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The 1941 Christmas Tree: A Bright Light in Dark Times


Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library)

The Roosevelts had planned for a “more homey” lighting of the National Christmas tree on December 24 in 1941. FDR had directed that the tree be moved from the Ellipse to the White House grounds, just next to the South Lawn Fountain.  But after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was some doubt that the ceremony would take place at all. With firm backing from the President, the tree-lighting went forward, and thousands came to the White House to share a bright moment of hope during dark and uncertain times.

Plans for this “more homey” event had been set in motion the previous December. A few days before the ceremony, the Roosevelts had an idea. At the 1940 tree-lighting ceremony, FDR raised the issue to the crowds gathered on the Ellipse, “Next year the celebration must take place on the South End of the White House, where all can see the tree,” and “all you good people” would be invited to the gardens of the Executive Mansion to hear the President deliver his message.

A few months later, FDR wrote a memo to Col. Edward Starling,  the head of the … [ Read all ]

John F. Kennedy and PT Boat 59

Today’s post is written by archivist Dr. Greg Bradsher.

When one thinks about President Kennedy’s naval career in World War II, what most often comes to mind is his command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109.

Thanks to the 1963 movie PT 109, adapted from the 1961 book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II by Robert J. Donovan, Kennedy’s wartime exploits with PT-109 were well-publicized and became part of the Kennedy legend (see Stephen Plotkins’s “Sixty Years Later, the Story of PT-109 Still Captivates” in the summer 2003 issue of Prologue.)

What few people realize is that after the loss of PT-109, Kennedy was given command of another boat: PT-59. Actually, the last scene in the movie PT 109 shows Kennedy and this boat sailing off into the sunset to begin new adventures on his path to the White House.

Lt. John F. Kennedy's PT-59, photographed in an unspecified location near Vella Lavella and Choiseul, played a key role in the diversionary mission at Choiseul Island in early November 1943. (John F. Kennedy Library)

The story of Kennedy and PT-59 begins on the morning of August 2, 1943, in the Solomon Islands, when PT-109. Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, was in command when PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and sunk. Kennedy and the surviving crew members were rescued … [ Read all ]

An Orphan of the Holocaust

Michael Pupa, age 12. (National Archives)

His parents were victims of the Nazis when he was only four, and he and his uncle spent two years hiding in the forests of Poland, waiting until the end of World War II.

But the ordeal of Michael Pupa was far from over. He became a “displaced person,” or DP, moving from one DP camp to another until 1951, when Michael, by then 12, and his cousin were flown to the United States and sent to a home for refugee children, then to foster homes in Cleveland.

Michael Pupa’s story does have a happy ending, and it is told in a new exhibit that opens at the National Archives on Friday, June 15, called “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates.”

Curator Bruce Bustard says the exhibit draws from millions of immigration case files in the National Archives holdings to tell a few of these stories from the 1880s through World War II.

“It also explores the attachment of immigrants to family and community and the attachment of government organizations to immigration laws that reflected certain beliefs about immigrants and citizenship,” he says. “These are dramatic tales of joy and disappointment, opportunity and discrimination, deceit and honesty.”

Of the individuals chosen randomly to be included in the exhibit, only Michael Pupa is alive, and he and his family … [ Read all ]

More Hitler art albums discovered

A page from ERR Album 7, showing a photograph of Girl Holding a Dove by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

This morning in Dallas, TX, the Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, Senior Archivist Greg Bradsher, and President of the Monuments Men Foundation Robert M. Edsel announced the discovery of two original albums of photographs of paintings and furniture looted by the Nazis.

The Monuments Men Foundation will donate these albums, which have been in private hands since the end of World War II, to the National Archives.

These albums were created by a special Nazi task force, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), to document the systematic looting of Europe by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The ERR was the main Nazi agency engaged in the theft of cultural treasures in Nazi-occupied countries.

“The Foundation often receives calls from veterans and their heirs, who don’t know the importance of items they may have picked up during their service, or aren’t aware that anyone is looking for the items,” Edsel said. “These albums are just the tip of the iceberg for hundreds of thousands of cultural items still missing since World War II.”

In the closing days of World War II, U.S. soldiers entered Adolf Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Alps. Many picked up souvenirs to prove they had been inside the Berghof.

Cpl. Albert Lorenzetti (989th … [ Read all ]

Unbreakable: Remembering the Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, 12/1943 (ARC 593415)

Keith Hill passed away yesterday at the age of 87. He was  president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association and Congressional Silver Medal recipient. At 17, he joined the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of men who used their Native American language to communicate and coordinate the movements of Marines in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Hill started with the U .S. Marine Corps in December of 1943, and he fought at the Marshall Islands, Sai Pan, and Iwo Jima. Over 400 over Navajo Code Talkers also served.

Encryption could be a complicated and time-consuming task. A quicker and more secure means was needed.

Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, had presented the idea of Navajo speakers to the Marines. He was a World War I vet who knew that the military was looking for a quick and secure way to send messages. Using speakers of a language that few outsiders ever heard—and that fewer than 30 outsiders spoke—seemed like a plausible solution.

Why Navajos? There were very, very few speakers of the Navajo language outside the tribe, with exception of a limited number of scholars and missionaries (Johnston estimated 28 people), so it was unlikely anyone else would recognize the langauge and be able to translate it. Even among other Indian tribals, the language was considered different.… [ Read all ]