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A Roosevelt Story by Michael Cunningham Herbert L Cunningham was the light-keeper at Cape Forchu from 1922 until 1952, and during that time he kept a personal journal of many of the day-to-day events that occurred at the light-station. This journal is on display at the Cape Forchu Light-House Museum. (One of his grandsons, Michael Cunningham, a Yarmouth County Historical Society member, is working on a book based on detailing some of his grandfather's journal entries). In Herb Cunningham's journal, an entry was found for August 12, 1941 that led to a very interesting story. The entry reads, "President Roosevelt's yacht & nine warships anchored in the Sound. Bob & Edmund went out and spoke to them". Bob Nickerson was Herb's assistant for many years and the two light-keepers occasionally did harbour pilot work for visiting ships to earn extra money. On this occasion, Bob and another local man went out in their small motor boat to visit the yacht in the harbour to see if there was an opportunity to get some extra income by offering their services. It would be interesting to know what kind of reception the helpful harbour pilots received when they asked the crew of Roosevelt's yacht Potomac if they could be of any assistance, but no record remains of that. What could the President of the United States be doing in Yarmouth harbour during the war years? Was it possible Herb Cunningham's account was incorrect? But perhaps it was possible – after all, President Roosevelt did have acquaintances in the area and he had visited south western Nova Scotia in 1936 to partake in some of the Wedgeport tuna fishing. Herb's journal entry of August 12th, 1941 is certainly one of the most fascinating notes he left behind and it connects Yarmouth to one of the most important meetings of WWII! A check of the Yarmouth paper dated the 19th of March showed that Herb had been accurate in his reporting. The newspaper headline proclaimed, "Think Nations’ Heads Were Here" and, "Presence of Potomac in Yarmouth Harbour Causes Wonderment". Although no one knew for sure if the President and British Prime Minister Churchill were on the Potomac, it was war-time and of course everyone expected there would be a considerable amount of secrecy about Roosevelt's movements. The whole world knew the two leaders were meeting somewhere but no one knew where. Adding to the excitement were reports of a large aircraft that had been sighted in the sky above Yarmouth during the early hours of the 14th. The paper reported that the engine's roar had sent several local persons scurrying to their windows in time to see a huge monoplane circling out over Yarmouth Sound. What we know now is that President Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill for the very first time as the heads of their respective states between the 10th and 12th of August 1941 in Argentia, Newfoundland aboard the HMS Prince of Wales and USS Augusta. This was the famous Atlantic Conference codenamed ‘Riviera’, and resulted in the signing of the Atlantic Charter which would set the founding principles for a number of post-war agreements and would influence how international organizations like the United Nations functioned in the years to come. Roosevelt and Churchill certainly were not in Yarmouth on the 12th of August when Herb made his journal entry, so why were Roosevelt's yacht, the Potomac, and nine warships here? The presidential yacht USS Potomac had been commissioned in 1934 as the 165-foot Coast Guard cutter Electra and after being renamed for Roosevelt it was used by him until his death in 1945. On the 3rd of August, 1941, Roosevelt departed Washington by train to board Potomac at the navy base at New London, Connecticut, supposedly for a deep-sea fishing trip along the New England coast. Secrecy about the trip was the key, and most of Roosevelt's own staff did not know the truth about the fishing trip. They stopped in several ports, dropping slight hints about Roosevelt's presence and the President could be observed by local onlookers enjoying the fresh air on the deck. After a couple days of acting the fisherman, Roosevelt was smuggled aboard the USS Augusta on a dark night the 5th of August, and the warship immediately sped toward Newfoundland. The Potomac, her crew and escorts continued on with the charade cruising New England waters, continuing the fishing trip and visiting a few ports, including obviously Yarmouth. While the Potomac was in port, a secret-service officer disguised as Roosevelt could be seen waving from the deck to the onlookers gathered on shore. Roosevelt himself seemed to have enjoyed fooling his own people and the public so much that he would later recall with amusement the ruse they had set up. The Roosevelt Library and Archives was able to confirm that the USS Augusta with the President on board left Argentia to eventually rendezvous again with the Potomac at Blue Hill Bay, Maine. Herb Cunningham and many others in Yarmouth may have believed at first that the President was aboard his yacht in Yarmouth harbour, but instead they were all misled by a clever decoy. Several days later both Roosevelt and Churchill held press conferences announcing the results of their very successful meeting!
This story was published in the Yarmouth County Historical Society Historigram August 2011, Volume 11, Issue 7. Reprinted here with the permission of the author.
F.D.R. relaxing at the family summer residence on Campobello Island, N.B. From “New Brunswick Official Touring Guide 2011”.
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