- Historic Sites
“That Hell-hole Of Yours”
In 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Britain’s poorest, most dismal African colony, and what he saw there fired him with a fervor that helped found the United Nations
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
Roosevelt took unabashed delight in the opportunity to escape the humdrum of Washington and venture off to some distant part of the world. He did not want to go just anywhere, though. “I don’t like mosquitoes,” he confided to Churchill, adding, “I prefer a comfortable oasis to the raft at Tilsit”—a reference to Napoleon’s 1807 meeting with his enemies Czar Alexander I and King Frederick William III of Prussia on a barge in an East Prussian river. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff found Roosevelt a comfortable oasis on a secluded (and mosquito-free) hill five miles south of Casablanca and a mile from the Atlantic. It was the Hotel Anfa, surrounded by villas that the two men and their staffs could occupy. On the last day of 1942, the two Allied leaders agreed on details for the conference two weeks later.
Roosevelt liked the secrecy and intrigue required for him to absent himself from Washington and make the rendezvous with Churchill so close to the North African front. Rumors whipped around Washington of the President’s departure, and some “pompous officials,” according to Hopkins, took time off from work and instructed their secretaries to tell callers they were “out of the city,” to allow for the presumption that they were with the President on secret business. But security was so tight that not many knew when Roosevelt was leaving, or for where.
On Saturday, January 9, 1943, at about 10:30 P.M., the President, Hopkins, and the presidential physician Ross T. McIntire boarded a five-car train on a secret siding behind the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Already aboard were Roosevelt’s chief of staff, Adm. William D. Leahy, other aides and orderlies, and a small staff of Filipino mess attendants. Only the presence of an Army radio car packed with generators and transmitters could have tipped off the principal passenger’s identity, and only the inclusion of nine hundred pounds of bottled water in the ton of luggage might have hinted at his foreign destination.
The train left the District of Columbia on a northward feint, as if heading for Hyde Park, but it pulled onto a siding just south of Fort Meade, Maryland, and sat for an hour as officials of the Atlantic Coast line cleared tracks southward. Then, through a lazy Sunday, as the day brightened and the weather warmed, the train proceeded undisturbed across Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and most of Florida. The party arrived at an isolated siding along the Dixie Highway in Miami at 1:00 A.M. on Monday, January 11. At about 4:30 the travelers awoke and rode through the balmy darkness, in a short line of cars, to Miami’s harbor, where two Boeing Clippers—twin-tailed, four-engine, Pan American Airways seaplanes under charter to the Navy—were moored. They seemed like “private hotels” on pontoons to Air Corps captain George E. Durno, official chronicler of the trip. The party took boats to the planes, and several crewmen hoisted the President aboard the Dixie Clipper. Before dawn both planes taxied out of the harbor and took off.
Roosevelt loved to travel, and he was especially excited about the Casablanca venture. Hopkins allowed candidly that the President’s main reason for meeting Churchill in Africa was just to make the trip. “He wanted no more of Churchill in Washington,” wrote the man who knew Roosevelt best. “For political reasons he could not go to England, he wanted to see our troops, he was sick of people telling him that it was dangerous to ride in airplanes. He liked the drama of it. But above all he wanted to make a trip!”
Several noteworthy “firsts” involved with the venture added to the relish FDR felt. Once his plane was airborne, he became the first American President to fly while in office. Cousin Teddy had popped up and down once with the Wright brothers a third of a century earlier, but no one counted flights of a few hundred feet. Roosevelt had flown once before, from Albany to Chicago to make his dramatic entrance to the 1932 Democratic National Convention, but Secret Service policy kept Presidents from flying. FDR liked breaking the rules. With the Casablanca venture, he also became the first President to leave the country during wartime and the first since Lincoln to visit troops in an active theater of war. It made Roosevelt lighthearted. As he sat talking with Hopkins in Miami, before leaving the Pullman car, the President laughed about its being an “unbelievable trip.”
For reasons of security and safety, the itinerary between the United States and North Africa was roundabout. The twin clippers were to fly within sight of each other, first to Trinidad, fourteen hundred miles south of Miami; then to Belém, Brazil, another twelve hundred miles; and then across the Atlantic twenty-one hundred miles to Bathurst, at the mouth of Africa’s Gambia River, where Great Britain maintained one of its oldest African colonies. There, the party would motor eighteen miles to Yundum Field, Gambia’s airstrip, and board two C-54 military transports that would carry them the final sixteen hundred miles to Casablanca. It would require forty-six hours of flying, after twenty-six hours by rail in the United States.