Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eleanor Roosevelt and the South Pacific, 1943

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is in the midst of a one-month production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. First performed in 1949, this bittersweet view of life among soldiers and natives on one island during World War II was adapted from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific.

Perhaps such cultural works help us to remember the pain and heroism among countless men and women in those seemingly exotic locales. And that is good because in some ways, the conflagration in the Pacific seems to be a forgotten war. Although some Pacific battles still claim popular interest and even reverence, such as Iwo Jima, we are more likely to remember Europe’s D-Day or even the Battle of the Bulge.

Last year’s HBO mini-series The Pacific certainly introduced many Americans to that war and to such figures as Medal of Honor winner John Basilone, whose bravery at the Battle of Guadalcanal became legendary, and to the everyman GI represented by Robert Leckie. There were many heroes in both theaters, most unsung.

One woman who had a brief, but important risk-taking role in the Pacific during the war was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The eyes-and-ears of the busy and wheelchair-bound FDR, Mrs. Roosevelt spent five rugged weeks observing the war’s impact and lifting morale among servicemen. This was probably the most challenging tour ever taken by a First Lady and is unlikely to be matched in the future.

Between August 19 and September 19, 1943, Mrs. Roosevelt crisscrossed the South Pacific, visiting Christmas Island, Penryhn Island, Society Islands, Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Australia, Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal, and Wallis and Christmas Island. Interestingly, Michener was a naval officer in the South Pacific and spent time on at least four of those islands.

Mrs. Roosevelt doggedly moved from island to island eating with soldiers, visiting makeshift hospitals and observing health conditions. She followed up with soldiers’ families upon her return home. While the military brass, predictably, were anxious and even hostile to her tour, most were eventually impressed by her courage and concern.

Eleanor Roosevelt was controversial, largely because of her outspokenness and her corresponding unwillingness to fit into a traditional passive role as wife of the President. But she was a remarkably hardworking and compassionate person. Her South Pacific tour was only one aspect of a long and highly successful career, which included promoting civil rights at home and international human rights abroad.

Although the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, New York, is well presented, in many ways an even more insightful tour can be had a few miles away at Eleanor Roosevelt’s cabin known as Val-Kill. Here is where she was most comfortable—writing, entertaining and relaxing. A visit there might not be as rousing as a performance of a downstate Broadway classic, but it certainly would make for “Some Enchanted Afternoon.”

See: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/eleanor_roosevelt_valkill.html

Also, see this silent video, courtesy of the FDR Library:

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