Captain McCrea’s War: History told by a Gifted Raconteur

SkyhorseBooks0 Comments

By Julia C. Tobey, Guest Blogger

Few first-time authors are published long after their death, but Vice Admiral John L. McCrea was always exceptional. His memoir, Captain McCrea’s War: The World War II Memoir of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Naval Aide and the USS Iowa’s First Commanding Officer, was released last November, 26 years after his passing. The story of the memoir and its journey to publication is a tale of commitment by a few—the John McCrea fan club, if you will–to the author and his legacy.

John McCrea was charming and unpretentious, with a fine sense of humor, a love of history, and a steel-trap memory. He enjoyed people and was devoted to the navy. Through hard work, chance, and luck of his own making, he had an extraordinary naval career, and as a gifted raconteur, he enjoyed sharing stories about his experiences with others. As his stepdaughter for 25 years, I was fascinated by his stories, which were wide ranging, vivid, and often amusing. Those from WW II included unusual assignments at the White House, the concerns of a commanding officer preparing for battle, and McCrea’s personal dealings with FDR, Winston Churchill, and a seemingly endless array of world-famous figures.

Historians and novelist Herman Wouk sought McCrea out to interview him. Many urged him to write a book, but he had no interest. However, when he was his 80s, after his retirement from the navy and a second career, he undertook to record some reminiscences for his family.

His wrote out scripts and dictated them onto cassette tapes. He apparently chose this method to share his story with a disabled friend with whom he corresponded by cassette. The friend was an interested and supportive audience and duplicated the tapes for family members. In the end, McCrea dictated 48 cassettes. He died in 1990 at the age of 98.

Excited by the tapes’ potential, I contacted a naval historian at the U.S. Naval Institute who had interviewed McCrea. He had been greatly taken with McCrea’s personality and stories, and was thrilled that McCrea had made a substantial record of his life. Arrangements were made to have the tapes transcribed, but the process was not completed until after McCrea’s death, and the transcripts lay fallow for a time.

In the late 1990s, I began to slowly edit the transcripts. The naval historian remained involved and served as an essential adviser on all things naval. Eventually, I shaped the World War II material into a book. As others read the manuscript, the McCrea fan club gained a few new members, and all celebrated when the book finally found a publisher. It had been a long journey, but John McCrea made an excellent companion.

I have chosen an excerpt from the book that illustrates McCrea’s effectiveness in dealing with a matter that remains an issue today, the conflict between the executive and the press over news coverage. Some background may be helpful. McCrea served naval aide to FDR during the first year of the war. His job at the White House was to perform whatever tasks the president assigned. He had many challenging assignments, of which this is one.

In the late thirties and early forties, Elmer Davis was a well- known newsman and news broadcaster with a considerable following. Mr. Davis was one of the regular attendees of the president’s news conferences, and his pointed questions and remarks reflected criticism of the quantity and quality of the war news released by the administration. He was particularly persistent in asking about U.S. war losses. The president, as always, was exceedingly tactful in handling Mr. Davis.

I vividly recall the distress in the president’s voice one day after a press conference when he said: “John, catch Elmer Davis before he gets away. Take him aside and see if you can get across to him the idea that he can’t publish everything he wants to about our losses. Steve Early [the president’s press secretary] tells me he can make no headway with him, and I haven’t the time to take him on.”

I caught Mr. Davis and tried to explain that the release of information about war losses, particularly those unknown to the enemy, created serious problems for the administration and the armed services. Mr. Davis was, I thought, remarkably naïve. He responded, “The American public has a right to know what’s going on. If the administration released a daily summary of U.S. losses, the information would only be covered in the U.S. press, and the enemy would know nothing about it. I suspect you fellows in the military have something to cover up if you don’t want your losses known in this country.”

“Mr. Davis,” said I, “I don’t know you well, but you have a fine reputation among the news fraternity, and there is hardly anyone in your profession who has a greater following. I have in mind something to tell you, but I shan’t do so unless you are willing to promise that you will never repeat or make reference to it in your writing, broadcasting, or your private conversation or correspondence. If you give me this assurance, I will tell you. If not, we might as well forget any future conversations.” After a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Davis agreed to my terms.

I continued, “You have told me that a daily press report of U.S. losses could not benefit the enemy. You are absolutely wrong in this. Nightly, an embassy here in Washington sends a coded dispatch to its government’s foreign office containing a digest of all military news in our press. The country engaged in this activity is supposedly neutral, but we have proof positive that the military information transmitted by its embassy is reaching the Axis powers. I am not going to name the neutral country or tell you how we know the information is reaching the enemy. You will have to take my word for it. However, I am sure that you, as a patriotic American, would not want to give aid and comfort to our enemies. Do you need further proof of the wisdom of censoring our losses?”

“Well, no. But we can’t let censorship take over.” Mr. Davis still felt the people had a right to know, although he allowed that the issue of “when” they were entitled to know might be relevant. I do not recall that Mr. Davis ever again asked about our country’s losses at a presidential news conference.

About The Author

Julia C. Tobey worked as an editor, writer, and researcher before earning a law degree. Her stepfather was Vice Admiral John L. McCrea. After retiring from her law practice, she edited McCrea’s reminiscences to create this memoir. Tobey lives in New York, New York.

Share this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *