Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Fish Named Maine - Dispatches from Maine

During November and December of 1936, just days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected to his second term as President of the United States, he set off on an extended “Good Neighbor Tour” to South America, visiting Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina where he also attended the Pan American Conference in Buenos Aires.  It was the first foreign visit ever by a sitting US president.

There was no Air Force One back in those days and FDR traveled on board the Portland class cruiser USS Indianapolis.  This was not the President’s first voyage on this ship.  Not long after its shakedown cruise in early 1932, the Indianapolis sailed north from its home port at Philadelphia, stopping in Bar Harbor and Eastport, in Maine, before picking up FDR at his summer home on Campobello Island, in Canada.  (FDR was also the first and only president to reside part of the year in a foreign country.)  From there the ship and its honored guest traveled to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  Thereafter the President would frequently use the Indianapolis as his “Ship of State.”

Just two weeks before the “Good Neighbor Trip,” FDR won a stunning electoral victory again his Republican opponent, Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, carrying 46 of 48 states.  Only Vermont and Maine, with a total of eight electoral votes, went for Landon, the smallest number ever received by a major party candidate.  Prior to this election there was a popular saw - “as Maine goes, so goes the nation” since the state-wide elections two months prior to the national elections in November frequently suggested how the two parties would fare.  Not so this time around.  Mainers elected a Republican governor in the face of FDR’s landslide victory, leading James Farley, the chairman of the Democratic party, to joke, “as Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

The historic cruise to South America commenced on November 18, 1936 when the USS Indianapolis and the Presidential party departed Charleston, South Carolina.  In command of the ship was Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt whom FDR would later tap to command the armada that landed the first US troops in North Africa almost six years later.  During the long cruise FDR, an avid angler, would frequently fish from the cruiser’s boat deck, and during a stopover in Trinidad, the President found time for some deep sea fishing using one of the ship’s motor launches.  It was during one of these outings, or so it has been reported, that FDR caught two fish which he promptly named “Maine” and “Vermont” in honor of the only two states who did not favor his reelection.

Historical footnote.  FDR is the only former president to be reelected to a third and fourth consecutive term in office.  Five months after his final reelection in November 1944, President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945.  Three months later, the USS Indianapolis, after a long and distinguished deployment with ten battle stars in the Pacific Theater during World War II, was sailing from Guam to the Philippines after delivering components of the atomic bombs to the island of Tinian.  On July 30th a Japanese submarine attacked the ship with two torpedoes.  Twelve minutes later, FDR’s favorite ship rolled over and went down by the head.  Only 880 men of the 1157 officers and ratings on board made it into the water.  Rescue attempts were delayed for over three days and only 317 survivors would be brought to safety.  Hypothermia and sharks got the rest.  Nine days after the sinking, an atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima.  Neither Roosevelt nor the Indianapolis, his Ship of State, would survive to see the end of the war they helped to win.

So, as Paul Harvey liked to say, “now you know the rest of the story.

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