The room where FDR tracked World War II

WASHINGTON (AP) — One look at the walls in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s top-secret World War II Map Room was enough to convey an accurate sense of the worldwide ebb and flow of the land and naval forces of the United States, its allies and their enemies.
Formerly a place where presidential gifts were unwrapped, the White House Map Room was lined with large-scale military maps. Troop positions were marked in grease pencil on the clear-plastic overlays. Black pushpins located German ships. Orange, gray, blue and red pins charted the positions of Japanese, Italian, U.S. and British vessels.
The Map Room is etched in the memory of George Elsey, an 84-year-old veteran of three presidential administrations. Sixty years ago, Navy Lt. Elsey and a team of junior Navy and Army officers staffed the Map Room 24 hours a day. With the president as their chief client, the room became a quiet center of American power in the midst of history’s greatest war.
From here, FDR followed American troops advancing up the boot of Italy, punching through France and landing on the sandy beaches of Pacific islands.
“One glance at the map showing the convoys heading toward the coast of Africa would tell the story,” Elsey said earlier this month as he shared his memories at a conference convened by the White House Historical Association.
Because of the room’s secret nature no photographs or diaries were permitted. Discarded papers were burned. Unauthorized visitors were barred. That included the president’s Secret Service agents and the valet who pushed his wheel chair.
Arranged with the president’s needs in mind, the room in the vaulted basement corridor was near the elevator FDR used to reach his private quarters. Desks and filing cabinets were centered to allow his wheelchair to range the walls.
“When the president arrived, a watch officer would take over and carefully — but very nervously — push the president around the room so he could see the maps he wanted to study,” Elsey said. “Then he would push him over to a desk where he could review cables and reports.”
The room had roots in the 1898 war room established for President McKinley during the Spanish-American War. But its direct inspiration came from the portable map room installed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he visited the White House shortly after Pearl Harbor. Impressed, FDR ordered one for himself.
On a later visit in May 1943, Churchill asked for an update on the submarine war in the Atlantic. “I just removed three black pins,” Elsey replied, referring to the destruction of three German subs. To his astonishment, Churchill began leaping around the room crying, “We’ve got him!” We’ve got him!”
Once, in the quiet hours before dawn, Churchill walked in unannounced to find an embarrassed Army captain standing at attention in his underwear. Late at night, when no visitors were expected, the captain often removed and hung up his uniform to keep it unwrinkled. The prime minister, intent on the maps, paid no attention.
Elsey recalls showing Roosevelt a report from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that forces commanded by Gen. George Patton, one of the Army’s most flamboyant officers, were just 25 miles from Paris.
The president read the cable, looked at Elsey and said: “The next thing we’ll see is a picture of old George on a white horse with spurs on, riding under the Arc de Triomphe. He’s almost as good as old Doug MacArthur at getting publicity.”
“We were a group with direct, intimate contact with two presidents and their advisers during the greatest war in history,” Elsey said. “We ran a primitive operation by today’s standards. There were no secure communications. There were no scrambler telephones.” Cables were delivered by courier from the War and Navy departments.
“It was closer in technology to McKinley’s war room of 1898 than it was to George W.Bush’s situation room in 2002,” Elsey said.
Although the name has survived, the once utilitarian Map Room now compares in elegance with the rest of the White House. The bare floor FDR’s wheelchair rolled across is covered with an oriental carpet. Crystal sconces throw light across the Chippendale furniture.
But over the Map Room fireplace hangs the last map Roosevelt asked for before he died at Warm Springs, Ga., on April 12, 1945. It shows allied and enemy positions in Europe as they were projected for May 1, 1945.
Elsey tucked it away after the war ended. Decades later, he presented it to the White House.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Lawrence L. Knutson has reported on Congress, the White House and Washington’s history for 35 years.
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