3 AM West Point
In the early hours of Sunday, April 15th, 1945, a select group of cadets were ordered out of bed by General George Honnen. After eating their breakfast, they put on their full-dress grays, fitted out with silver buttons, white belts, breastplates, and rifles and set out north on a nearly 40 mile trip up the Hudson Valley to Hyde Park, New York.
As the sun rose, they crossed the Mid-Hudson Bridge, a bridge that 49 years later would be renamed to celebrate the man who they were preparing to honor. Teased for losing their weekend leave, the cadets en route to Hyde Park recognized the significance of their mission. Later that night, one of them would reflect on the events of that would transpire that day. Writing a letter home, he said “as I stood there, I felt a tear trickle down my cheek. Not more than thirty feet ahead of me was my ideal in life—perhaps the greatest man the world has ever seen.”
Three days earlier
on April 12th, 1945, the nation was stunned to discover that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. The man that had led the country through the Great Depression and to near victory in World War II was dead. Having been president for a record 12 years, Roosevelt was the only leader in many people’s recent memory. His leadership had helped the American people regain faith in themselves and his Fireside Chat broadcasts had endeared him to millions of Americans who looked to him for assurance and hope.
“When I received these tidings early in the morning of Friday, the 13th, I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow.”
Winston Churchill would say in his memorial address to Parliament,“In Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.”
Even in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin paid a surprising tribute to Roosevelt by printing about the leader’s death on the front page of Russian newspapers, a space that was only reserved for national stories.
But the news wasn’t a surprise for many
Two months prior at the Yalta Conference, where the US, UK, and USSR met to shape a post-war peace and reorganization of Europe, Roosevelt’s physical deterioration had become much more noticeable.
On March 1, 1945, Roosevelt’s furthered speculation about his health when he addressed a joint session of Congress seated.
“I hope that you will pardon me for the unusual posture of sitting down. It makes it a lot easier for me not having to carry about ten pounds of steel around the bottom of my legs.”
The president’s health was deteriorating, but the truth was that it had actually been declining for some time.
In December of 1943, shortly after the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt developed a violent cough, began losing weight, and suffering chronic fatigue. A few months later, a doctor’s report would spell the worst.
The president was suffering from
- reduced lung capacity
- hypertension (high blood pressure)
- acute bronchitis
- acute congestive heart failure
A memo, that for many years was hidden, showed that the physician who examined Roosevelt in March 1944, stated that he didn’t believe the president could survive a fourth term.
How much Roosevelt knew about his severe health problems is up for debate, but committed to defeating Germany and Japan and negotiating a lasting peace with the Soviet Union, Roosevelt would accept the Democratic nomination and be elected to a fourth term in January 1945.
In the early afternoon
of April 12th, 1945, just 47 days after the American flag was raised at Iwo Jima and 16 days before Adolph Hitler would kill himself, Franklin Roosevelt was at his private cottage at Warm Springs Georgia. He was signing papers and sitting for a portrait painter when suddenly raised his hand to his head complaining of a headache. He then slumped forward, losing consciousness. At 3:35 PM, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was pronounced dead from a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
As the nation sat stunned, funeral plans were arranged. The commander in chief and leader of the nation would return to Washington DC, but his final resting place would be his beloved Springwood.
The Road Back to Springwood
Along the Hudson River at a bend known as Crum Elbow stands Springwood, the ancestral home of the Roosevelt family. Referred to by the Roosevelts as either “Hyde Park” or “the Big House,” Springwood was the epicenter of Franklin Roosevelt’s life. It was there that he was born, started married life, launched a political career, and recovered from polio.
“All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River”
At Springwood, Roosevelt would bring his close friends or political allies to discuss the state of the world or to just simply relax. And it was at Springwood that Roosevelt wished to be buried.
“Where the sundial stands in the garden” he told William Plog, Springwood’s longtime caretaker. That was the place he chose for his gravesite five years before passing. Enclosed by hedges planted in 1811, the gravesite was inside a quarter-acre yard with a square of clipped lawn. A small greenhouse marked the grass on the northwestern corner and all along the garden’s eastern edge grew a thicket of roses that perfumed the air, mixing with the scents of pine and river breezes from the woods below. At this peaceful place, Roosevelt would be laid to rest.
At Warm Springs
on April 13, a copper-lined casket was carried to Warm Springs’ railroad station, accompanied by a procession of 2,000 soldiers from Fort Benning, Georgia. Passing through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, mourning citizens turned out to pay their respects as the funeral train passed.
On April 14th, it arrived at Union Station in Washington, DC, where President Truman, members of the immediate family, and high-ranking government officials met the funeral train.
Full military honors were rendered as the coffin was carried on a caisson from Union Station to the White House. At least a 500,000 people watched silently as the coffin passed. Inside the White House’s East Room it would remain for about five hours, allowing time for an Episcopal funeral service before being taken in a small procession of soldiers and police back to Union Station for the trip to Hyde Park.
At Hyde Park,
town buildings were draped in black and purple. South of the Hyde Park Station, the funeral train stopped at the private siding that led to the Springwood estate. In 1916, James R. Roosevelt had paid the New York Central Railroad to move a stretch of telegraph poles and construct a turnout onto his property along the Hudson River’s shoreline. Here, Roosevelt’s heavy copper casket that stretched nearly seven feet long was placed into the back of an Army hearse before beginning its steep climb up the road to the estate. Before reaching the crest of the hill, the hearse stopped in the meadow below the mansion, where the West Point cadets could place the casket atop a black military caisson. At 9:58 AM, the boom of a howitzer reverberated across the region, signaling that the coffin was on its way up. Shortly after, A formation of P-47 Thunderbolts roared across the sky.
Up the hill proceeded the procession. A riderless horse with its stirrups reversed followed the caisson. A tradition that proclaims the passing of a great warrior that is said to date back to the days of Genghis Khan. Synchronized in step to Chopin’s Funeral March being played by the cadet band, the procession moved through a path that was lined by detachments from the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, and the 716th Military Police Battalion.
Now the laborer’s task is o’er, Now the battle day is past. Now upon the farther shore, Lands the voyager at last.
was designed by Roosevelt. He left instructions for it to be ” plain white monument, no carving or decoration, length 8 feet; width 4 feet; height 3 feet. I hope that my dear wife will on death be buried there also and that the monument contain no device or inscription except for the following on the south side. Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-19__ – Anna Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-19__.” Built by the Vermont Marble Company in Proctor, Vermont, it was constructed out of Vermont marble, which for more than a century was used in the construction of important public buildings and monuments, including the Jefferson Memorial and the U.S. Supreme Court Building.
In 1962, Mrs. Roosevelt joined her husband under the Rose Garden’s marble headstone.
A National Shrine
Two years before his death, Roosevelt had donated his Springwood estate to the American people under the condition that his family maintained a lifetime right to usage of the property. In 1945, the family relinquished their rights and the estate was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then, the estate has been administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site and is open to the public. As one of the Hudson Valley’s most popular tourist destinations, the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt has attracted thousands looking to explore this unique site that has so greatly defined both the life and death of a great president.
- FDR’s Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance by Robert Klara
- Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948 by Robert J. Donavan