Friday, March 14, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Six

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background:  Part One


Now here is a fine starting point for a ship's insignia:

Not for any of the guys shown above.  No, this would be for the S.S. Gutzon Borglum which honored the sculptor who created Mount Rushmore.

Anyway, both Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt had Liberty ships named after them already.  Jefferson and Washington did not, but only because the Navy already had transports named for them before the Liberty ship program began.  (Oddly the S.S. George Washington got its name from the Germans.  It was built in 1908 for the North Atlantic routes.  When the U.S. got the ship after World War I they of course kept the name!)

Borglum was an interesting figure.  In some ways he was the quintessential American. A child of the frontier, a son of immigrants. He absorbed the arts and culture of Europe and brought them back to enhance American life.  He was confident and extroverted. But with the benefit of hindsight there are some aspects to him that concern later viewers, while not diminishing the greatness of his work.

He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a relationship that was formed during his time working on a Memorial to the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia.  And the whole concept of semi-deifying our leaders has a whiff of totalitarianism to it.  Stare for a moment at Teddy Roosevelt as shown above.... see a faint trace of Lenin there?

Speaking of Roosevelt, there was a second Liberty ship of that name: the S.S. Kermit Roosevelt. And that story is a sad one.

Theodore Roosevelt must have been the ultimate fatherly role model.  He swaggered, he charged up hills into enemy fire, he shot fierce beasts and defeated savage political foes.  He may have been our most Manly president, a man for whom obstacles existed only to be laughed at and then gleefully overcome.

It would be hard for any son to live up to that.  But they tried.  Three of the four died trying.

Quentin went first.  Only 20 years old he was a Harvard student and promising writer.  But when the U.S. entered World War I he did not hesitate.  He became that most romantic of Great War combatants, a fighter pilot.  He was shot down and killed on July 14, Bastille Day, 1918.

The oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. probably came the closest to living up to his father's greatness. His story should wait for another day, but suffice it to say that he was the only General to come ashore by sea on D-Day.  He died of a heart attack not long after.

But it is Kermit who cuts the most tragic figure.  He had done some amazing things in life.  He explored the Amazon jungles with his father, on an expedition that came close to killing the both of them.  He also fought in World War I, on the often forgotten Mesopotamian campaigns.  While there he learned Arabic.  He went on a hunting expedition with his brother Ted, seeking trophy sheep in mysterious Kashmir valleys.

But Kermit struggled with depression and with alcohol.  In the early days of World War II he used his friendship with Winston Churchill to wangle himself a British commission.  After nearly taking off on an ill advised mission to fight with the Finns against the soon-to-be-Ally Russia he apparently went on at least one commando raid into Nazi occupied Norway.

But his health was failing.  He resumed drinking and was discharged from the British Army in 1941 with a rank of captain. Returning to the States he vanished for a while, supposedly his cousin Franklin Delano had to send the FBI to find him and bring him home.

Probably to keep him out of trouble, or at least out of public trouble, he was commissioned a Major in the US Army and sent to Fort Richardson, Alaska.  His job sounds unimportant, he was an intelligence officer who helped organize local Eskimo militia units.

Alaska is a hard land.  In the winter night has no end.  Even in the summer the days stretch on and on without division one from the next.  It is not a good place to send a drinking man and a terrible one to send a depressed one.  On June 4th, 1943 Kermit Roosevelt died of a self inflicted gun shot wound. Authorities lied to his mother and called it a heart attack.

History has peculiar side channels, places where influences run from one point to another in unexpected ways.  From Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill in 1898 we get Kermit fighting in the Middle East a generation later.  And his son, Kermit Jr. took his father's interest in the area and his grandfathers expansive world view....and organized the coup that put the Shah of Iran into power in 1953.  Sometimes you start out with "a splendid little war" and end up being The Great Satan.

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