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How a Secret Room Got Its Start in WWII

By Hugh Sidey

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Sixty years ago, F.D.R. began a tradition when he built a private place to plan war

One day 60 years ago, George Elsey, now 84, delicately maneuvered the wheelchair of Franklin Roosevelt around the tight perimeter of a newly outfitted room in the White House.

The President studied the fresh battle maps on the walls and easels from the European and Pacific theaters of World War II and was then updated on the task forces that were gathering and would soon head across the Atlantic for the invasion of North Africa.

America was on the move, and the 24-year-old Navy ensign, who only a year earlier had been a Harvard graduate student in American history, was at the epicenter of secrecy and action: the Map Room. On the White House ground floor--dim, guarded, with no carpets that could tangle the wheels of F.D.R.'s wheelchair--the Map Room had been the trophy room, a small area for official gifts to the First Couple.

Roosevelt had ordered the secure chamber after admiring Winston Churchill's portable map ensemble, brought to the White House when he first visited, just after Pearl Harbor. The room would become the haven for Roosevelt and Churchill and key aides throughout the four war years, a repository of information and a place where policy was shaped, decisions made, orders sent to Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur.

"Cabin fever?" pondered Elsey recently, back in the room to recount his memories. "Never. It was the most exciting place in the world." And also the most secure. Elsey and the handful of other aides who were on duty around the clock wheeled Roosevelt because his personal valet was not allowed in the room. "One glance at the map showing the convoys headed for the African coast could tell the story," says Elsey, also recalling when Eleanor Roosevelt brought China's Mme. Chiang Kai-shek unannounced into the Map Room, causing great consternation.

It never happened again. No diaries were allowed. No photographs, no recordings. Expendable papers were burned daily. So George Elsey's memory has become one of the great ledgers of America's wartime history. Elsey saw Roosevelt's original fervor for his maps and battle reports waste away with his health. Elsey saved a couple of papers with the President's signature; firm, strong in 1942, quaky and feeble by 1945.

"When Churchill entered the room, he seemed to fill it," says Elsey. "His reputation, the aura that preceded him, was so great. We were in awe." Captain Ogden Kniffin, Elsey's Army counterpart, made it a practice on night duty to remove and hang up his uniform to keep it unwrinkled for morning show. Once, about 4:30 a.m., the door flew open and Churchill entered.

The mortified Kniffin stood at attention in his underwear, wondering whether his career had come to an abrupt end. Churchill seemed not to notice. The old trooper, nearing 69, knew his war. In the Map Room in May 1943, Churchill asked Elsey about news from the submarine battle going on under the Atlantic. Elsey had just finished updating the map.

"I just removed three black pins," the symbol for German subs, he told Churchill, who astonished the young American by jumping up and down and shouting, "We've got him! We've got him! We've got him!" The sinkings came about because the Allies had cracked the German secret code. Some experts would later agree the turning point in the war came in May 1943.

Before Roosevelt left for Warm Springs, Ga., in March 1945, he asked for a map projecting the sectors in Europe for the first of May. Roosevelt died before he saw it. "The last map" was returned to the White House, and Elsey took it over, saving it from destruction. A few years ago he gave it back to the White House, and today it hangs over the mantel in the Map Room, now stately and elegant with its thick carpets and polished Chippendale furniture.

Today's Presidents plan their wars in the Situation Room, built in the West Wing during Kennedy's time. The Map Room, meanwhile, has acquired some incongruous new history, having served as the site for Bill Clinton's TV confession about Monica Lewinsky.

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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