FDR’s Fishing Trip, 80 Years Ago This Week

“Also, historical events took place that will perhaps go down in history as the most momentous occasion of this World War II.  This, of course, I cannot discuss for some time to come.”

So wrote U.S. Navy Lieutenant John Manley in a letter to his friend in the Pacific describing the young officer’s August 1943 week fishing the waters of McGregor Bay with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eighty years later, we know that in his letter’s short paragraph, almost an aside, Manley was right.

In the summer of 1943, the Allies face a critical decision, how to win World War II in Europe. Britain and the United States fiercely debated the answer: attack from the Mediterranean as Winston Churchill urged or a thrust across the English Channel, Operation Overlord, as Americans advocated? Would Roosevelt firmly support Overlord? On that, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of war, and closest wartime adviser were not confident.

Imminent was a strategy conference in Quebec that both allies expected to be a showdown. Late in July, word came that Churchill would arrive early in North America, intent on meeting FDR alone before the conference.  Alarmed, the Americans worried about FDR wilting on policy, as he had before, under what they called “Churchill’s sunlamp.” A Churchill-FDR prior agreement on strategy would lock in the positions of both countries’ generals achieving nothing.

The White House acted. FDR adviser Harry Hopkins activated a Canadian Shield country fishing vacation, recommended but shelved 15 months earlier. FDR would depart July 30, just eight days away. Many parties, Canadian and American, swung into action. The tiny village of Birch Island, Ontario’s Canadian Pacific Railway station was chosen as perfect for fishing the rich waters. In a flurry of activity, local carpenters built a ramp to the dock for wheelchair-bound FDR.

The President’s calendar now filled with fishing, the possibility of another personal meeting with Churchill before FDR went to Quebec deftly had been delayed until August 12. Still, could Roosevelt be confirmed as a solid champion for Overlord?

General George Marshall had a way to accomplish that, proven in previous decision making including – during another FDR fishing trip – Lend-Lease. Get Roosevelt away from White House distractions. Then, given an on-point, well-written paper to read with only one trusted adviser on hand to discuss it, preferably Harry Hopkins, FDR would focus his fertile mind and embrace the idea as his own. Knowing that U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson was flying home with a powerful case for Roosevelt to insist on Overlord as the Allies’ strategy, Marshall saw the fishing trip, 760 miles from the White House, as a perfect opportunity.

Unusual secrecy cloaked FDR’s evening departure on Friday, July 30. Breaking from precedent, no trusted news reporters were told in confidence of the president’s departure or why.  FDR’s nine-car train with his private car, Ferdinand Magellan, arrived at Birch Island at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 1.

By Monday, Washington realized FDR had left the city. Rumors swirled. White House press secretary Steve Early pleaded to issue a news release.  FDR declined, enjoying the pandemonium in DC.  Bringing new messages to the president from the communications car, William Rigdon always was asked, “What’s the latest?  Where am I supposed to be now?”  Rigdon overheard FDR say to General Edwin Watson, “Well, Pa, I guess we gave them the slip good this time.”

Mystified though most of the world was as to FDR’s whereabouts, McGregor Bay residents knew.  Their experience of the President’s visit was of security, circling planes, machine gun-armed guard boats, and personal encounters with an affable FDR.

Per FDR’s practice on vacation, morning hours went into necessary governmental decisions.  Post-dinner discussion between FDR, Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral William Leahy, and Harry Hopkins extended late into the night on war issues including the conference in Quebec.  On that topic, the two competing strategy visions would come before Roosevelt again at Birch Island.

As to fishing, Office of War Mobilization director James Byrnes said Roosevelt took that “so seriously that it was like working.” Nevertheless, Byrnes, a South Carolina country boy, complained about waiting until afternoon to get onto the water.

The fishing party split up between two boats. Of course, rivalry developed.  Leahy wrote in his journal that the party “had a daily pool into which each of the seven or eight participants contributed one dollar to provide a prize to the individuals who brought in the largest, the longest, and the greatest number of fish.…  In the final settlement of our pool at the weekend only the President and I were winners….  Mr. Harry Hopkins joined our party on August 4th and thereafter contributed his daily share to the winnings of those of us who were the most successful fishermen.”

Dusk meant cocktails aboard the Ferdinand Magellan. On their supposed location, there was “merry talk about the latest rumors ….”  Fresh fish dinners concluded well.  Drawing from limitless wild blueberries and their finite wartime rations, local cottagers gifted the fishing party with homemade pies.

The issue of strategy, however, would not be put off.   Thursday morning, August 5, a USAAF air courier, set down on the water with the day’s dispatches from Washington.  In the pouch was the memorandum General Marshall hoped would set FDR’s position: Henry Stimson’s compelling case for Overlord with a warning also to beware another Mediterranean diversion.

As Hopkins and Roosevelt were fishing and discussing Stimson’s memorandum, a new message arrived from Winston Churchill. There it was, a fresh appeal for the Mediterranean strategy.  Soon came the third communication from an unexpected source in London. Churchill’s own foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, via the U.S. ambassador, contradicted Churchill’s facts. If the two messages from London were compared side-by-side, the basis for the Prime Minister’s entreaty looked thin.

Each argument had a champion known and respected by Roosevelt. Which strategy would FDR support?  Famous for keeping his own counsel, Roosevelt did so now.

Outwardly in the days that followed, something about Roosevelt appeared changed, at least in the opinion of his Canadian fishing guide, Donald McKenzie.  Of FDR, McKenzie observed that on Friday and Saturday, August 6-7, “He talked more freely, whereas the first part of the week he seemed quite preoccupied.”  Asked “Would you suggest that he had solved a problem that had been bothering him?” McKenzie answered, “Well he was very cheerful today when we were out fishing, and if he came here with a problem to solve, I would say that he made some headway on it.”

The fishing party departed Birch Island by train at 10:00 p.m., Saturday, August 7.  Late on August 8, FDR sent Stimson a telegram that said only “I hope you will lunch with me on Tuesday.  Glad to have your memoranda.”  Stimson and Marshall continued to wait in suspense.

Stimson arrived for their oval office lunch, August 10, a second draft of his memo in hand and prepared to argue the case for Overlord. Rosevelt surprised him by responding to each point, “I’ve already agreed to that.” When? While at Birch Island. They moved to the next room where the president directed his assembled Joint Chiefs on what would become the Allies’ strategy and command structure for victory in Europe. When next they did meet, at Hyde Park, August 12, Roosevelt showed a changed, more confident demeanor toward Churchill, one that never changed back.

In the months and years that followed, the participants spoke of and wrote about their time at Birch Island and Canadians they met there with great fondness. None could have known that this fishing trip would be the last time that, as a still reasonably healthy man, Franklin D. Roosevelt would escape the White House for fun.

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A condensation of this article appeared in the August 2, 2023, issue of The Manitoulin Expositor:


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