Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
FDR’s and WSC’s Bahamian Rambles
Natives of Eleuthera, a slender, 110-mile-long island fifty miles east of Nassau, take pride in believing that both Roosevelt and Churchill visited their island. Allen Packwood and Dr. Lynsey Robertson of the Churchill Archives Centre, and supervisory archivist Robert Clark at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, have been helping us search for the evidence, which is scanty.
Roosevelt proposed visiting Eleuthera after the election in 1940 “to see the site of the future United States base,” part of “Destroyers for Bases” deal with Britain on 2 September 1940. The Archives hold a letter annotated by Churchill (CHAR 20/9B-186-89) in which the Foreign Office expresses dismay, since Britain had not yet formally agreed to a United States base: “…the President should be asking if he might visit….”
But Roosevelt never set foot on Eleuthera. He did moor in Miller’s Anchorage on 13 December 1940, aboard USS Tuscaloosa during a fishing trip. HRH the Duke of Windsor, Governor of the Bahamas, arrived for lunch in a seaplane, and later the two held an on-board press conference for the three reporters traveling with the President. HRH left at 2 p.m., and Tuscaloosa weighed anchor at 2:47, bound for Charleston, South Carolina and the end of Roosevelt’s voyage.
Nor was a U.S. naval base immediately established. In 1951, ten personnel from Florida arrived at an “Experimental Station” ten miles north of the island capital, Governor’s Harbour. Retired Lieutenant William Clark recalled: “What a surprise to find our base consisted of a general building and a Western Electric laboratory, both wooden structures, five Quonset huts still unassembled, and, oh yes, the Communications Center” —a tent until they assembled the Quonsets.
In 1957 the Navy constructed an elaborate facility which tracked missiles launched from Cape Canaveral through 1981, when the Bahamas government raised the rent and the Navy considered it dispensable. It still lies abandoned, but the land was recently bought by Marriott interests for a proposed resort. It straddles the island from the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
The Churchill visit is problematic. On Eleuthera is a handsome house once owned by Lord Beaverbrook, filled with memorabilia—including a photo of WSC and Beaverbrook, allegedly on the spot. But when?
The Beaverbrook Archives tell us that early in World War II, Beaverbrook began acquiring properties in Nassau and Jamaica. In 1945, in recognition of his war effort, he was also given the opportunity to name any place he would wish to own as a gift from the Crown. He chose Eleuthera, and spent a fair amount of time there.
Churchill holidayed in Florida with a side trip to Cuba in early 1946, before delivering the “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. Lynsey Robertson, who kindly checked his appointment cards (CHUR 2/616), tells us that he “spent a week in Cuba before returning to Miami on 8 February. Two days later he traveled to Washington, returning to Miami on the 12th. The engagement card is then blank until the 19th.” He then traveled to Washington, Fulton and back, Virginia and New York, returning to Britain March 20th.”
The “blank” period offers a possible time for Churchill’s visit to Eleuthera. From Miami he could easily have slipped across the Gulf Stream, visited his friend, and had his picture snapped. But we’re not even sure Beaverbrook’s house was finished by then—and the letters of secretary Jo Sturdee, who was with WSC in Florida, make no mention of a side trip to the Bahamas.
In January 1953, WSC holidayed in Jamaica (where Beaverbrook hosted him), within easy range of Eleuthera. But, while Allen Packwood found that WSC asked secretary Elizabeth Gilliat about visiting Barbados from Jamaica, there is no mention of the Bahamas.
We also considered his 1961 West Indies cruise aboard the Onassis yacht Christina. But Sir Anthony Montague Browne, who was with him then, recalls no visit to Eleuthera by Christina at that or any other time.
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