- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
It was, of course, my responsibility to arrange with the Navy Department for the safe delivery of the President at Yalta through waters exposed to enemy submarine and air attack. Experience in two wars had taught me the importance of secrecy of movement as a means of reducing the hazard. I had served my apprenticeship in World War I as ship movement officer when Kitchener was sunk without trace, and I was in command of a destroyer in the English Channel when many a good ship was being lost through careless barroom talk. And in the Second World War we were thoroughly alive to the menace of Japanese espionage. I did my best to impress everyone about the White House with the importance of secrecy. But the President himself was only lukewarm about it. He issued his instructions to the Secret Service and sent them ahead to make advance arrangements without considering the chance that the agents would be recognized—after all they were always in the forefront of all press photographs taken of the President. And then, one day, I was very much concerned when I chanced to overhear Harry Hopkins say that he was leaving ahead of us in the President’s plane to visit Londo, Paris and Rome before joining us at Malta. I protested that the President’s plane should have ample time at Malta to tune up before taking the President aboard and that Hopkin’ appearance in Europe would arouse a suspicion that a meeting was about to take place. Harry looked somewhat amused and said, “Well, Wilson, I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t see what business it is of yours.” I replied with some heat that somebody had to concern himself with the safety of the President of the United States, and that he, Hopkins, certainly did not do so. He invited me to a conference with him and a representative of the Air Force. We agreed that Hopkins should fly the presidential plane as far as Gibraltar and then shift to another Army plane there. He did not tell me what he hoped to accomplish, but it proved to be a most unfortunate venture.
When we were halfway across the Atlantic a message came from Hopkins with the now famous Churchill pronouncement that “if we had spent two years in research, we could not have found a worse meeting place than Yalta.”
This was soon followed by a more detailed message from the Prime Minister which said that one of his most experienced pilots had reported that the motor trip from the air field over the mountains to Yalta was “a most dangerous and frightening experience,” and that Yalta was “rife with typhus and lice.” All this was very disturbing. We were on our way and could not turn back. The President did not show any signs of concern and treated it all as a joke, but it certainly did not add to his peace of mind. I have never heard whether the Germans succeeded in breaking our code or whether they intercepted those particular messages. I think they should not have been sent. We also received radio broadcasts of Hopkins press interviews at all capitals, which seemed to me to give warning that something was going on in the Mediterranean. It may or may not be a coincidence that the Germans had a concentration of submarines in the Straits of Gibraltar when we passed through. Admiral Hewitt, commanding our naval forces in the Mediterranean, got us through safely by providing a heavy destroyer and air escort and speeding us up to thirty knots for the passage. It would have taken a very skilful submarine commander to get in a shot at us; but think of the Iron Crosses for a lucky hit! Hewitt not only provided a safe passage but attended to the lice at Livadia Palace by sending his flagship, the Catoctin , and four of his minesweepers to Sevastopol ahead of us with a highly modern delousing unit. The Turkish government was persuaded to allow the Catoctin and escort through the Dardanelles. They were the first men-of-war of any nationality to pass through the Black Sea mine fields. Their primary purpose was to provide living quarters for the President and Chiefs of Staff in case the quarters furnished by the Russian government proved unlivable. In addition the Catoctin furnished us with supplies of all kinds and fumigated the British quarters as well as our own. They were a very great help to all.
Before we reached Malta we received the following, final message from the Prime Minister:
* This was written before the Third Volume of the Churchill Memoirs appeared in print. The slight difference in the text may be due to coding errors.
He was there good as his word, smiling and cheerful, surrounded by a host of ambassadors, admirals and generals of the Combined Staffs. It was a bright sunny day and everyone was in good humor. Harry Hopkins, looking very much the worse for wear, said that he and his plane had taken a terrible beating. He admitted to me that he was glad he had not subjected the President’s plane to such rough flights. But Harry himself was all in and spent most of the time in bed at Yalta just when the President needed him most. He blamed his exhaustion on his visit to France, where he had gone, quite in vain, to mollify De Gaulle.