The WriterJack Archives


Jack has written hundreds of columns over the years, on scores of topics. Here in the archives, we will present you with selected works that were previously published.

From October 2011 - TimeOut: Today we present a column from 6 years ago detailing the long and storied history of Camp David.

Shangri-La: Where WWII Decisions Were Made

Most believe that the White House was the place where decisions were made during the days of World War II. It was the secure place Americans expected their president to be during critical times. Rarely did news organizations get advance warning of pending battle decisions. Sometimes it was days or months later.

But the White House wasn't a war room like Churchill had or a bunker like Hitler had where he gave frenzied orders. A number of decisions were mulled over, debated and finalized at a remote location in the Catoctin Mountain, Maryland, about 60 miles from Washington, DC informally called Shangri-La. That's where President Franklin Roosevelt casually gave attention to crisis matters while fishing with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Big or Little Hunting Creek or having cocktails on the veranda of the Main Lodge. The process was that simple. Information was funneled through the White House but Roosevelt liked the informality and secrecy that surrounded his mountaintop hideaway. Who wouldn't? Its whereabouts didn't become known except to a special few until near the end of the war when a society reporter for the Washington Post indirectly broke the story. Until then, FDR loved it; he liked the intrigue, the ambiance, the banter and the interplay with military officials who traveled back and forth from Washington, bureaucrats and friends on his turf at his convenience at the camp. For example, the first visitor at Camp David at Shangri-La from Europe was an unidentified Dutch general in late August accompanied by US Gen. Hap Arnold.

He rarely invited congressional leaders from either party to join him at Shangri-La but, of course, to have a gathering with any of them would have sprung the leak in the leakiest city in the country. The security during WWII was perhaps the tightest ever devised in the United States. It began shortly after Pearl Harbor when the president called on an old college friend, William "Wild Bill" Donovan, to put together the Office of War Information. It later became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and launched America's entrance into espionage and counter-insurgency. It was clearly FDR's war to lose if you consider that through the dark days of December 7, 1941 to April, 1942, what information media carried was ominous. Shocking headline stories from London told of the bombardment of the British homeland and Asia where British and American forces were surrendering by the thousands to brutal Japanese troops in places like Singapore and the Philippines.

Imagine what it was like Christmas Day, 1941, 18 days after the Pearl Harbor attack. Said the president of the World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA, "Millions of young men who were enlisted or were drafted in those first few weeks after the attack prepared to leave their homes and familiesÖ" The first evacuees arrived in San Francisco on Christmas Day. Many of the women aboard that ship were newly widowed or didn't yet know what happened to their husbands. Still, every day they helped roll bandages and dressings for the wounded on board. On Christmas Eve, Winston Churchill joined President Roosevelt for the lighting of the national Christmas tree. Said Churchill that night: "Resolve that by our sacrifice and daring these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world." Yet, it was a different, violent world that Americans were seeing in newspapers and hearing on the radio.

Donovan, a legendary World War I hero called the "Father of Central Intelligence," was a Columbia University Law graduate and lawyer, and the man FDR felt had the toughness and experience to lead a US strategy assault on the Axis powers.

Meanwhile, the Catoctin site gave the president the chance to secretly plan a dramatic change in the news; Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's brash B-25 Tokyo bombing raid. It was a huge gamble that planners knew would cost lives when it was clear that the crews couldn't return to the carrier that launched them. There was a chance but it became even slimmer with weather reports. But FDR and top military administrators felt it was a necessary sacrifice for the American people and a world watching the Axis powers devour Allied territory and forces.

The code name for the raid---Shangri-La---symbolized the importance of the event and the spot where it was conceived. The president, it was said, was reading James Hilton's popular novel "Lost Horizon" which featured a fictitious secluded mountaintop of the same name. The raid came just nine days after the United States was notified it had lost 36,000 dead, wounded or missing defenders in the battle of Bataan on the Philippine Islands. When asked by a reporter where US war planes could have flown from to make the bombing run, FDR jauntily replied they came from "Shangri-La" without identifying a base. Some believe it took the president considerable time to realize that the war wasn't in far away lands or a "lost horizon" either.

He knew he was secure at Shangri-La. "When Catoctin area was placed on the list of possible sites, the Secret Service checked the area thoroughly, walking back and forth through the surrounding woods, examining the mountain roads, learning who lived in the community, testing the soundness of camp buildings and finally flying many times overhead," said the Guided Tour of Camp David web site, "Their report was favorable. They were particularly pleased that the natural wood buildings were all but invisible from the air because of the dense forest growth around them. In the summer the buildings were almost invisible unless a plane flew very low. The highway which ran to the entrance was a prohibited thoroughfare with limited access. A ten foot barbed wire overhang encircled the compound. Sentry booths were regularly spaced and each location was equipped with a telephone for general alarm if necessary. In addition, flood lights around the compound were controlled by a single switch as was a set of lights around the Presidentís lodge."

Security was augmented by a Marine detachment located next door to Shangri-La at Camp Greentop, which provided sentries to guard the access road to the retreat. Old staff members still remember that there was a single sailor at the sentry cabin during the war years. From 1942 to 1947, Catoctin Mountain was closed to civilians and used by the US military as an operations training base. It was also used by the British government as well. At the invitation of FDR, the British used the rustic site as an R&R location. At the same time, it also became an operations center for the Office of Strategic Services headed by Donovan and his deputy, Capt. Carl Eifler. The two created OSS Detachment 101, an intensive training program for groups of 20 students to learn how to operate behind enemy lines. A number of legendary allied spies trained in the Catoctin Mountain. The number 101 was chosen to give the illusion the group had been in business for some time. Eifler, an imposing 6'2", 250 pound jujitsu expert, took command of the unit in April, 1942, as FDR became a casual resident of the mountaintop.

By August, 1942, workmen had completed 20 duplex cabins and miscellaneous buildings. The camp had become an insulated community seven miles from the village of Thurmont. According to Bill King, a former camp administrator, "These buildings housed overflow guests, regular camp crew and others. Often as many as a hundred people would be on board with the president---his secretaries, their secretaries, a doctor, medical assistant, cryptograpers, radio operators, telephone operators, chauffeurs, valet, movie operators and the US Secret Service." While there were separate quarters for most, Roosevelt got the best laugh about one of his bathroom doors which didn't shut securely. He always amused guests by warning them of the door jam. It wasn't amusing to Eleanor as well as others who spent time with the president at the retreat in the early days. Oddly enough, it was never fixed.

But Shangri-La was built for summer use and temperatures and the tempo of activity at the Catoctin retreat was expected to continue for months beyond August. Consequently, fireplaces were built in buildings that didn't already have them for colder weather, all chimney flues had spark arrestors installed and camp walls were insulated to 8 inches thick.

What was a wartime weekend like at Shangri-La? William Haslett, an assistant to the president, described the beginning of a typical wartime weekend in his book, Off the Record with FDR. "August 28, FridayÖOur cars rolled of the south grounds at 3:55 and having taken a cautious route, reached Shangri-La at 6:05. The president settled himself on the porch to the rear of the cottage; said we would have dinner at 7 and cocktails in 10 minutes. After dinner the president went back to his favorite corner of the porch and asked for his stamps always a diversion." A few weeks before, a Naval aide left Washington with communiques and maps for the president after Marine Corps 1st Division stormed ashore at Guadacanal in the southern Solomons and Roosevelt and aides prepared for a Japanese counterattack.

How did the president and his guests entertain themselves during lulls from the tension?

FDR rarely ventured to Thurmont but he loved being driven around the mountain retreat. One morning, accompanied by a Secret Service agent at the wheel, he took a drive and turned down a lane that led them to a private estate. The president and driver stopped at a caretaker's cottage to determine their location when they were challenged by a small woman carrying a large shotgun who absolutely refused to believe their story. She pointed the weapon at them and they hastily retreated. The next day, the Secret Service requested that the owner of the estate, Charles Paine, visit the White House to discuss the matter. Paine apologized to the president and wrote a permission slip for the president and his emissaries to use the road. There are no records of the president and his driver ever using "Paine's Road" again.

Like any fisherman, the president was secretive not only about battle strategy he was very protective of his favorite trout fishing spots in the nearby creeks. It was known that when the president would be scheduled to go to Shangri-La, the National Park Service would increase the trout population in Big or Little Hunting Creeks. The president would instruct his drivers to take the board road to the old ore pit that formed a wide, deep pond where fishing was reportedly good. He would then instruct a sailor or marine who was with him to row to a special spot. He would relax casting for trout for a number of hours. He didn't ask others to join him nor was he known to tell others about the site.

Other times, he would sit for hours in the small screened porch with a beautiful view of the Catoctin Valley (on clear days) and work on his stamp collection, play solitaire or write his name or initials in his sizable collection of books. Said Harry Hopkins, a longtime aide, of his book signings, it was a small step to prevent theft after noting the loss of several books. "He had started doing this because people were always 'borrowing' books from the White House and not returning them." Others doubted the usefulness of the plan but the president persisted saying it was an effective precaution. In August, 1942, Hopkins said he forgot a book that had been loaned to him and he kept the note to prove "I didnít steal it." The president took such pilfering seriously.

As the first year of the war closed with cities in the western world darkened by blackouts to protect themselves from enemy subs and planes, the atmosphere at Shangri-La improved as a visit by Churchill was planned in the spring of 1943. The British prime minister, Eleanor and Lord Beaverbrook spent two weekends at Shangri-La. While Secret Service men stood on the running boards of the caravan, the caravan of vehicles made the two hour trip and stopped at the intersection in Thurmont. Villagers thronged to see the world leaders. Said Bill King of the bonding of people and leaders: "Another respite enjoyed by the twoÖwas relaxing on the veranda of the Bear's Den with cigars and highballs. The prime minister also enjoyed fishing with the president. The two men would sit side-by-side on portable chairs, the president pole fishing and the prime minister smoking. The cigar smoke created enough of a screen to protect both of them from the mosquitoes, they would sit and talk by the hour." The two spent time during the visits to travel the western Maryland countryside including a side trip to Thurmont.

Communications were primitive but acceptable for the time. During the Roosevelt years, telephone lines and cabling at the top of the mountain incorporated underground telegraph, phones and two private circuit lines in a switchboard and water and power lines that became a busy hub manned by civilian and military personnel.

While White House food was compared to that of a boardinghouse, Hopkins felt the Shangri-La menu "was far better than that in the White House."

Roosevelt and Hopkins, both smokers, spent days in the tiny living/dining room reading dispatches and Hopkins prepared responses. Secretaries dreaded such times. Hopkins' handwritten notes to Churchill, Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek had frequently to be deciphered before they were retyped.

The mood and attitudes changed as the war communiques poured into the White House and were relayed to Shangri-La. For example, the mood after Guadacanal was good within hours but the atmosphere in early November, 1942, was uneasy. The president had just made the decision to invade North Africa and his military commanders were reluctant supporters about the outcome. The concern was the potential loss of men. Zero hour arrived at cocktail time on Saturday as the landing began. To everyone's relief, the allied invaders swept past German and Italian forces four days.

Since presidential aides were scattered among crude pine cabins some without running water, all without bathrooms throughout the camp you can understand the relief of many that FDR only made 23 visits to Shangri-La before he died.

Copyright - John Behrens - 2017