- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Mr. Roosevelt had stored up energy during the sea trip and upon his arrival at Malta thoroughly enjoyed a busy day receiving a steady stream of visitors and attending both an official luncheon and an official dinner. But after it was over he was so exhausted that he went aboard his plane to go immediately to bed. But there was to be no rest for Roosevelt that night; every ten minutes a plane took off alongside us headed for the rendezvous. And the take-offs continued until we left in the early morning. The President did not like flying, and for this reason Dr. McIntire always tried to hold the pilot down to 10,000 feet. It was a weary man that arrived at Saki airfield to begin one of the most grueling days I have certainly ever experienced. After a welcome from Mr. Molotov and a review of the guard of honor, we started off at a tearing pace in a great cavalcade of cars. The road had been completely demolished by the Germans, and the Russian effort to restore it had accomplished little beyond filling in a few of the more impossible holes. The President took his daughter, Secretary Stettinius and Governor Byrnes with him. I hope he had a better car than the one assigned to us for the best of cars could not have driven over that road without serious discomfort. The springs on our car had been broken years ago. If you have ever ridden for six hours in a jeep at breakneck speed over rough fields, you can faintly comprehend the distress of that journey. Admiral Leahy, who by virtue of his seniority sat in the comparative comfort of the front seat, complained at frequent intervals that not only was it breaking every bone in his body, but he was being asphyxiated by the engine exhaust.
Our Russian driver’s tenacity in holding his place in line despite hell and high water was a fine example of discipline through fear. He soon convinced us that he would keep his place or die in the attempt, taking us all along with him. If it was bad enough during the level stretches of the forenoon, the pass over the mountains was indeed as the British pilot had described it—a “frightening” experience. The great danger was that we might be caught in the pass during a snow storm, when the entire cavalcade might have been held up for the night. That mountain road had been built in the era of the horse when long-base cars had never been dreamed of. The curves were short and sharp, without retaining walls, and jutted out to the very edge of a continuous precipice. Passengers were thrown about in the constant change of direction; one escape from the abyss was quickly followed by another hairbreadth deliverance; and all the bumping and banging on an unsurfaced road kept pounding us to pulp.
An eight-course dinner at Livadia that night helped restore us, abetted by a great variety of wine and served by one of Moscow’s most distinguished chefs. That first meal was unquestionably delicious, but after several days the same dishes and wines began to cloy. In fact, toward the end, those of us who were free to choose contented ourselves with large bowls of soup and Russian bread. It would have been better for us all if we had been allowed a plain drink of whiskey and a simple meal. The poor President had to attend state dinners every night, suffering through innumerable toasts and late hours after working hard all day long. He never had a chance to catch up with the fatigue of our flight from Malta until the conference was over and our course was set for home.
At the plenary sessions the President was attended by Hopkins, Stettinius, then secretary of state, Governor Byrnes, director of war mobilization, and Chip Bohlen, then the official interpreter. Fleet Admiral Leahy and Ambassador Harriman also attended some sessions. Since the President had relied on us to keep him informed of the progress of the war and to handle his exchanges with Churchill and Stalin, Watson, McIntire and I as a matter of course followed the President into the council chamber the first day and seated ourselves on the sidelines where we could follow what took place. But the President waved us out and explained afterwards that he felt better progress would be made with a small group and that his associate conferees would follow his example in the number who attended him. On the final day, however, I was in the main corridor helping to look out for our arriving guests as the President passed through to the council room. He sent Hopkins back to invite me to come in, and in I went. And so in consequence I am now one of the few surviving Americans who had an opportunity to witness the Big Three in their final conference.