On this day 75 years ago, the First Lady of the United States, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt took time out of her two day visit, inspecting the US Naval Operating Base in Derry, to lay a wreath at the Diamond on behalf of the US Forces. Travelling under the pseudonym ‘Rover’, Mrs Roosevelt made this trip in the midst of the Second World War. Researchers supporting the Base One Europe Museum at Beech Hill have pieced together Mrs Roosevelt’s itinerary in Derry.
Tuesday 10th November 1942
Mrs Roosevelt flew into Langford Lodge, Northern Ireland at 12.15 on Wednesday 10th November 1942 from Burtonwood in England. After an afternoon in Hillsborough and Belfast, her plane flew on to Derry, arriving in Eglinton Aerodrome at 5.15pm. Mrs Roosevelt mentioned the sunset in her diary. She was driven directly to Springtown House, part of the the US Navy’s Springtown Camp and residence of the USNOB Commandant, Capt van Leer Kirkman of TN. Invited were the American Red Cross in Derry and the heads of various women’ organisations, military and civilian, in Derry: Mrs Young WRNS, Mrs Cowdy WAAF and Miss Hunt WVS. Also present was Commodore Ross Stewart and his wife. Mrs Roosevelt mentioned an initiative being undertaken by the WRENS to bring US Navy and Royal Navy sailors together.
After dinner Mrs Roosevelt went to the American Red Cross Club in Waterloo Place, and listened to both the Army Band and the Green Club Band. She then went to the Apprentice Boys Hall or the Britannia Hall in Society Street where the US Marines were celebrating the 167th anniversary of the Corps’ foundation. There she met Col Lucian C Burnham, of Needham MA, Commanding Officer of the USMC in Derry, whose grandfather came from Newry. Mrs Roosevelt cut the cake, made in the shape of a large fort and decorated in the Marine Corps colours of gold and crimson, before departing back to Springtown House to over night.
Suffering from a heavy head cold that she had caught in England, Mrs Roosevelt was relieved to have been able to source, for the first time since leaving the US, Kleenex from the US Naval Hospital in Derry.
Wednesday 11th November 1942
At 8.30am Mrs Roosevelt had breakfast at Springtown House with six ordinary ranks from the Womens’ Services: ATS – Corp. Dorothy Smith, Ranelagh Dublin and Corp. Nellie Dundee, Glengormley; WRNS – Petty Officer Gladys Berkeley, Cookstown and Lily Hill, London; WAAF – Corp. Olive Penfold, Kinross and Pvt. Barbara Soltan, Bristol. Also introduced was Mrs Olive Mac Laughlin, Mayor’s daughter, who along with Mrs Edith Eaton is central organiser for the WVS.
Before leaving Springtown Camp, she toured some of the buildings including the recreation halls. Herbert Hill, Military Correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph, presented a shillelagh and a blackthorn cane to Mrs Roosevelt, both of which are preserved in the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. Mrs Roosevelt remarked “I promise faithfully to hand the blackthorn stick to my husband. I notice he is getting the big stick but my shillelagh is more weighty.”
At 9.30am Mrs Roosevelt visited the US Navy Ship Repair Yard at Pennyburn where Yoeman John Fred Winter of Portland OR presented her with two ashtrays inscribed ‘Rover’ and ‘The Boss”. She was piped on board a Royal Navy ship, moored nearby. Mrs Roosevelt purchased a poppy from two young poppy sellers, Miss Connor, Iona Terrace and Miss Glendinning of Knockbrack Road.
Mrs Roosevelt is reported to have also visited the US Navy Administration Building, probably at Magee.
Just before 11am, Mrs Roosevelt visited the Derry Walls near Royal Bastion, accompanied by District Inspector Dobbins of the local RUC.
At 11am, Mrs Roosevelt was in the Diamond where she laid a wreath of red poppies and golden laurel leaves at the war memorial on behalf of the US Armed Forces. There she met Lady Montgomery, mother of General Bernard Montgomery. Mrs Montgomery was reported to have said: ” I told her that her husband, the President, and Mr Churchill were two of greatest men in the world and that the third would be my son or Hitler.”
The British national anthem was sung, at the conclusion of which the Mayor said “God save the President of the United States’ I am sorry that we cannot sing your American national anthem.”
Afterwards she went briefly to the Guildhall to meet the Mayor Fredrick J Simmons and the Corporation, signing the visitors’ book in the Mayor’s Parlour.
Mrs Roosevelt remarked that the police had difficulty in restraining people in Derry when they crowded around the car; a contrast with England where “a polite word from a ‘bobby’ was all that was needed.” The Derry Standard’s interpretation was slightly different: “The distinguished visitor was accorded a fully ‘Royal’ welcome in the Maiden City, where, it is interesting to note, she was accorded the best welcome of her British tour so far. Derry’s welcome was spontaneous and unaffected – an unrehearsed tribute to the wife of a great champion and spokesman of the United Nations.”
Later she visited the US Navy Hospital at Creevagh guided by Capt BP Davis, US Naval Medical Corps. Mrs Roosevelt had noted that the hospital was staffed entirely with corpsmen but that Capt Davis had said there was no place for women in the services especially in Derry, because he could find no place to house them. She records that “One gathers from his conversation that he does not like ladies.”
Her last engagement was probably in O’Neill House on the Northland Road where she had lunch hosted by Captain Leo Hewlett Thebaud, Commander, United States Escort Control and Mrs Sinclair, American Red Cross. At lunch she was seated next to Rev Neil Farren, Catholic Bishop of Derry , whom Mrs Roosevelt had been recommended to meet by the US ambassador to Ireland, her uncle David Gray. George O’Donnell, a civilian worker for the US Navy in Derry, recalled later his memory of serving coffee to Mrs Roosevelt in O’Neill House. Ensign John S Hambrick of Decatur AL, a USNR communications officer for Task Group 24.7 billeted in Aberfoyle House, was also at the lunch. Writing home, he noted: “She had lunch with us (the staff) and one or other greats at our house….I was greatly impressed with easy, natural manner, and her very gracious conduct. One of the mess attendants asked me to get her autograph for him, which I did. We had a nice dinner during which she commented lightly on communism, etc. but wouldn’t be drawn out to any extent. She is a great person.” O’Neill House, a billet for American officers, was nicknamed the ‘White House’ thereafter and later became the Ardowen Hotel.
After lunch at 2.30pm, Mrs Roosevelt departed by plane for Prestwick arriving at 3.45pm.
During her time in Derry, Mrs Roosevelt’s personal bodyguard was Sgt Ted Cross USMC of Covington VA. Lieut. Comdr. Bob Vining of Baltimore was her naval aide and Miss Malvina Thompson her private secretary. Her driver was 22 year old Robert McCarter of Newlyn Terrace; Mrs Roosevelt autographed his driving licence.
Because Mrs Roosevelt had an interest in social conditions as well as military issues, her archives contain interesting observations on life in Derry during WWII.
Thanks to following for their kind assistance with this story:
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York. Follow FDRLibrary on Twitter.
Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, Department of History, George Washington University, Washington, DC Follow @ERPapers on Twitter
National Archives and Records Administration, Suitland, MD
Family of the late George O’Donnell, civilian worker, USNOB and USNavCommsSta.
Family of the late John S Hambrick, Lt Comdr USNR
Family of the late James J Dugan, Lt Col USMC
Family of the late John S Hudson, Capt USMC