In July of 1944 I was lying in a naval hospital bed in Honolulu, a very young Marine lieutenant shot full of holes in the Saipan campaign. I shared the room with an old friend I hadn’t seen in months until we accidentally ended up together in the hospital, courtesy of the Japanese.
One bright morning an unusual flurry of activity began: cleaning personnel zipping about, corpsmen dashing down the corridor, nurses coming in to check if we had shaved and washed after breakfast. There even seemed to be an inordinate number of planes roaring by the hospital. Questions about what was going on were ignored, but finally a favorite nurse gave us the word: President Roosevelt was in Hawaii—for a conference with his Pacific commanders, as we learned later—and was visiting the hospital and would maybe visit a few rooms.
Later the corridor outside our room began to fill with men both in uniform and in civilian suits, and two of the latter came into our room and checked it out, even peering under the high hospital beds. At one point an older naval officer leaned against the doorjamb and chatted with us; it was not until he turned to leave that I saw the stars on his collar and recognized him as Admiral Nimitz. I kept watching the corridor, and suddenly the mob parted slightly, and I saw the President in his wheelchair. His chin drooped on his chest, and his face sagged in a mass of baggy wrinkles. He looked ghastly, almost unrecognizable as the exuberant, vibrant President I had often seen in news photos and on the newsreels.
A moment later the commanding officer of the hospital took one step into our room, announced formally, “Gentlemen, the President of the United States,” and then stepped back out again. The President was wheeled into our room. I was stunned. You would have thought he was being wheeled onstage at Soldier Field, Chicago, before fifty thousand people. His head was thrown back, that famous broad, open Roosevelt smile on his face had wiped out the sagging wrinkles, and his right hand was raised high in cheery greeting. A complete transformation, and all for the benefit of two wounded Marines. He stayed for a few minutes and chatted, but I no longer remember what he said except that at one point he told a dull joke at which he laughed delightedly, and then he was gone.
For years afterward, when teaching American history at my university, I would tell this story to illustrate Roosevelt’s astonishing appeal and his apparent personal concern for others. There were no reporters present, no photographers taking pictures, no public relations gimmick; all this had been for our benefit alone.
Once, years later, after I had told this to a class, a hand went up from an older student, a retired Army colonel. He said that he, too, had once met the President, and so I naturally asked him to tell us about it. He had been a duty officer at the War Department when the message had come in from General Elsenhower—to be delivered personally—informing the President that the D-day invasion was under way. The officer took off for the White House, which he found jammed with civilian and military brass waiting for this word. He insisted on delivering the message directly to the President, and this was agreed to. He also had the nerve to ask for the message back after the President had read it, and FDR smilingly agreed.
He told the story very well, and he had clearly topped mine, as I’m sure the class thought too. There was a long pause when he finished.
“Well,” I said, “that’s an impressive story, but there is one major difference between your experience and mine. You drove a few blocks across town to see the President. The President traveled six thousand miles to see me.”
Cheers and laughter from the class, and my little brush with history remained secure for another time.