“You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. In journalist Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s detail-rich and revealing account, The First Lady of World War II: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Daring Journey to the Frontlines and Back, it is abundantly clear that the four-term first lady lived her words. Beginning as a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, and later as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife and widow, she was a powerful voice for pacifism and economic and racial equality. She was derided during her lifetime for her forays into men’s worlds of work and war, but that didn’t stop her from embarking on a perilous journey to visit American troops in the South Pacific during World War II.
The first lady’s 1943 tour started in secret, as an attempt to evade misogynistic criticisms from press and politicians. When the news broke that she was amid the fierce, ongoing war with Japan, she was pilloried. Disdain and skepticism awaited her when she met the military men in command. Admiral “Bull” Halsey said he didn’t have time to entertain a “do-gooder.” General Douglas MacArthur refused to allow her to visit his post in Papua New Guinea. Yet, flying in freezing military planes, often under cover of darkness to avoid detection, Roosevelt visited Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and 17 islands, including Bora Bora, Christmas Island and Guadalcanal, over the course of five weeks. She went from bed to bed in hospitals, offering to bring messages home to the families of wounded soldiers and letting the troops know she was there because their president wanted to know how they were doing.
What was first viewed as a political stunt soon earned Roosevelt the admiration of Halsey and others, many of whom couldn’t keep up with her. She ate with the enlisted men, slept in huts, took cold showers and wrote it all down in her syndicated news column, “My Day.” In New Zealand and Australia, she visited factories and farms where women did the work that men were no longer available for. She wore a Red Cross uniform she paid for herself, just as she funded her entire trip. While some people back in America groused that Roosevelt should “stay at home, where a wife belongs,” the troops she met with gushed, “She’s just like your mother, isn’t she?”
After witnessing firsthand the horrific combat conditions for servicemen in the South Pacific theater, Roosevelt became a force for improving their lives as veterans. The GI Bill of Rights would help prevent the shameful treatment and broken promises that World War I veterans had endured. Roosevelt’s role as a delegate in the nascent United Nations also had its roots in this journey, which continued to haunt her throughout her life. As Schmidt powerfully conveys, it was a trip that changed many lives, especially Roosevelt’s.