ROCKLAND, Maine — It was midsummer, just four months before America’s entry into World War II when the presidential yacht Potomac, with Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard, steamed past the breakwater into Rockland Harbor, much to the surprise and delight of the Lime City.
The unexpected visit occurred 70 years ago this week and came after the conclusion of a top-secret summit meeting between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill off Newfoundland.
Although Maine had not been friendly to Roosevelt — the state had supported his Republican opponents in the 1932, 1936 and 1940 elections — official Rockland and its residents welcomed the president with open arms when the Potomac landed at Tillson’s Wharf on Aug. 16, 1941.
The presidential party proceeded by motorcade from the dock to the Maine Central Railroad station on Pleasant Street a short distance away. The streets along the route were lined with well-wishers, and hordes packed the railyard to get a glimpse of Roosevelt.
“I was only 9 years old at the time and didn’t know a heck of a lot about the war situation, but the fact the president was in Rockland was a big deal, even to us kids,” retired Bangor Daily News Rockland Bureau Chief Ted Sylvester recalled last week.
Sylvester grew up on McLoud Street in the city’s South End. He and his friends spent a lot of time hanging out at the nearby train station, playing along the tracks and watching the locomotives come and go. He recalled having a hard time peeking above the crowd to catch a view of the president, but managed to see him as the presidential train left the station.
“The president was standing on the platform and as the train pulled away from the station, I ran up the tracks after it,’’ Sylvester said. “There is an old newsreel of a kid dressed in knickers running after the train. Nobody believes it, but that kid was me.’’
Fifty years later, Sylvester, Thomas Molloy and Gilbert Merriam published their popular history, “Homefront on Penobscot Bay: Rockland During the War Years,’’ and timed its release with an anniversary celebration at the former train station. A bronze plaque heralding the presidential visit was unveiled by former U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith at the dedication.
The hullabaloo in Rockland was unexpected because Roosevelt had informed the press and the nation that he was embarking on a “fishing trip,‘’ when he boarded the Potomac two weeks earlier. The actual purpose of the trip was to confer with Churchill firsthand off Newfoundland about the ongoing war in Europe.
The result of the meeting between the two leaders just before the Rockland visit was the Atlantic Charter, which established certain goals in the event the U.S. was drawn into the European war, as well as an attempt to define a political vision upon the war’s conclusion.
At the time of the meeting, Nazi Germany had conquered much of Western Europe and its forces were in the process of rampaging across the Soviet Union, which they had attacked by surprise in June.
England was virtually alone in the West against the Nazi juggernaut, and the forces of Japan in the East. Churchill desperately needed America to come to its assistance. He got his wish in the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, and Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. a few days later.
At the same time Roosevelt was transferring from the Potomac to the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, Churchill slipped out of London and boarded the battleship HMS Prince of Wales in Scotland. Escorted by their fleets, the two leaders rendezvoused off Argentia, Newfoundland. The leaders announced their agreement on Aug. 14, and Roosevelt proceeded to Rockland.
An article published in the Island Institute’s Island Journal marking the 60th anniversary of Roosevelt’s landing stated that Rockland was chosen because it had one of the largest sheltered harbors on the East Coast, with a direct rail link to Washington, D.C. Roosevelt had sailed the waters of Penobscot Bay en route to his family’s summer home on Campobello Island, New Brunswick.
When the Potomac landed at Tillson’s Wharf, where Coast Guard Station Rockland is located today, Roosevelt was greeted by a large contingent of newspaper reporters and cameramen. Asked whether he believed America was moving closer to war, Roosevelt replied, “I should say no.’’ Most of those present realized that was not the case, the article stated.
“To see Rockland featured on the newsreels at the movies back then was a big deal,’’ Sylvester recalled.
Although a number of presidential candidates, including Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, made stops in Rockland over the years, Roosevelt was the last sitting president to visit the city.