Keelan: Camp David was FDR’s ‘Shangri-La’

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Don Keelan, a certified public accountant and resident of Arlington. The piece first appeared in the Bennington Banner.

Seventy years ago, March 1942, a chain of events was put in motion and the outcome is what we know today as the presidential retreat, Camp David.

Camp David was not the original name assigned to the president’s Catoctin Mountain hideaway — it was first called “Shangri-La.” And for the benefit of the historians, High Catoctin Camp #3 is the more accurate name for the retreat that 12 United States presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have gone to for seclusion and relaxation.

Located approximately 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., and 10 miles south of Gettysburg, Pa., the several hundred acre, heavily guarded retreat is not far from the Maryland village of Thurmont, in the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains.

To understand how the retreat first came about, one must go back to the winter of 1942, and appreciate what was happening along the Atlantic coast of the U.S.

Nazi U-boats were conducting a massive strike on shipping — the German submarine U-123, alone, was responsible for the sinking of 19 ships, mostly tankers including the S.S. Baton Rouge. There was to be no letup during the ensuing months and well into 1943.

It was Mike Reilly, the head of President’s Roosevelt’s Secret Service detail, who had to inform his boss, “We need to beach the Potomac and all of the presidential yachts.”

For the president it was an awful decision but a necessary one. If FDR had his choice as to where he wished to spend his time, it was on the presidential yachts or at his family’s estate, Springwood, in Hyde Park, N.Y.

And so, an order went out from the FDR White House, in March 1942, “Find a weekend home, an hour or two’s drive from Washington, secluded, at an elevation of 1,000 feet or higher — but most of all, an inexpensive place.”

After much searching by the departments of the Treasury and Interior a place was found, a former U.S. government-owned children’s camp — Camp #3, at 1,700 feet in elevation and a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C.

The National Park Service’s $18,645 estimate to fix up the camp came under detailed scrutiny by FDR. The president went through the budget line by line. He crossed out $1,000 for dust control of the camp’s roads; he cancelled out $1,250 for vista and shelter cutting. FDR removed the cost of building wooden huts for Secret Service housing and ordered that the agents stay in tents, not unlike the shelters for the 136 U.S. Marines who were assigned the guard duty at the camp.

The Navy’s Seabees took control of the rebuilding and scavenging was the order of the day. Many of the furnishings for the main house, Aspen, came from the attic of the White House. All work was accomplished by June of 1942. When FDR paid a visit he had made a remark that he “felt like he was well up into the mountains.”

“I am in Shangri-La,” he said, taking the name from James Hilton’s book, “Lost Horizon,” also a popular motion picture, in the late 1930s.

FDR, always the nautical fellow (U.S. Navy), wrote in the retreat’s logbook, which all of his guests had to sign, the following:

July 5, 1942 Launched and named U.S.S. Shangri-La
July 18, 1942 First trial run
July 25, 1942 Final trial
August 8, 1942 Accepted
August 22, 1942 Commissioned
August 30, 1942 Full steam

In May 1943, Winston Churchill was a visitor to Shangri-La. The British prime minister would be the first of a long line of world leaders invited to the president’s retreat — for many a special honor. Among the notable world leaders who were guests, President Charles de Gaulle, Prime Minister Harold Macmillian, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat, among others.

Secret Service agents and the camp’s Marine contingent no longer sleep in tents. They along with an array of sophisticated electronic devices provide the security for the president and his guests. Gone too are the rustic cabins and the presidential yachts (decommissioned by President Truman in 1952).

Created at the time of great violence, Camp David is a beautiful place in the mountains of Maryland that harbors so much peace and tranquility — the 12 successors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have much to thank him for.

(Don Keelan served as a U.S. Marine sentry at Camp David from 1957-1960.)

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  • Jim Mulligan

    Having spent 4 years of my 50tys decade in Emmitsburg MD, a few miles from Thurmont I was particularly appreciative of Mr Keelan’s reflections. And as we all become increasing aware, one’s time-line tends to be the determining element in terms of their respective make-ups. Camp David received its present name from President Eisenhower in deference to his father and grandson.

    What I found of particular interest in Don’s remarks were the economies of FDR who was to the manor born and may I add his successor, who one might offer was to the barn born. In both cases, their tight fistedness was extraordinarily striking but, subsequently rarely revealed for blatantly obvious reasons. Keeping in mind, we are talking about two giants of American history. Harry Truman being my greatest President.

    It was April 12th 1945 when VP Truman & Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt engaged in arguably the most historic verbal exchange in American history. Mrs Roosevelt – “Harry, the President is dead.” VP Truman – “Is there anything I can do for you?” Mrs Roosevelt – “Is there anything we can do for you, for you are the one in trouble now”. VP Truman was sworn in as President by Chief Justice Stone in the cabinet room at 7:00pm, an hour later he arrived at home.

    For decades I have had an April 13th 1945 Bridgeport Post [CT] clipping on my wall with the heading PRESIDENT TRUMAN AWAKES IN 5-ROOM, $120 APARTMENT….”Harry S Truman awoke today in a five-room [3rd floor] apartment, with one bath.” The final sentence in the artocle read – “The family will move into the White House at the convenience of Mrs Roosevelt.”

    You know, on balance there really isn’t much more that anyone needs to know about our fiscal history as they look about, once they throw into the mix that in 1945 the National DEBT was $258 billion [WW II etc.] and that our DEFICIT for the 29 days of February 2012 was $231 billion.

    The 67th anniversary of April 12, 1945 looms … the 100th of the Titanic 3 days later.

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