What Really Happened on FDR’s Funeral Train: An Interview With the Author

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We’re pleased to report that our old pal Robert Klara–a.k.a. Trainjotting columnist “Engine Bob”–has his new book out today. FDR’s Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance looks at the train carrying the body of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to its final resting place upstate at Hyde Park. The train passed through the tri-state area while most of us slept. While FDR was dead, other passengers–including President Truman, the Supreme Court justices, perhaps a KGB spy–were very much alive. Klara digs into the classified files to find out what went on on that historic train.  

FDR’s Funeral Train is published by Palgrave MacMillan and is out today. I hear Barnes and Noble is placing the book prominently near its front doors today in New York; you can also grab a copy on Amazon for $18.

Klara is a pal, so I’m biased. But he’s one of the most engaging writers you’ll ever read. Our Q&A with him is below.

Trainjotting: Dozens of books have been done about FDR. What does yours offer that the others don’t?

 

Robert Klara:  Most of the FDR books out there are biographies—and where these works end, mine begins. My predecessors apparently took the view that, once FDR was gone, his story naturally concludes. But I disagree. In fact, what unfolded immediately after FDR’s death were three of the most frightening, moving, precarious, and politically complicated days in the history of this country—and also very much a part of FDR’s personal story, too.

 

It took three days to bring Roosevelt’s body from Warm Springs, Georgia (where FDR had been vacationing at his mountaintop cabin) to Hyde Park, New York, where he was buried on the grounds of his boyhood home. This 1,050-mile journey was a literal measure of the man: Not only did tens of thousands of Americans wait by the side of the train tracks to pay their respects to Roosevelt (whose body lay in a flag-draped casket visible through the windows of the funeral train’s rear Pullman), his interment train carried pretty much the entire U.S. government aboard.

 

Imagine something like this happening today (it never would): One dead president and one live one, both of their families, the Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the diplomatic corps, leaders of both houses of Congress and the nine Justices of the Supreme Court—all of them boarding a single conveyance to take a trip together and doing it amid a global armed conflict. It was an altogether foolhardy idea—but it was also the greatest showing of respect for a president that this country has ever managed.

 

Can you imagine what sort of intrigue would take place aboard that train? Can you imagine the job that the Secret Service and the U.S. military would have protecting that train? Well, you don’t have to imagine any of it, because it all actually happened in April of 1945. That’s what my book is about.

  

TJ: You’ve got a train in the title of your book. What role does the train play?

 

RK:  The train is the literal setting for most of the book, but there are really two trains involved. There’s the funeral train that the American public saw from the outside as its citizenry held trackside vigils in nine states. But there’s also the inside of the train—and this was the angle that most interested me. Because most everything about the train was classified as top-secret, the journalists aboard wrote very little about what took place behind all the drawn shades. And indeed, few books get into much detail about the doings aboard. My book is the first, so far as I know, to tell the full story—which includes tales of betrayal, espionage, rumors of an imposter’s body, and the atomic bomb.

 

TJ: Reportedly there’s a hidden platform under Grand Central that was used by FDR. Does that appear in the book?

 

RK: No, it doesn’t—but I’ve got a good reason: A living FDR used that platform, but his funeral train did not.

 

You’re speaking of Track 61, a small platform beneath the hotel serviced directly by a freight elevator, but abandoned since WWII. Current scholarship makes clear that the platform was not used anywhere near as much as the lore surrounding it suggests. The first famous person to avail himself of the secret entrance was General John J. Pershing, who visited the hotel in 1938.

 

FDR used the platform only once. It was during a campaign trip to New York City on October 21, 1944. He was driven by motorcade to the Waldorf that evening and delivered a speech to the Foreign Policy Association. Afterwards, his entourage took the freight elevator down to Track 61, where FDR boarded the Ferdinand Magellan—his private, armored Pullman car—and left for Hyde Park.

 

The Magellan figures large in my book, for it was part of the funeral train’s consist, accommodating Eleanor Roosevelt. But the Waldorf platform is part of the living FDR’s story. I hope another writer will do this part of it justice one day.

  

TJ: What was the most compelling thing to come out of your reporting? Wasn’t some of the material confidential, which is typical of presidential stuff?

 

RK:  Well, nearly everything concerning FDR’s movements during the war was classified, but most of these documents entered the public domain in the years afterwards. That doesn’t mean they were all easy to find, though. Many were at the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, but I had to file Freedom of Information Law requests with the Department of Homeland Security and Secret Service to get some of the papers. And, incredibly, the letters I was sent indicated that some of the documentation is still classified to this day.

 

The most compelling part of the story, to me, is the possibility of Harry Truman discussing the atomic bomb while aboard the funeral train—and I spend a good portion of the book making a case for that. But my favorite part, personally, concerned all the rumors that the body lying in FDR’s coffin was not FDR’s. At the time of the funeral train’s run, thousands of Americans were convinced that Roosevelt was not dead and that an imposter’s body and been substituted in his casket. The rumors were, of course, utter delusion—but it was a great deal of fun investigating them in order to disprove them.

 

TJ: What would FDR think of having a big NYC highway named after him? And why is there always traffic on the southbound side at 116th Street?

 

RK: Hey, these are supposed to be train questions! Well, my guess is that FDR would have happily lent his name to any road—so long as good, union labor was used to construct it. But I should mention that Roosevelt was very much alive when much of the highway in question was finished (FDR cut the ribbon at the Triborough’s opening in 1936.) But what’s today the FDR Drive was called the East River Drive back then. Like so many other infrastructural projects in NYC at the time, the thoroughfare was built by Robert Moses—one of the few men whom FDR truly disliked, and the feeling was mutual. But when FDR died (and his death spurred a naming frenzy around the country) even Moses couldn’t stand in the way of the movement to name the highway after Roosevelt.

 

Had he somehow been honored with that kind of commemoration when he was alive, however, FDR probably would have chaired the opening like the master statesman he was—being gracious, humble, and then cracking a joke. (In my head, it goes like this: “I finished building a dam in Nevada but they named it after Hoover—so I am pleased to accept the honor of placing my name on this fine road in New York.” I can almost hear it.)

 

As far as the traffic question goes, you’re talking to a man who hasn’t driven a car in a decade, but my guess is that there’s southbound backup at 116th Street because Exit 16 is a southbound exit only—and remember, it’s the first exit after the Triborough Bridge interchange and the messy junction with I-278. So my guess is that everybody cooking southbound off the Triborough and anxious to turn off into Manhattan picks this exit, so you get a clot of traffic.

 

My advice: Take the train.

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14 Responses to What Really Happened on FDR’s Funeral Train: An Interview With the Author

  1. charles Terhune says:

    Did FDR’s train stop or pass thru Kingston , NY on the way to Hyde Park? My father as a child, may remember getting out of school to see it pass by. He thinks the body may havebeen taken out and transferred to vehicular travel. Anybody know?

  2. Robert Klara says:

    Charles,

    The Roosevelt funeral train traveled up the Hudson Line of the New York Central Railroad (the east side of the river), whereas the Kingston Station was located on the NYC’s West Shore Line. Hence, it would have been impossible for the funeral train to have passed through Kingston.

    FDR’s body was indeed removed from the train and transferred to an Army hearse, but that took place at the base of the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, and the hearse’s journey was only a few hundred yards before the body was then put onto a horse-drawn caisson. What’s more, no members of the general public would have been able to see this happen, as all of the estate grounds were locked down entirely and only VIPs invited to the funeral could have gotten close. Newspaper photographers were permitted to take pictures of the coffin atop the caisson, but I never encountered a photo of the Army hearse; it was a part of the operation that was never meant to be made public.

    It’s possible that your father’s memories combined two events. He may well have seen the funeral train on the east side of the river (I’m sure many schools were let out that day) and much of the Hudson mainline is visible from the west side of the river. Also, FDR’s private train did take the West Shore line when he was alive. However, if memory serves, the train would head up to Highland, where the presidential entourage would disembark and board automobiles that would take the bridge over to Poughkeepsie, and then up into Hyde Park.

    If it matters, I’ve spoken to a number of people who remember (or have family members who remember) seeing the train. But the decades have a way of rubbing down the edges of people’s recollections. Places get mixed up and images combine into pastiches that are at variance with the record. But if your father recalls seeing Roosevelt’s train, he probably did see it–though it’s hard to say which train it was, and when.

    I hope this helps somewhat.

    Best,

    Robert Klara

  3. Nathan Sullivan says:

    Do you know the date FDR’s funeral train passed through Lynchburg, Virginia? I am doing some research on U.S. Presidents visiting our city, and numerous sources indicate his train passed through Lynchburg at 4 AM…. A crowd gathered to watch it pass. Are you familiar with this story? I am looking for people to interview. Thank you so much!!

  4. Robert Klara says:

    Dear Nathan,

    Yes, in answer to your question, the FDR funeral train did indeed pass through Lynchburg. It would have had to, seeing as the town was right on the Southern’s mainline on the way to D.C. I’m writing this from memory, as the notes from my book are now deep in storage, but it likely would have passed though Lynchburg very early in the morning of the day it arrived in Washington. Also, Lynchburg was not (if memory serves) a service stop for the train. I think that Danville was the last place the train paused to take on coal/water, then it made the sprint right up to D.C.
    I don’t believe I ever came across any specific items related to Lynchburg, though of course it was very common for people who lived in all the towns along the train’s route to wait at the station–no matter the hour, and whether the train would stop or not. People simply wanted to see FDR’s coffin in the last car; the train’s failure to stop was no deterrent to people.
    If you want to find out more information, I’d recommend you consult the local newspapers of the area in question; I’m certain that Lynchburg had one paper, and very possibly more than one. The New York Public Library’s Microforms/periodicals division has a two volume index of ALL the historic newspapers in the United States, arranged by locale and name. Most all of these can be obtained on microfilm via inter-library loan. If you’re not in NYC, any major lending library can likely supply you with the same resource. These local papers will become your primary sources; most of them covered this event down to the minute. The ones I used become highly critical sources for my research.
    I might also suggest you contact The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History (http://www.southernmuseum.org/), as they have a good archive of railroad-related photos and printed matter relating to the Southern. Look for a chapter near Lynchburg of the Southern Railway Historical Society, as well.
    Cross-reference, sir–it’s the way to go. Start with these sources and keep connecting. My research did not include much on Lynchburg, or I’d be happy to share. Alas, I could not really discuss every town the train passed through, as there were just so many.
    I hope this helps you somewhat. Thanks for your interest, and all best,
    – Robert Klara

  5. Mark Fleetwood says:

    When FDR died the train that was to take him back was actually in Atlanta. My great-grand father Mr. William “Silver Bill” Phillips was called and told he was to go pick up the body. My great-grandfather engineered the train from Atl-Chatt as his regular assignment with Southern Railway. As told to me by my grandmother/mother – he had the special assignment of taking the president to Warm Springs from Atlanta and back to Atlanta every time he went. I also know that FDR helped get one of our family cousins into Warm Springs for treatment as she to had polio.Apparently there was a waiting list. I still have SR Lanterns and a picture of my GGF sitting in one of his engines. Is there anyway I could find out more on my great grandfather.Who was the actual train crew who made the trip for Southern Railway from Warm Springs to Atlanta? I have read that they made 3 0r 4 crew switches before reaching Washington. Thanks for your help!!!
    Mark Fleetwood

  6. W. GATCHELL says:

    Do you have the names of the men in the cab? Did the same crew take FDR all the way to Hyde Park?

  7. Tammy Cormier says:

    I was also wondering if there was a list of the men who carried the American Flag in FDR’s funeral processions somewhere… I have been told that it was my grandfather and that he was on the train too, but can not find anything on the subject anywhere — do you have any ideas on where I could get that information??

  8. David Brown says:

    My great grandfather, William M. Brown, was an engineer with the southern railway and “drove” the funeral train for part of it’s trip. I’m delighted to hear about your book and can’t wait till my copy arrives.

    Dave Brown

  9. benwelden says:

    My father, who was an MP during WWII, was part of the honor guard for the FDR funeral in Hyde Park. He’s 91 now but has dementia. He remembers some of the event–including being on that train– but not much else. In looking at some of the photos from the funeral at Hyde Park, I’d be interested to know what role the MPs had at the funeral? Thanks.

  10. Would like to verify the route FRD’s funeral train took between Washington, DC and NYC, NY. Might it have been the Pennsylvania RR main line (now K/A the Northeast Corridor)?

  11. W. Wright says:

    Does anyone know if the train passed trhough Gastonia, NC?

  12. Charles Ray Harmon says:

    Have been told a relative of mine BF Phelps was in the honor guard at sometime or other during FDR’s funeral. I think mostly because he was tall. Anybody know of him or know of any video footage I might view? This is July 22, 2012

  13. David K. Hogg says:

    My dad was an MP when FDR died. He told me he helped guard the train as it carried FDR’s body from Warm Springs to Atlanta, if I recall correctly. Daddy died in 1984. Glad to know about this book.

  14. Dyanne Bennett says:

    WE are trying to find the names of the honor guards at FDRs funeral. We have a letter from gr grandpa Emmett Alexander to his daughter at the time, saying it was his honor to service as an honor guard. is there a name of the honor guards posted anywhere?

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