FDR’s Funeral Train

Posted on June 23, 2011
By Robert Klara

Late into the afternoon of Thursday, March 29, 1945, the warm, languid breezes blowing off the Tidal Basin carried with them the only promise that Washington, D.C., ever entirely keeps: a summer of voracious humidity. But spring still had a few weeks left; this afternoon’s haze was slight. As the setting sun applied its amber brushstrokes to the limestone of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a motorcade turned off 14th Street and made a left onto D, slipping behind the Bureau’s new Annex building. There it disappeared into a rusty fan of railroad tracks that branched from the main line as it curved eastward off the Potomac bridge. The cars’ destination was a spur track and platform, used mostly for the offloading of ink barrels and bolts of the cotton-linen weave that, once they had been spooled into the presses upstairs, would slip away as sheets of United States currency.

The loading platform possessed a second purpose, however, a top secret one1—one that became apparent as the limousines’ engines settled down to an even purr beneath their long hoods and the Secret Service men stepped from the running boards, their hard-soled shoes and the sounds of slamming doors echoing down the concrete platform. Drawn up alongside the idling cluster of automobiles was a train, but this was no string of freight cars. Six coffee-green Pullmans, glistening from a recent bath in the yards, lined up in the shadows. Through the windows, uniformed men could be seen moving up and down the aisles. The preparation for this trip had been under way for several hours. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was leaving town.


The elaborate process of transporting the president began with a telephone call from the White House placed by a man named Dewey Long, a onetime Department of Agriculture employee whose mastery of detailed arrangements had landed him the job of coordinating Roosevelt’s travels. After conferring with Mike Reilly, the White House chief of the Secret Service, Long had called the railroad.2 As Roosevelt’s train usually moved over more than one line, the carriers—the B&O, Southern, and Pennsylvania most commonly— had long ago suspended their usual competitiveness and worked in unison to get the president where he needed to go. Long usually directed his first call to Daniel Moorman, the B&O’s general passenger agent in Washington. (With Moorman in charge, the presidential party could expect, as the staff often termed it, a “happy train” with an indulgent menu.3) For a trip anywhere south of D.C., the phone would also ring on the desk of Luther Thomas, assistant to the Southern’s vice president, a dapper man with graying temples and a pocket kerchief, whose endless responsibilities included dispatching the railroad’s own police force.4 Dewey Long’s receiver was hardly back in its hook when the Southern’s men—maintenance crews, division superintendents, foremen, and trainmasters—began to mobilize. Within the hour, the railroad’s police would begin taking up posts at overpasses and junctions. Plainclothesmen would appear at stations along the route, peering over broadsheets and watching for anyone who struck them as suspicious.5 Track gangs would begin a slow, watchful trek by foot down every mile of track that the president’s train would travel, checking for broken rails and locking switches as they went.6 Soon dispatchers would be overriding the schedules for all passenger trains on the designated route, making sure that none preceded or followed the chief executive’s train by at least thirty minutes. Finally, a pilot locomotive would prepare to depart, solo, a mile ahead of the president, a final and formidable bulwark against any trouble.7

There were times, not long ago, when yardmen had orders to assemble an entire decoy train and send it up the line, all in an effort to confuse and foil saboteurs.8 The fears that led to maneuvering like this were not altogether absurd. It was wartime, and the memory of the December 7, 1941, surprise attack at Pearl Harbor still festered. There had been talk of spies in Washington, some even operating inside the White House itself. Allowing the presidential train to depart from nearby Union Station, one of the busiest railroad terminals in America, was to leave the commander in chief open to plain view. On this afternoon, the United States had been at war for 1,208 days. For that entire time, it had also been under the leadership of one man, the one whose six foot, three-inch frame Mike Reilly now lifted through the rear door of the presidential limousine (the president’s favorite—a four-ton, blue Packard convertible9) and into a wooden wheelchair. With Reilly pushing, the rubberized wheels trundled toward a private Pullman car at the rear of the train. The car’s name was Ferdinand Magellan.

Franklin Roosevelt had just turned sixty-three. An attack of poliomyelitis had left him paralyzed from the waist down for twenty-four of those years. Polio was part of the reason why Mike Reilly had chosen this secret train platform for the chief executive’s departures—FDR’s paralysis had been largely concealed from public view with the cooperation of a gentlemanly press corps. But polio was not responsible for the president’s pallid skin and sagging shoulders as he rose to the Magellan’s open vestibule via a hydraulic lift anchored to the car’s underframe. Nor was it—clinically, at least—the grueling “Big Three” meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, a round trip of 14,000 miles, from which Roosevelt recently returned looking haggard, frail, and bloodless.

The culprit was hypertensive heart disease. Under mounting pressure from FDR’s daughter, Anna, FDR’s personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, had reluctantly sent his charge for a workup with Dr. Howard G. Bruenn, a cardiologist at Bethesda Naval Hospital.10 Bruenn’s first examination of the president the previous March revealed the true nature of a problem that Dr. McIntire had been whitewashing with diagnoses including bronchitis, a head cold, and a need for sunshine.11 When Bruenn removed the pressure cuff from Roosevelt’s arm as recently as December 6, he’d tallied a reading of 260/150, and such stratospheric numbers, it had emerged, were hardly unusual for Roosevelt. Nor was the problem that faced every cardiologist of the time: No medications existed to reduce extreme blood pressure on the body’s arterial walls. As Bruenn would later attest, about all the president could do was lose weight, sleep, and limit his stress. In the end, though, he had little to do but wait for what Bruenn termed a “pop,” a neat but ghastly euphemism for a stroke or a vascular hemorrhage.12

Shortly before the president’s motorcade had left the White House, butler Alonzo Fields had overheard fellow staffer John Mays do something rare for a doorman—voice his opinion. As Admiral McIntire passed, Mays had taken the doctor aside. “I know it is none of my business, sir,” the doorman whispered. “But the President looks very bad to me. Don’t you think you should have gone with him?”

“I don’t think he’ll need me,” McIntire answered, not unkindly. “However, if it will make you feel any better, I have assigned the Navy’s top man [Dr. Bruenn] to go with him.” McIntire paused, then said of the president: “I am sure he will come back a different man.”13

With the exception of Dr. Bruenn and Anna Roosevelt, none of the presidential entourage assembled on the platform beneath the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on this fading afternoon knew about the president’s specific condition. What they did know was what they could see, and that was that their chief needed a rest, desperately. Those who later would write about this trip would recall a shared feeling of hope—albeit a taut, nervous hope—that it would return the old FDR to them, the one whose jaunty manner and sparkling smile had recently disappeared beneath a drawn face and hands that shook so badly he could hardly get a lit match to the tip of his cigarette. The chief’s all-too-apparent exhaustion was why, in a few more minutes, once the cooks had finished stocking the dining car’s pantries and the conductor had given his pocket watch a final glimpse before stepping aboard, this train would be heading south.

The train was bound for a hamlet outside Atlanta known as Warm Springs, a sleepy, rural resort that drew thousands of polio patients to thermal pools whose warmth and high mineral content were known to add buoyancy to atrophied legs. It was also, aside from his boyhood home in Hyde Park, New York, the president’s favorite place in the world. On the hilly, secluded grounds of Warm Springs, a man accustomed to silk bow ties and walnut-paneled libraries lived in a simple plank cottage built on a foundation of fieldstones. The press called the place “the Little White House.”14

Integral to the small miracle of coordination and secrecy required to prepare the presidential train, even for a short trip like this one, were code words. “U.S. 1” was the name that the Secret Service preferred over Ferdinand Magellan, whose name didn’t appear anywhere on the car’s 5/8-inch-thick steel skin. There was “The Informer,” the name coined for FDR’s Scottie dog, Fala, who accompanied the chief everywhere he went and could be counted on to blow his cover.15 Finally, there was the code word for the train itself: POTUS. The clunky and undignified ring to the acronym couldn’t have been more at variance with the consequence of its namesake: President of the United States. On a superintendent’s lips or on a brass-pounder’s key, a single mention of POTUS could bring a railroad’s entire system to a halt, diverting every eye, ear, and hand to the safe conduction of the president over the high iron.

Roosevelt’s staffers climbed out of the motorcade and made their way to the ten-car train, toting along all the materials required to conduct the presidency some 720 miles away from Pennsylvania Avenue. Grace Tully, Roosevelt’s trusted secretary, recalled taking a “tremendous stack of letters and bills” in addition to “the usual leisure-time paraphernalia, [FDR’s] stamp collection, catalogue and equipment.”16 Someone hoisted aboard a huge wooden box stuffed with books, which the president intended to sort and autograph. Although Tully would not think much of it at the time, she recalled later that Roosevelt twice referred to the wooden box of books as a “coffin.”17 Tully’s typist, Dorothy Brady, accompanied her. Presidential assistant and trusted letter writer William Hassett, functioning as press secretary in place of Steve Early, who would be staying behind, walked toward the train along with his secretary, Alice Winegar. Louise Hackmeister—“Hacky,” as everyone knew her—went along to handle the telephone switchboard once the train reached Georgia.

Franklin D. Roosevelt funeral train enroute to Hyde Park, 04/15/1945. Credit: National Archives.

Also along for this trip were two passengers who had no official titles or duties but upon whom the weary president had become as dependent as he was on Dr. Bruenn: Laura “Polly” Delano and Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, two Roosevelt cousins who had recently come down from Hyde Park for no other purpose than to keep the president company. With First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt so often away, delivering lectures and doing the sort of domestic glad-handing that FDR often could not do himself, that duty had of late been taken up full time by Anna Roosevelt. But she, too, would be staying behind for this trip. Her six-year-old son, Johnny, was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a voracious glandular infection. The doctors were giving the boy penicillin, a potent and experimental new drug used only in serious cases.18

Dewey Long grabbed the handrails and trotted up into one of the Pullmans, as did Lieutenant Commander George Fox, who sometimes gave rubdowns to the president. Leighton McCarthy, the Canadian ambassador who had somehow also found the time to be a trustee of Warm Springs, was along for the trip, too, as was Toinette “Toi” Bachelder, who had once been a patient of the Springs until FDR hired her as an assistant on his White House staff. Three seasoned reporters (dubbed the “Three Musketeers”) would be riding with POTUS, as they usually did: Harold Oliver of the Associated Press, Robert Nixon from the International News Service, and Merriman Smith from the United Press. For the newsmen, duty on the chief’s train wasn’t just a plum assignment, it was mostly downtime; little important news broke while the president was at Warm Springs.

“It was a smaller party than usual,” as Tully recalled, but it was still a considerable group.19 Representatives from the Southern Railway and from the Pullman Company—along to attend to such details as FDR’s preference for pheasant and terrapin on the menu and his insistence that the train’s speed stay below 30 miles per hour, allowing him to wheel himself around without having to anchor his wheelchair20—dropped their suitcases in the carpeted aisles of the sleeper Imperator. The Secret Service detail made its way down to its own Pullman, the sleeper/lounge Conneaut. The Conneaut was always coupled one up from the Ferdinand Magellan with its lounge section facing aft so the agents could keep an eye on FDR’s car, a task aided considerably by the lounge car’s large observation windows.

The non–Secret Service passengers found compartments—or, if they were of a loftier rank, staterooms—aboard the Pullmans Glen Doll and Wordsworth. But the enviable quarters were aboard the Hillcrest Club, which, in addition to its eight spacious rooms, harbored a lounge at one end with soft, low chairs perfect for reading in and wooden tables just big enough for a game of cards. Coupled one up from the Conneaut, Southern Railway dining car No. 3155 served everybody on its linen draped tables except, of course, for the president, who was served his meals in the Ferdinand Magellan’s dining room on the presidential china, kept in four cabinets with felt-lined drawers.21

A thin, distinguished-looking black man named Fred Fair did the serving, and just about everything else aboard the Magellan. Attired in his white Pullman jacket, Fair was the one man who never left the president’s car, even when it idled between trips in the forgotten corners of railroad yards for weeks at a time. Born in 1898, Fair knew the Magellan and its countless quirky features: the cigar holders in the bathrooms, the fact that the car’s rear door opened only from the inside. Fair had once saved a Secret Service agent trapped out on the vestibule from asphyxiating just as POTUS entered a smoke-filled tunnel.22 A repository of countless overheard secrets, Fred Fair still remembered how embarrassed FDR had been the day the two had first met, years before, when “the Boss”—as most everyone called FDR, including those who did not work for him—had fished in this pockets for change but found them empty. “I want to tip these people,” FDR had whispered to an aide.23 The leader of the free world who was concerned about tipping a Pullman porter—that was the president that Fred Fair knew.

While the trusted porter darted around the car, making final preparations, the Army’s communications men were warming up the equipment inside B&O car No. 1401, a rolling nerve center tucked up near the locomotives. Converted from an ordinary baggage car by the White House Signal Detachment in 1942, the No. 1401 had more rivets in its skin than a suspension bridge. Stuffing its insides were two Federal BC-339 transmitters, several 50-watt FM transmitters, cipher machines, and a gaggle of telephone and teletype equipment, all ready to keep the Boss connected to any office, embassy, or house of state the world over.24

Suddenly the sound of scraping metal split the air as men slid massive ramps down from the deck of B&O baggage car No. 748. One by one, the limousines dropped into gear and rumbled up the ramps into the cavernous darkness of the railroad car. The maneuver required both planning and fancy clutch work, but after a few minutes four of the cars—including at least one of the Secret Service’s 1938 Cadillacs, rolling arsenals stuffed with pistols and ammunition boxes—rested inside the railroad car, their chrome bumpers just inches apart. No. 748 was an end-loader; once its heavy doors were closed and latched, the pair of locomotives could back down and couple to the train.25

Though she would be staying in Washington to be with her sick boy, Anna had come to see her father, and his train, off. But first, she took Grace Tully aside to speak to her in private. “Grace,” she said, “I wish you would try to have Father work a little bit each day on his mail. If he doesn’t, he will get terribly behind and I think it is good to keep him busy.”26

It was a strange request. Tully had pinned her hopes on this trip rejuvenating the president as Warm Springs had done so many times in the past. The retreat was an opportunity for less work, not more of it. But Anna, like everyone else who’d grown worried about the president’s increasingly haggard appearance, had been groping for a solution, the magic blend of the rest FDR needed and the complexities of his office that he’d once thrived on, to somehow rekindle her father’s effervescence and kinetic charm. Anna had watched her father’s inexorable decline, perceived Bruenn’s helplessness to halt it, and was desperate.

As the Magellan’s elevator reached the deck of the car, someone—probably FDR’s longtime valet, a refrigerator-size black man named Arthur Prettyman—threw his weight into pulling open the rear door. A welcome, air-conditioned breeze rushed through the gap. FDR must have smiled; immobile legs he could handle, but the heat of Washington—in evidence even on this March day—was known to wither the president’s spirits. The door closed as heavily as it had opened; it weighed 1,500 pounds.27

Everything on the Ferdinand Magellan weighed too much, but that had been the idea. Three years earlier, during the dark, first days of the war, Steve Early and Mike Reilly had decided that it would not do to have the president of the United States traveling around in an ordinary Pullman. At the time, seven Pullmans, all built in 1929 as part of the same lot, had formed the presidential railroad fleet. Early and Reilly chose the Ferdinand Magellan to be sent to Pullman’s Calumet shops outside Chicago for a special overhaul.

Workers stripped the Magellan down to its ribs, reinforced its frame, and added armor plating and three-inch-thick bulletproof glass. It was said that the Magellan was strong enough to withstand a fall of over a hundred feet from a railroad trestle without telescoping.28 If anyone aboard happened to survive such a plummet, roof hatchways offered an escape (though not, ironically, for a paralyzed president). The Ferdinand Magellan tipped the scales at over 142 tons; other Pullman cars of its vintage weighed only 80. It was a boulder, or more like an entire mountain; it was a literal rolling fortress with a president inside. One locomotive engineer said that the Magellan “drag[ged] like a brick bat on the tail of a kite.”29 Because of the car’s weight, trainmen usually were forced to add an extra locomotive up front to make sure that POTUS could make it over the steep grades.

While the Magellan’s interior was spare compared to the lavish Victorian clutter that ran riot within the White House, the Pullman was plenty fancy. Entering through the vestibule’s heavy door, the visitor stepped into an observation lounge packed with stuffed, velvety armchairs in shades of rust, green, and blue. Draperies hung from each of the room’s eight windows. Gleaming deco ashtrays sprouted like chrome fountains from the carpeted floor.

A settee stood against the bulkhead that gave onto a two-foot-wide corridor on the port side that stretched past four staterooms, each with a wooden door—“A” through “D” as one walked forward. Of all the rooms, “C” was the biggest. It was the president’s room. Fitted with a highboy dresser, chair, telephone, and eagle-print bedspread, it wore a coat of baby blue paint, cheered further by cream-white curtains. The corridor’s opposite end opened onto a large meeting room that doubled as a dining area. This room was, in both spirit and intent, a rolling Oval Office and, except for its rectangular shape, it looked the part. Panels of richly carved limed oak covered the walls below an ivory-colored ceiling accented in gold. An American flag on a freestanding pole graced one corner. Dominating the room was a mahogany table large enough to fit eight chairs, each upholstered in a satin damask of gold and green stripes. At night, light spilling from the gold wall sconces suffused the space in an amber glow.30

As the populist president knew well, his Pullman was far nicer than the spaces most Americans called home, and he treasured the car accordingly, never seeming to lose the boyish thrill he felt each time he rode in it. The Magellan belonged, technically, to the Association of American Railroads, but it was never presumed to be anything other than the Boss’s car.

He’d christened the Pullman himself a few days shy of Christmas 1942. Half-sunk destroyers still jutted from oil slicks at Pearl Harbor, and FDR—secreted to the basement platform in the bowels of the Engraving and Printing building—had hardly grown used to the mania over his safety. Hassett had been aboard that night and later wrote that “immediately upon coming aboard, the President inspected the car from end to end and gave it his approval.”31 Daisy Suckley related to her diary: “Great excitement over the new car. Decoration is grey-blue & tan—Very nice. Fala tried all the chairs & decided he liked the one with the arms upholstered.”32

Now, on this fading March afternoon in 1945, Roosevelt had boarded his beloved Pullman once more. Like everyone else aboard, Fred Fair noticed that FDR looked tired, but he didn’t appear as troubled by the president’s appearance as the others. The porter’s opinion was based largely on Admiral McIntire—specifically, his absence. If Mr. Roosevelt’s own doctor wasn’t coming, Fair reasoned, how bad could things be?33 Still, there were obvious signs of trouble that did not require a Navy physician to notice. In earlier, easier times, the president would have stayed in the Ferdinand Magellan’s observation lounge to play cards and mix his favorite cocktail (Old Fashioneds—good and strong) as he, Fala, and their guests sank into the armchairs. But the familiar sound of ice dropping into tumblers would not be heard on this trip. Wheeled down the narrow corridor, FDR stopped at the door to bedroom “C,” where, between the cool cotton sheets, he promptly went to sleep.34

It was time to go. The porters dropped and locked the vestibule hatchways as the first, tentative tugs of the engines coaxed a rusty protest from the train’s wheel trucks. The brakes relinquished their grip and POTUS snaked out onto the Maryland Avenue main line, following the bend to the southwest that took the train onto the Potomac River bridge. As the engines turned their noses toward the setting sun, gold light danced along the string of windows and across the wide planks of riveted steel that wore a dignified coat of Pullman green. Inside, communications men donned headphones, journalists unpacked typewriters, dining-car cooks prepared to start serving dinner, and a lone black Scottie whose silver collar tag read “I belong to the President”35 made himself comfortable in the Magellan’s lounge.

The evening of Thursday, March 29, 1945, would be the last time POTUS carried a living Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Upon its return two weeks later—to the same city, via the same tracks, made up of the same cars—it would carry the thirty-second president’s mortal remains. In the newspapers, it would no longer be POTUS, or “Roosevelt’s train” or “the Presidential Special.” It would be, simply, “the funeral train.”


Excerpted from FDR’s Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance by Robert Klara. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan in the US, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

ROBERT KLARA is the author of the critically acclaimed book FDR’s Funeral Train. Salon called him “one of the most engaging writers you’ll ever read.” His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, American Heritage, and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book is The Hidden White House.

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