poor georgie’s almanack
FDR’S WHEELCHAIR … ESSAY #1
George Kroloff, reedited April 18, 2020
THE TOUGH “BIG THREE” YALTA SUMMIT … SECRECY ON THE SEAS … OIL
PLUS A FLYING, AND ROTATING THRONE THAT WAS TOPPED BY AN IMPULSIVE ACT OF KINDNESS.
It was Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1945. The USS Quincy was anchored next to the USS Murphy in the Suez Canal’s Great Bitter Lake.
Increasingly frail, exhausted and sick, the president of the United States of America was returning home after an arduous week-long meeting in the Black Sea resort town of Yalta.
There, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Russia’s Joseph Stalin, and England’s Winston Churchill, “The Big Three,” had made plans for the end of World War Two and decided which parts of Hitler’s Europe would be their own “spheres of influence.”
FDR flew from Yalta to The Quincy, the ship that would take him back to America. Before the Quincy began it perilous trip the American president would conduct a second round of summitry, this time with Arab leaders. FDR’s blood pressure on the USS Quincy was 260 over 150, according to several historical reports.
Two months later, Roosevelt would be dead.
During five hours of one-on-one discussions with Saudi Arabia’s ruler Ibn Saud, the gaunt but gritty FDR made an impromptu gesture of kindness and empathy that cemented the bond between Saudi Arabia and the USA … a relationship that significantly changed history. (Photo: USS Quincy meeting. Ibn Saud and Roosevelt are seated.)
I learned about this because my client in the 1990s was Alan Reich. Like FDR, Alan was confined to a wheelchair. At age 32, his neck was broken in a diving accident. His disability was much more serious than FDR’s, whose legs were paralyzed at age 39 by Polio. Reich, also in a wheelchair, had a stellar career in and out of government. He, then was president of the National Organization on Disability (NOD). Roosevelt and Reich clearly proved that people with disabilities surely have important abilities.
Alan told me he wanted to create an annual award for heads-of-state celebrating their country’s efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The award would be in FDR’s name. The plan was simple, but the implementation would be tricky. Reich, the UN Secretary General, and a yet-to-be-found major donor would jointly make the annual presentations to heads of state.
Reich already had hooked Boutros Boutros-Ghali the sitting Secretary General (SG), but he needed to reel-in a big bundle of money to fully support the award.
Alan asked me to be his sole traveling companion for a one-day trip to New York. By then I was fairly adept at handling the intricacies of accompanying a virtual quadriplegic, getting in and out of wheelchairs, cars and planes and navigating his wheelchair across busy streets. The two of us visited the Saudi’s acting UN ambassador in his office and then had a short session with the SG at the UN Building.
I had hastily located a photo of the historic 1945 meeting between FDR and Saudi King Ibn Saud. For us it was just a prop. For Saudis, we learned, it was iconic. That image symbolized the very moment when the nation began to evolve from one of the world’s poorest down-and-out countries that couldn’t pay its bills into the stratosphere of the wealthiest nations.
The intent was for me to take a photo of Alan in his own wheelchair next to the ambassador holding the historic photo. We then could tell our story in a short caption.
The ambassador’s visit was part of Alan’s campaign to raise $5 million from the desert nation for the award. Alas, the Saudis passed on the opportunity. The FDR award eventually was delivered to about ten heads of state, mostly at the UN, with meager funding from elsewhere. But, that’s background noise for this essay.
Long after the New York trip I had time to research the FDR/Ibn Saud session. And what a story that photo revealed!
It begins with a quirk of geology. Much of the parched, sandy Arabian Peninsula covers a sea of oil.
As WWII was grinding to its end both England and the USA, knowing that oil would power the recovery, wanted to get their hands around all of it. They were courting 70-year-old Ibn Saud, the wily desert fighter who created Saudi Arabia and became an absolute monarch. Only FDR had made a concerted effort to come and see him.
Ibn Saud often left his palaces to live and govern in a tent. He had relatively few modern conveniences. At that time Saudi Arabia was desperately poor, making more money from pilgrims visiting Mecca than any other source. The king was wary of the surrounding Arab rulers who wanted his land, especially the religious sites. So, he sought a powerful security partner he could trust mano-mano, as well as wanting income.
The Saudi ruler knew the logistics for the American president’s trip to meet with him was a really big deal. Safely moving 63 year-old FDR through Nazi submarine-infested waters, and within range of German aircraft, was a major mission. An armada of warships and dozens of warplanes were involved in the voyage from Norfolk, Virginia in the USA to the “Big Three” summit and back, including the Suez detour to summit with Ibn Saud.
One vessel, the USS Murphy, had taken a stealth side trip to Jeddah, the Saudi city on the Red Sea. There it picked up the King and his 48-person entourage of servants, cooks, an astrologer, food taster and imposing barefoot body guards. Seven sheep were penned on the rear deck to be skinned and cooked following Islamic dietary traditions. Sailors created the pen by stringing ropes between depth charges.
A group of the King’s wives and harem, originally scheduled for the trip, remained in Saudi Arabia. Navy brass nixed having all those women onboard for the trip from Jeddah to Suez.
During his first time on a motorized ship, Ibn Saud slept in a large tent erected on the Murphy’s outside deck. The tent was supported by the ship’s forward 5-inch gun, pointing up toward the stars. Sailors, of course, nicknamed the destroyer “Big Top.”
Angelo Marinelli, a seaman on the mission, told his local paper, “They built campfires on the deck of the destroyer. Every sailor aboard was carrying a fire extinguisher in case the fires in the tents got out of hand.”
Several reports claim the ship’s crew, the king and his entourage overcame language barriers and got along famously. The Navy men introduced many of their guests to movies and the king’s bodyguards impressed sailors with demonstrations of using their scimitar-like swords. Or maybe those were warnings?
Because the hulking Ibn Saud suffered severe pain while walking, ship decks were carpeted to alleviate some of the King’s discomfort.
Once aboard the Quincy and seated next to the US President, Ibn Saud and FDR famously bonded. In large part that was because of their disabilities. The King, whose cane is visible in the photo, had never seen anything like the President’s wheelchair and was fascinated.
In an impulsive act, FDR gave Ibn Saud one of his wheelchairs. This turned out to be a much bigger deal than the officially planned gift, which was a fully-manned DC-3 passenger plane with a swivel throne. Thus, while in the air, the King could painlessly rotate toward Mecca to pray.
After discovering that the thin wheels of FDR’s chair didn’t work in Saudi sand, and because the king was much larger than the president, the monarch had several constructed with wide wheels.
In summary, the USA was awarded the long-term right to drill, process and sell the oil. Saudi Arabia became one of the richest nations in the world.
That picture of the two leaders, one with a cane and one with a cape over his shoulder, hiding a wheelchair from cameras, became the most-seen photo in all of Saudi Arabia. It showed two sly old, battered men who had conquered their worlds and their painful disabilities.
And it depicted one of the most significant impetuous acts of kindness and compassion in modern history.
1. A long retrospective on these April 1945 events posted on the Saudi based arabnews.com provides colorful details about the secret meeting. It includes some of the after-event notes prepared by the chief US diplomat involved, William A. Eddy, who was the official translator.
He reported that near the end of their meeting “Roosevelt told Ibn Saud: ‘You are luckier than I because you can still walk on your legs and I have to be wheeled wherever I go.’ The king replied: ‘No, my friend, you are more fortunate. Your chair will take you wherever you want to go and you know you will get there. My legs are less reliable and are getting weaker every day.’
“At this, the president said: ‘If you think so highly of this chair I will give you the twin … as I have two on board.”
2. The Ibn Saud meeting covered considerably more than oil and there were strong differences of opinion about a future Jewish state in Palestine. Nonetheless, the camaraderie was deep.
3. Before seeing Ibn Saud, Roosevelt met with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. These were much less historic events.
4. England was America’s main rival for the Saudi oil. After leaving the USS Quincy, Ibn Saud went to meet Winston Churchill near Cairo and returned to Jeddah on an English warship.
Canny FDR had sanctioned that meeting expecting the two would not get along. The Saudi ruler reportedly found the British Prime Minister to be an unpleasant character.
The posting on arabnews.com says the Churchill-Ibn Saud session occurred because the English PM found out that FDR was going to meet with Ibn Saud and wanted to be part of the action.
Quoting William A. Eddy’s notes, “whereas the Americans had taken (Ibn Saud) on a destroyer, (The British) were going to return him on a cruiser.” That would be a larger and supposedly more prestigious ship.
Later, the king told Eddy that he “did not enjoy his return trip to Jeddah.” Among his complaints about the dull voyage were … “the food was tasteless; there were no demonstrations of armament; no tent was pitched on the deck; the crew did not fraternize with his Arabs; and altogether he preferred the smaller but more friendly US destroyer.”