Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 42nd, and Final, Visit to Georgia
March 30 - April 13, 1945
Roosevelt arrived in Warm Springs suffering from exhaustion. The great push to end the war was on, and Roosevelt needed to recuperate to lead it and take part in the momentous events afterward. Total rest was his doctor’s recommendation, and for several days he followed the instructions. Attending Easter services on April 1, there was a noticeable tremor in his movements. He dropped his prayer book and glasses during the service. He did handle a small packet of official matters daily after the first few days of his visit, but most of the time was spent relaxing, riding around in the springtime air, and chatting with companions and friends.
Before long, Warm Springs seemed to be reviving Roosevelt again. As he had his previous visit, he arrived pale and listless. But soon his color and his appetite returned. He began to do more work, preparing a speech for the nation’s Jefferson Day dinners and looking over state papers. He even planned to attend a barbecue the afternoon of April 12, then watch the children of Warm Springs rehearse a minstrel show. It was to be the busy, enjoyable-type social day he had enjoyed at Warm Springs in the early years.
At the Little White House in Warm Springs, Roosevelt slept late on the morning of April 12. The mail had been delayed, so he had few official papers with which to be concerned, plus only one newspaper – the Atlanta Constitution. News from the war in Europe was good, as the United States Ninth Army had reached the Elbe River in Germany the previous day. Roosevelt had a slight headache when he awoke, but was soon up and about. He ate a light breakfast around 9:30 a.m. in preparation for a barbecue planned for that afternoon; he also planned a light lunch. FDR seated himself at his desk to go over some State Department papers, while chatting with two visiting cousins and two other women (see related article on Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd for more details), one of whom was there to do his portrait. A touch of humor had even returned to him as he commented upon one of the official papers: “a typical State Department letter, it says nothing at all.” Source: William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972, (Little, Brown and Company, Boston), p. 347.
Roosevelt continued to sign routine official papers, while the artist worked on her portrait. At 1:00 p.m., he told her that they only had fifteen more minutes before they were to eat lunch and prepare for the barbecue. Actually, the artist was just filling in colors around the portrait [see photo of the unfinished water color on this page], because Roosevelt had slid down in his chair while working and she did not want to disturb him. He continued working and chatting, making another witty remark that a servant noticed had the visiting ladies smiling. He lit a cigarette, then raised his left hand to his forehead and pressed. Suddenly his hand fell, with the fingers twitching. One of his cousins asked if he had dropped something, and he murmured “I have a terrific headache.” Then, Roosevelt’s arm fell to his side, his head sagged, and his entire body slumped in the chair. It was 1:15 p.m.
One of his cousins immediately summoned the doctor who was traveling with the president, while the artist rushed to find a Secret Service agent. Roosevelt stopped breathing for a few seconds. By now, Dr. Howard Bruenn had arrived and discovered the stricken president’s tongue was blocking his throat. Bruenn cleared the blockage, and Roosevelt resumed breathing – but with a harsh, snoring sound. The president’s blood pressure had skyrocketed, and one of his eyes was dilating uncontrollably. The medical prognosis was plain – Roosevelt had suffered what the doctor would characterize as a “massive cerebral hemorrhage.” Bruenn had Roosevelt carried into his bedroom and began administering medicines to lower his blood pressure, but nothing he did had any effect. He called Roosevelt’s doctor in Washington, who confirmed his diagnosis and treatment. Dr. James A. Paullin, a specialist in Atlanta, also was called. Paullin rushed to Warm Springs in only ninety minutes, seeing the stricken president at 3:30 p.m. But there was nothing any of the doctors could have done; the cerebral hemorrhage had been too severe. At 3:35 p.m. President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on his small bed in his small cottage in his beloved second home of Warm Springs, Georgia.
During this time, Eleanor Roosevelt had been in Washington preparing to deliver a speech and attend a concert afterwards. One of FDR’s cousins phoned her from Warm Springs, but only told her that the president had fainted. Another advisor soon called and told her he had arranged for a plane to carry her to Georgia, but he did not tell her the severity of the situation. Eleanor asked if she should cancel her speech; he told her no. She delivered the speech and had begun listening to the musical pieces afterwards when she received another call asking her to return to the White House immediately. Sensing something terrible had happened she rushed to a waiting limousine and was taken to the White House. There, Roosevelt’s press secretary, fighting back tears, told her the president had died. Showing her remarkable courage and presence, she told him to summon Vice President Harry Truman to the White House.
Truman had been presiding over the Senate for most of the afternoon. It finally adjourned for the day at 4:56 p.m., and Truman went to share a drink with a friend. Finally the White House reached him and told him to come there immediately and to come through the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Truman thought Roosevelt must have returned to Washington earlier than expected and wanted to consult with him. But he was met by Eleanor, who put her hand on his shoulder and said “Harry, the President is dead.” (2) Stunned, he asked if there was anything he could do for her. She replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now.” Source (both preceding quotes): William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972, (Little, Brown and Company, Boston), p. 358.
At 5:47 p.m., the White House switchboard notified all the major news services that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died in Warm Springs at 3:35 that afternoon. Within two minutes radio programs nationwide were interrupted to report the tragic news. Reactions ranged from shock to fear. To some young Americans, Roosevelt was the only President they had ever known. And to virtually all Americans, it seemed they had lost not only a leader but a friend who had guided them through the Great Depression and now was leading them toward a great victory over the forces of evil on the battlefields and oceans worldwide.
That evening, Eleanor flew on a military plane to Fort Benning, where she was picked up and driven by car to Warm Springs arriving at 11:30 p.m. She began preparations for the funeral, its procession, and all the other details surrounding a death – all magnified in importance because of the special occasion. Eleanor and the president’s staff worked throughout the night on the details of returning his body to Washington, the official services there, and the final funeral at Hyde Park. The files for the planning of Roosevelt’s funeral were kept on file at the White House and used eighteen years later by Jacqueline Kennedy. One of Roosevelt’s advisors had to travel to Atlanta to find a coffin large enough for his body. The coffin was placed on a bier made of Georgia pine in the last car of the presidential train. His boat cloak was spread across the lower part of his body. An American flag was taken from its pole at the Little White House and draped over the coffin.
Franklin D. Roosevelt left Georgia for the final time on April 13, 1945. One of the traditions at Warm Springs was the Georgia Hall greeting and farewell; Roosevelt would always greet the companions there upon his arrival in Warm Springs, then bid them farewell there as he left. Even in death the tradition was carried out. A military procession from nearby Fort Benning escorted the hearse down the hill from the Little White House to Georgia Hall, with other soldiers lining the roadway. A military band softly played dirges. Where there were usually joyous shouts from the companions to Roosevelt as he departed, now there was the sound of anguished moans and bitter tears. Graham Jackson, a musician who had often played for Roosevelt and had been scheduled to perform in the minstrel show the previous day, stepped from the crowd and, with tears streaming down his face, played Dvorak’s “Going Home” on his accordion [see photo on this page] as Roosevelt made his final departure from Warm Springs.
The train pulled out from Warm Springs around 9:05 AM. The windows on the train car holding Roosevelt’s coffin were left open, and the coffin was easily visible. Thousands of people gathered along the tracks as the train made its way through south and central Georgia to Atlanta. Eleanor was surprised at the response of the people; she had never been an active participant in Roosevelt’s Warm Springs ventures, and rarely stayed long on her visits there. But now she was deeply moved as she witnessed just how strongly the people of Georgia (and other states as the train moved onward) loved him.
The train arrived in Atlanta at 1:30 p.m. on April 13. Soldiers were stationed around the terminal, and countless numbers of Atlantans filled the areas around the train station. Most stores were closed, and all flags were at half-mast. School children throughout Atlanta, Georgia, and the nation met to offer silent prayers for Roosevelt, his family, and his country. Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield boarded the train and offered his condolences to Eleanor, along with a basket of flowers – which was placed at the head of the coffin. After the forty minute stop in Atlanta, the train slowly began its northward trek again, with thousands again lining the tracks – not just outside Atlanta, but at every railroad crossing and town through which it passed. Sometime on the afternoon of April 13, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt crossed the border of Georgia for the last time.
Atlanta Constitution writer Ralph McGill was overseas when Roosevelt died, and eloquently expressed his, and most of the world’s, emotions upon hearing the news:
“To a Georgian far from home there was a sudden and bitter nostalgia for home at the news of the President’s passing in Warm Springs. I could see the dogwood in bloom and the green of the trees. I knew that the peach blossoms were out and that the warm Georgia sun had been like a benediction to the tired body of the ailing president. And I wanted to be home with my own fellow Georgians as they mourned him. It was said of Abraham Lincoln when death claimed him that a tree is measured best when it is down. So it will be with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The tree is down and the historians will begin to measure and will find what the hearts of millions of Americans and peoples of the world already knew, that here was the tallest man America has ever given the world.” Source: Atlanta Constitution, April 14, 1945, p. 4.