In the late afternoon of August 7, 1944, in the middle of World War II, if you had been standing on Brooklyn Avenue, which ran about where the back of Sutliifs Hardware is now, you could have waved to President Franklin Roosevelt as he drove by in a station wagon. It was Roosevelt’s first visit to an Alaskan town, and the only visit by a sitting president to Kodiak.
A few weeks earlier, Roosevelt had boarded the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore in San Diego and sailed with several escorting destroyers to Hawaii to talk strategy with Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, his commanders in the Pacific war against the Japanese. A few days later, the flotilla headed north to the Aleutians, and then to Kodiak.
The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu in June 1942, and been driven out in the summer of 1943. By 1944, the Aleutians had become a lonely backwater of the war. For the troops on Adak, hunkered down in Quonset huts in an unforgiving climate, with little to do and thousands of miles between them and female companionship, spirits were low.
Roosevelt’s aides figured a presidential visit would help the troops’ morale, but there were other reasons to visit Alaska. By 1944, eleven years into his presidency and three years into the war, Roosevelt was physically exhausted, and though few knew it, suffering from heart disease. After seeing him in Hawaii, General Macarthur told an aide that he thought Roosevelt would be dead in six months. But Roosevelt loved the sea and his aides thought the trip might be good for him. And too, Roosevelt was running for re-election that fall, and Roosevelt and his team thought a visit to a war zone, even a now-quiet one like Alaska, would look good to the electorate. Roosevelt left First Lady Eleanor at home, but brought his Scottish Terrier, Fala.
At Adak, Roosevelt dined with the troops and made a speech. “I like your food. I like your climate. (Laughter) You don't realize the thousands upon thousands of people who would give anything in the world to swap places with you. I have seen some of them. Of course, I haven't been down to the Southwest Pacific, but last year I saw two battalions of our engineers down in Liberia, and I would much rather be here than in Liberia.” The soldiers loved it.
After bypassing Dutch Harbor because of stormy weather, the Baltimore and its destroyers arrived off Kodiak early on the morning of August 7, but stood offshore for several hours waiting for a fogbank to burn off. Around noon the coast was clear and Roosevelt and his party transferred to the destroyer Cummins, which landed them in Women’s Bay where an honor guard met them on the dock, including an all-black Navy band, reportedly the only such military band the President had seen in his travels.
After meeting with the Kodiak Army and Navy commanders and reviewing the sailors in front of the hangers, and the Seabees on the baseball diamond at Fort Greely, Roosevelt’s entourage headed into the village of Kodiak, population 500. With the sun shining, the town was at its best and the brief tour was a great success. According to Roosevelt’s official appointment diary, “This was the first Alaskan town he had ever visited and most of the delighted populace was out to welcome him to their midst.”
On the way back to the ship, Roosevelt was taken fishing on Buskin Lake. Two Dolly Varden were landed- the President caught one and the fishing guide, a Lt. Branham, USNR,
caught the other one. The record is unclear as to whether Fala, the Scottish Terrier, accompanied the President on the Buskin expedition.
Before heading back to the Baltimore, the President was informed that “Mr. Chas. Madsen, Pres. of the Alaskan Guides Assn. had presented him with an Alaskan bearskin rug. It was delivered in Seattle a few days later.”
The President crossed the Gulf of Alaska to Auke Bay, near Juneau, before disembarking in Bremerton, Washington. Almost immediately, Republicans began railing against Roosevelt for allegedly having sent a warship to retrieve Fala after he’d been left behind on an island. Roosevelt, a master politician, responded at a Teamsters campaign dinner-
“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family don't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them…as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I'd left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself ... But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.”
The Republicans stopped talking about Fala and Roosevelt easily won election to a fourth term a few weeks later.
In Kodiak seventy years later, Deedie Pearson still clearly remembers standing as a little girl on the side of the street while the President drove by, a few feet away.
And as Clarence Selig told an oral historian in 1993,
“I can still remember everybody lining up the street down at Brooklyn Avenue and he drove by waving at everybody. That was a highlight in my life watching the President drive by our yard.”
But the sea trip to Alaska did not revive Roosevelt’s health. He died eight months later, in April 1945, in Warm Springs Georgia.
As the train carrying the President’s body back to Washington went through Spartanburg, South Carolina, Myrtle Olsen watched it pass. The previous September, a month after Roosevelt’s Alaskan visit, she had made a twenty-one day journey from Kodiak to South Carolina to join her fiancé, a man she had met while he was stationed in Kodiak.
“It’s funny,” she says now, “I worked at the Island Fountain, right down there by where the Subway building is now, serving Coney Island hot dogs and ice cream and chocolates they made right in Kodiak to all those servicemen, and surely I would have seen the President that day, but I just can’t recall him in Kodiak that day. But I do remember watching the train carrying him going by after he died.”
Sources: Clarence Selig Oral history, UAF Library and FDR Library.