son and said: ‘Not in my lifetime or in yours will we again see such a man.’ “
April, 1945, was quite a month -- three major leaders of World War II died. After FDR, on the 12th, Mussolini was executed April 28th and Hitler committed suicide on the 30th.
What a month. The war was rapidly drawing to an end in Europe. In the Pacific hundreds of ships, including mine, were being readied for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. We didn’t know that such preparations would prove unnecessary, when, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan sued for peace.
But the death of FDR stirred us like almost nothing else. FDR’s last words, as he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage, were: “I have a terrific headache.”
In Washington, Harry Truman, who immediately succeeded Roosevelt as president, told how the news of FDR’s death hit him. “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” He told reporters: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.”
Sixty-six years have passed since the day FDR died. The world has moved on and so has the nation. Yet the sadness of that moment endures in history.