In late July 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Pearl Harbor to meet with General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz to discuss strategy in the war in the Pacific against Japan. Perhaps the most important strategic decision was Roosevelt’s authorization for McArthur to attack and liberate the Philippines. McArthur had famously said: “I shall return” when he left those islands in 1942 when they were under attack by the Japanese.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this visit to Hawaii was when Roosevelt spent several hours visiting with wounded troops on July 29 after the conference. Initially, several wounded soldiers were brought to Roosevelt’s car on stretchers where he chatted with them. Very few people knew that Roosevelt couldn’t walk and he would frequently meet his fellow Americans while he sat in the back seat of an open car so he could maintain the illusion he wasn’t crippled.
What followed these chats was one of the most remarkable events in Roosevelt’s life. A Secret Service man pushed Roosevelt on his wheelchair through wards of a hospital that housed men who had lost limbs in battle.
Roosevelt aide Samuel Rosenman accompanied Roosevelt and observed his conversations with America’s heroes.
“He insisted on going past each individual bed. He had known for twenty three years what it was like to be deprived of the use of both legs. He wanted to display himself and his useless limbs to those boys who would have to face the same bitterness. This crippled man on the little wheelchair wanted to show them that it was possible to rise above such physical handicaps. With a cheery smile to each of them, and pleasant words at the bedside of a score or more, this man …was living proof of what the humans spirit could do to conquer the incapacities of the human body…Here, in the presence of great tragedy, he was doing it on a grand, heroic scale. The expressions on the faces on the pillows , as he slowly passed by and smiled, showed how effective was this self display of crippled helplessness.”
Roosevelt insisted that our wounded heroes see him in his wheelchair to show that he could identify with them through his disability, and how he overcame it. That was only one of three times he allowed people outside his inner circle to see him requiring help. Roosevelt sent the clear message that they could overcome their disabilities and lead a happy and productive life.
This encounter with wounded veterans was an excellent example of Roosevelt’s compassion and love for the American people. That’s one of the many reasons why Roosevelt was elected president a record four times and is widely regarded as one of our greatest presidents.