With War Looming in Europe in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt Will Personally Witness U.S. Naval War Readiness Exercises

Defending the east coast of the U.S. against invasion, and developing tactics relating to aircraft carriers, were the prime focuses of the event.

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“I am off I hope in February for somewhere to the eastward of Barbados – Fleet Problem no. XX. You will not read much about it in the paper, but I will tell you about it on your way north.”

President Roosevelt was appalled by the dictators in Europe and Asia, and...

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With War Looming in Europe in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt Will Personally Witness U.S. Naval War Readiness Exercises

Defending the east coast of the U.S. against invasion, and developing tactics relating to aircraft carriers, were the prime focuses of the event.

“I am off I hope in February for somewhere to the eastward of Barbados – Fleet Problem no. XX. You will not read much about it in the paper, but I will tell you about it on your way north.”

President Roosevelt was appalled by the dictators in Europe and Asia, and by the appeasement of them. He saw before most that war was coming, and that the United States would be drawn into it. He wanted the U.S. military to be strong and ready, believing that “We must and will marshal our great potential strength to fend off war from our shores.”

“Fleet Problem” was the term used by the U.S. Navy to describe 21 large-scale naval war-readiness exercises conducted between 1923 and 1940. The nation’s leadership used these exercises to understand, exploit and incorporate new technologies and capabilities, while developing tactics, training and procedures to employ should war present itself. Conducted in all the major waters adjacent to the U.S., these Fleet Problems covered the gamut of naval warfare from convoy duty, strike warfare and sea control. Most important, perhaps, was that this was the laboratory that tested the emerging idea of putting aircraft at sea on board aircraft carriers.

As war loomed imminently in Europe in 1939, Fleet Problem No. XX took place in February in the Caribbean and Atlantic. It was personally witnessed at sea by President Roosevelt from the battleship USS Pennsylvania. From the time he had served as Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920, FDR took a lively interest in all matters pertaining to the Navy. This 1939 exercise simulated the defense of the east coast of the United States and Latin America by the Black team from the invading White team. Participating in the maneuvers were 134 ships, 600 planes, and over 52,000 officers and men. Both commanders managed their air forces well, each concentrating his efforts at destroying his enemy’s air power before going after his battle fleet. Each had made carriers the center piece of independent task forces, a decision that would prove wise in the war just two years ahead.

Commander George C. Sweet was a U.S. Navy officer significant in promoting the early use of aircraft by the Navy. In September 1908, then-Lieutenant Sweet, serving as a Naval observer, reported favorably on the Wright Brothers airplane demonstration at Fort Meyer, near Washington, D.C. In 1909 Sweet was taken up with the Wright Brothers first Army flyer, becoming the first Navy officer to travel in an airplane. Sweet was then assigned to the Navy’s school for airplane instruction, and was thereafter a Navy engineer in Washington, specializing in steam engines. In early 1919 Sweet was named assistant to the Naval Attache at the American embassy in Paris, a particularly plum posting as the peace conference to end World War I was being carried on in Versailles.

Franklin D. Roosevelt followed in his cousin’s footsteps to fame by serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920. He was a prime advocate of naval aviation, and against strong opposition is credited with preserving the Navy’s air arm from demobilization after World War I. He surely met Sweet in his capacity of promoting naval aviation. Roosevelt was called to Paris to join President Wilson at the Versailles Conference in January 1919. According to the Sweet descendants, FDR and Commander Sweet forged a friendship onboard ship, clearly indicating that the two men were passengers on the USS George Washington together in 1919, though whether on the sailing in January or return in July (or both) is not known.

Roosevelt was a careful man, aware that his statements must be made guardedly to avoid giving aid and opportunity to his political enemies. His public correspondence was generally drafted by aides, and was measured, serious, deliberate and discreet. However, the private FDR was outgoing, humorous and frank, the life of the party, and when he corresponded with those he could trust, this side could show through. Sweet was such a man.  We recently obtained this letter directly from the Sweet descendants.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, January 24, 1939, to Sweet, saying he is leaving for the Fleet Problem. “Many thanks for the information about my ex-boat. After she came up all standing in the middle of the pine forest, I sold her to somebody who was going to use her as a bungalow, dance hall, saloon or some similar purpose, and I am sorry to know that she has gone up in smoke. Glad your medico has made interesting discoveries about your anatomy, and that your cough has been cured by the application of corn plasters to your toe –  or some such treatment! I am off I hope in February for somewhere to the eastward of Barbados – Fleet Problem no. XX. You will not read much about it in the paper, but I will tell you about it on your way north.” The original White House envelope is still present.

Interestingly, FDR explicitly states that he will discuss the results of the top secret exercise with Sweet. Also noteworthy is the fact that the battleship Pennsylvania, on which Roosevelt viewed Fleet Problem XX, was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the day that FDR famously said would live in infamy. She was strafed and had crew killed, but the Japanese failed to sink her.

This historic letter appears to be unpublished, as we can find no mention of it. It remained in the hands of the Sweet descendants until now, and has never before been offered for sale.

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