A Letter from My Godfather

From Guadalcanal After the Battle

by Brumby McGehee

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James Roosevelt and my father had been schoolmates and good friends since their years at the Groton school and Harvard ('29). My father was a year ahead of Jimmy and being captain of the football and baseball teams and Groton's best athlete it seems reasonable that Jimmy might have regarded him as a schoolboy hero as well as his close friend. Who could have guessed Jimmy's father, who had already been Secretary of the Navy and an unsuccessful vice presidential candidate, would be elected President four times and rank among the historical giants of twentieth century and all of American history. Jimmy was happy to be the good friend and teammate of the star halfback, who was the only southern boy at Groton.

Hanging on my wall, I have a note Jimmy wrote me from Guadalcanal, which he signed and dated July 5, 1943. I have no idea what prompted him to write this five months after the Japanese had been defeated and the island declared secure.

Jimmy had been in the Marine reserves since Harvard and after Pearl Harbor, contrary to Franklin and Eleanor's wishes that he not be in combat, he pulled strings to be able to join one of the two special Marine Raider battalions.

Jimmy Roosevelt became second-in-command of Carlson's 2nd Marine Raider Battalion who were among the first American combat units to be trained specifically in guerrilla tactics including how to kill quickly and silently. The Raiders were patterned after the British commandos and the Chinese guerrillas fighting the Japanese. They were trained to carry out missions behind enemy lines and on islands occupied by the Japanese. Carlson had spent time with Chinese guerrilla forces studying the tactics they used opposing the Japanese.

Jimmy was awarded the Navy Cross for aggressive and heroic actions while under enemy fire during the raid on Makin Island and later in the same raid a silver star for saving three Marines from drowning.

The 2nd Marine Raider Battalion landed on Guadalcanal in November of '42 [three months after the initial invasion on August 7] and in their first month on the island they were reported to have killed over 500 Japanese while losing 17 Raiders.

We were still living at 29 W. Andrews Dr. in Atlanta that summer of '43 when my mother read me the note from my godfather on Guadalcanal. The note written in pencil was written on a 3¼-inch by 6-inch pad. I have it framed side-by-side with it typed out for easy reading and the clearly blood stained 10-yen Japanese bill crossways below it. Hanging above it, I have another picture of Jimmy holding me at the Atlanta airport when I appear to be a pudgy three-year-old. You can discern a DC-3 behind us and Jimmy is in a civilian suit, so it's probably in early 1941 months before December 7th or my fourth birthday in January. This is his note!

Dear Brumby

        I've given this
ten yen Japanese note to
your father for you. It
might interest you to
know I personally
removed this from a
dead Japanese soldier
at Guadalcanal during
a recent battle.

      Best to you, my Godson
                 James Roosevelt

July 5th 1943

This was a war in which a Japanese, German or American soldier could have popularly bragged about having killed the enemy from whom he had removed the bloody money. In the United States it might well have been badly perceived and at least viewed with mixed emotions if not outright disapproval by many if the son of the American President displayed a bloody trophy while making any such boast. Considering the ferocity of the combat on Guadalcanal, sometimes hand-to-hand, I choose to believe Jimmy killed him.

Jimmy was living in California when he visited us in the late '40s at our Atlantic Beach, Florida home. My mother had dinner served with a fine tablecloth covering a wrought iron and glass-topped table which sat across the 10-foot width of the southern end of the large screened porch that extended the 30-foot width of the first floor facing the ocean. My older brother and sister were off at school, so there were only my parents and my paternal grandmother at dinner. They were enjoying after-dinner coffee, when Jimmy started to tell us about his nearly being captured while taking soundings in the lagoon of a Japanese-held island whose name I can't recall.

The Marines were planning an amphibious invasion and they had no depth charts for the lagoon waters near the invasion beaches. The Japanese military had abused and sometimes enslaved the native peoples on islands they occupied and the Polynesians were friendly and helpful to Allied forces.

I sat in rapt attention while Jimmy described crouching in a fishing boat, trying to remain hidden as he sighted points on the reef or island to get a fix on his position, while sounding with a weighted line and marking depths on a chart. One of the natives spotted a Japanese patrol boat approaching and gave a warning. Jimmy squeezed into the bilge beneath a deck made of woven palm mats laid on top of the bamboo ribs that spanned the width of the boat's skeletal frame.

They were hailed by the patrol and boarded by two or three Japanese sailors. I was mesmerized as Jimmy described how his weighted line was running up and over the side while he continued to take soundings until Japanese boots landed on the mats that covered and concealed him. The three natives were fishing with several lines in the water and the Japanese sailors failed to notice the extra line, as they walked on top of the eldest son of the President of the United States.

I am sure Jimmy must have, after the war, told Eleanor and others of his close call but it occurred to me that it may not be written or recorded anywhere and I may be the only person alive who actually heard him tell the story of his near capture by the Japanese.

In 1950, Jimmy was defeated by Earl Warren when he ran for governor of California. He was then elected to six terms in Congress from a liberal district in greater Los Angeles. Jimmy was in Congress in '59 when he visited us at our 16 E. Jones St. home in Savannah.[1] I remember him being trim soft-spoken and a couple of inches taller than my 6-foot father. In '65, LBJ appointed him to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Jimmy died in 1991.

My father always said Jimmy was as good a public speaker as FDR and would have been president someday if he hadn't been married and divorced so many (four) times while fathering seven children. In those decades, one divorce might prevent his having any presidential aspirations. Although Jimmy vigorously opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy and was the only representative to vote against appropriations funding the House un-American Activities Committee, he had a lot of other baggage that would have precluded any presidential ambitions.

[1] My mother bought this house and completely refurbished and restored it including central air, modern wiring and the wrought iron frame with the Plexiglas roof that still covers the entrance steps. It is the same house that, at a later time, is in the beginning of chapter 3 in John Berendts' Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.