As her husband delivered his famous declaration of war to Congress on December 7, 1941 committing the U.S. to World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt was seated beside Edith Wilson, a symbol of World War I.
Unlike her predecessor, however, Mrs. Roosevelt, viewed herself as having a rigorous duty to the soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines who would fight on to victory in 1945
Initially, Mrs. Roosevelt toured many military training camps, a continuance of her “eyes and ears” role of inspecting federal facilities and reporting back to the President whose disability prevented him from extensive travel.
As she had with women, the unemployed and minorities, she soon became a strong advocate for the rights of servicemen.
She put her earnings into war bonds, donated to war charities, and reprimanded a general when she learned that top brass took the best seats at USO shows while enlisted men were forced to sit in the back.
She had the President’s condolence letter to families who lost a member in combat to be more expressively warm, and had the Navy Secretary begin to include hometown news in the overseas broadcasts made for enlisted men.
Yet, she lamented, “I do not seem to be doing anything useful.”
This compulsion to look after the needs of the enlisted men is what led Eleanor Roosevelt to undertake yet another unprecedented act as First Lady. In October of 1942, she made the first in a series of overseas troops to meet with U.S. serviceman, to Great Britain.
While she met with many of England’s servicemen and those women serving in various capacities for the war effort, she met with Americans who were part of a parachute battalion, a photo reconnaissance unit, and a tanks corps, as well as segregated African-American troops in Liverpool barracks.
She spoke on the BBC and delivered a speech in a cold shipyard to some fifteen thousand workers.
When she learned that there was a lack of durable socks to keep servicemen warm against the cold weather, she wrote General Eisenhower who immediately assured her he would remedy the situation.
Eleanor Roosevelt undertook a second overseas trip to see the troops in 1943, traveling in an uncomfortable military plane christened “Our Eleanor,” as she voyaged to New Zealand, Australia and nearly all of the small South Pacific islands where Americans were stationed. As men prepared to head into open combat, she insisted on walking through the jungle to wish each truckload of them good luck.
Admiral William Halsey who at first had protested against her tour in an active military zone, later recalled that “she went into every ward, stopped at every bed, and spoke to every patient: What was his name? How did he feel? Was there anything he needed? Could she take a message home for him? She walked for miles, and she saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”
She was also determined to see Guadalcanal island where Americans had defeated the Japanese in perhaps the bloodiest battle of the war. Admiral Halsey concluded that, “She alone had accomplished more good than any other person, or any group of civilians, who had passed through my area.”
Before the Administration’s sudden end, with the April 1945 death of her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt would make a third overseas trip, to bases in the Caribbean basin.
It was estimated that she had personally seen some four hundred thousand men, approximately ten percent of the U.S. Armed Forces.
For the seventeen more years that she lived, wherever she went throughout the world, whenever a veteran of World War II approached the former First Lady it was with warmth and respect not as the widow of their former commander-in-chief but as a maternal figure beloved to them in her own right,
Bess Truman’s tenure as First Lady saw the end of World War I and the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the Korean War.
Since most of her time as First Lady was spent living in the Blair House, the presidential guest house, while the White House was being renovated, she hosted endless days of afternoon receptions for the wounded and disabled veterans of World War II and those men returning from Korea.
She was also a regular, consistent volunteer at a local Washington U.S.O. unit, ignoring her official status and performing as just one of the regular volunteer workers,
Mamie Eisenhower knew the sacrifices faced by families with active servicemen in wartime, both her husband and son serving in World War II and her son then serving in Korea.
She resumed the annual White House garden parties for veterans, sometimes with Edith Wilson present, and also sponsored many USO and other charitable activities on their behalf.
She also supported an effort for active military to have their bloody type recorded in order to aide their comrades who might have been in sudden, desperate need of infusions.