In the South Pacific War Zone (1943)

When FDR suggested in 1943 that ER go on a goodwill tour of Australia and New Zealand she readily agreed. Ever since her return from Great Britain in 1942, ER had wanted to go to the South Pacific both to see US servicemen there and to observe the homefront in Australia and New Zealand. She particularly wanted to visit Guadalcanal, where US forces had fought a major battle that had only recently ended. FDR was reluctant to let her go into the actual war zone but he finally relented, "if it did not interfere with the conduct of the war."

Arrangements for her trip accelerated after a riot broke out in Detroit in June 1943 over the right of African Americans to move into the new Sojourner Truth federal housing project. White workers, angered that African Americans were being given new housing, protested that their own need for housing should come first. ER, who had supported the project, interceded with FDR to ensure that the project maintained its original purpose. When violence erupted between white picketers and the African Americans moving in, those who opposed African-American civil rights blamed ER for the riot. The administration quickly decided to get ER out of the country "because the Negro situation was too hot."

ER left the US in late August and did not return to Washington until September 25. During that time, she visited seventeen islands plus Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand. She traveled as FDR’s representative and as a Red Cross delegate charged with reporting on the status of the relief organization’s work in that war zone. The documents in this section, which include a selection of ER’s diary entries, speeches, columns, and letters, attest to the difficulties she faced and the challenges she surmounted.

By the early fall of 1943, the war in the Pacific had begun to tilt in the Allied favor. The US strategy of island hoping designed to isolate Japanese forces from their supply lines was starting to succeed. However, the overall military situation remained perilous and to the military commanders in the area a middle-aged woman traveling alone posed a distinct problem. ER herself wondered whether her presence was a help or a hindrance. "In some ways I wish I had not gone on this trip," she wrote FDR. "I think the trouble I give far outweighs the momentary interest it may give the boys to see me."

However ER persevered. From early in the morning until late at night she visited hospitals, military camps, and Red Cross clubs, seeing by one estimate 400,000 troops. In Australia and New Zealand, she added war factories, civilian facilities, and official receptions to her itinerary.

 As she had in Great Britain, ER took special interest in the efforts of women on the home front in Australia and New Zealand. She was particularly impressed with a group of Women’s Air Force Auxiliary weather forecasters and the members of an all-woman ambulance unit who did "all their own maintenance work and lift stretchers in and out."

Despite a schedule even more grueling than that she had experienced in Great Britain, ER refused to let fatigue affect her. Keenly aware that many of the servicemen she met would never return to the United States, she tried to make every encounter as personal as possible. For example, when she encountered a convoy of Army trucks ferrying troops to the front on New Guinea, she insisted on stopping to say good-bye and good luck to every group. She also continued the practice she had begun in Great Britain of collecting the names and home addresses of American GIs she met so she could contact their families on her return. Every day, no matter what else was on the schedule, she also wrote her column, typing it herself.

Her columns from this trip often deal with the realities of life in a war zone. Visiting Guadalcanal, for example, she noted that many casualties of that conflict might never be interred in the military cemetery there because "they were buried. . .where they fell." After watching demonstrations of "hand-to-hand fighting, shooting and reconnaissance work" she thought the men she saw "had confidence. . .to meet the enemy and to win." On another occasion she observed, "No one out here has any pity for the Japanese. They have seen them do too many things which we consider beyond the pale of civilized practice."

Once they got over their initial surprise, the men she visited responded to her interest. "When she chatted with the men she said things mothers say, little things men never think of and couldn’t put into words if they did," one officer wrote after the war. "Maybe it sounds funny, but she left behind her many a tough battletorn GI blowing his nose and swearing at the cold he had recently picked up." Even her most skeptical opponent area commander Admiral William F. Halsey ultimately saw her visit as a boon to the troops. "She alone had accomplished more good than any other person or any group of civilians who had passed through my area," he later wrote.

For ER the highlight of the trip was her visit to Guadalcanal. She toured the island, visited the hospitals and the cemetery, and met with her good friend Joe Lash who was stationed there.

Her time in the South Pacific, particularly the suffering she saw in the military hospitals, made her more determined than ever to secure a durable peace after World War II. "If we don’t make this a more decent world to live in I don’t see how we can look these boys in the eyes," she wrote Lash. She was even more emphatic in "My Day" telling her readers, "if the generation that fights today is to lay the foundations on which a peaceful world can be built, all of us who have seen the war at close range must remember what we see and carry a crusading spirit into all of our work."

 

Documents:

Eleanor Roosevelt in Bora Bora (image)

Eleanor Roosevelt's South Pacific travel diary (excerpts)

Eleanor Roosevelt on Christmas Island (image)

Noumea, New Caledonia during World War II (image)

Eleanor Roosevelt to Malvina Thompson, August 26, 1943

ER talking with a Maori woman in Wellington, New Zealand

Eleanor Roosevelt to Lorena Hickock, 1 September 1943

Eleanor Roosevelt to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 2 September 1943

Eleanor Roosevelt in Canberra, Australia (image)

Speech delivered in Canberra, Australia

My Day, (Melbourne, Australia)

Eleanor Roosevelt at an air field in Sydney, Australia (image)

Speech delivered in Sydney, Australia

Eleanor Roosevelt's itinerary for Brisbane, Australia

Eleanor Roosevelt to Lorena Hickock, 12 September 1943

My Day (Esperito Santu, Vanuatu)

Eleanor Roosevelt's South Pacific travel diary (excerpts)


Sources:

Doris Kearns Goodwin. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt : The Home Front in World War II (New York: Touchstone, 1994); Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971); Robert Leckie. Delievered From Evil: The Saga of World War II (New York: HarperCollin, 1987);Eleanor Roosevelt. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Harper & Row, 1961); ‘William F. Halsey, Jr.,  My Day, August 30 and September 2, 13, 14 1943.