President Franklin Roosevelt Suddenly Dies, April 12, 1945

franklin roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt – Wikipedia

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unexpected death from a stroke in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, was a huge shock to many people. He had been the president since 1933 and re-elected three times – the most of any president. During this long tenure he had led the nation through the Great Depression and into Word War Two.

Many Americans considered Roosevelt a father figure because he’d been the president for much of their lives. This was especially true for the young men fighting overseas against fascism in the Western European and Pacific theaters of WWII. There were many reports of American soldiers and sailors crying upon receiving word of his death.

American forces in the Pacific theater were fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa at the time of Roosevelt’s death. They U.S. had invaded that southern Japanese island on April 1st and the troops had made good progress until they had encountered a strong Japanese defensive line along Kakazu Ridge. The initial American assaults against it failed and the Japanese took advantage of this by distributing propaganda leaflets trying to discourage further attacks. They began with, “We must express our deep regret over the death of President Roosevelt.”

The Germans also took note of Roosevelt’s death in the European theater. The Western Allies had launched attacks across the Rhine River on Germany’s western border in March of 1945 which had destroyed Nazi Germany’s defenses on that front. The allied troops, under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, were approaching Berlin from the west. On Germany’s eastern border, the Soviets were poised along the Oder River preparing to attack Berlin, which was only about 50 miles away.

Hitler knew there was little chance that his depleted forces could stop the Allies. But when he learned of Roosevelt’s death he became elated. He had always been inspired by Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia who had held out against overwhelming odds in the Seven Years’ War until the alliance against him unexpectedly dissolved after the Russian Empress Elizabeth died. Hitler thought Roosevelt’s death was a sign that the alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviets would now disintegrate. But Hitler soon found that Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, had no intention of betraying the Soviets by making a separate peace with the Nazis. On May 8, 1945, when Truman announced Germany’s unconditional surrender, he said, “I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day.”

Roosevelt’s death also prompted responses from America’s allies in WWII.  When the American ambassador to the Soviet Union informed Stalin about it the Soviet leader said “President Roosevelt has died but his cause must live on. We shall support President Truman with all our forces and all our will.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who reportedly sobbed like a baby upon hearing of Roosevelt’s passing, gave a long eulogy for Roosevelt in the House of Commons a few days after his death. It concluded with, “For us. it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.”

Churchill later wrote of Roosevelt:

“He altered decisively and permanently the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the Old. His life must therefore be regarded as one of the most commanding events in human destiny.”

Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Imperial Japanese Navy Flag
Imperial Japanese Navy Flag

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against U.S. military bases on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This Attack on Pearl Harbor, as it came to be known, was a major turning point in WWII.

The following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and called for a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” Roosevelt famously proclaimed. In less than an hour Congress had declared war on Japan.

Four days later, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany unilaterally declared war on the U.S., ensuring that America would enter the war in Europe too. Many of the German dictator Adolf Hitler’s military leaders, along with a large portion of the German population, thought it was a fatal error. Hitler wasn’t obligated to help Japan because the Tripartite Pact he’d signed with Japan in 1940 said Germany only had to help the Japan if they were attacked, not if they were the attackers. But Hitler hated Roosevelt, and his eloquent anti-fascist rhetoric, and was convinced that Japan would defeat the U.S.

Years later, in his diary, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote about how he felt when he heard the news that the U.S. had finally joined the war.

“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not fortell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! … Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.”

The Birth of the Jet Fighter Era

The first jet-versus-jet aerial combat did not happen during WWII, even though the world’s first jet fighter, the German Messerschmitt Me 262, and the first British jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, began combat operations in 1944. The Me 262 was mostly used to attack Allied bombers over Germany, and the Meteor began its military career shooting down German V-1 cruise missiles over Britain.

The Allied campaign to liberate Western Europe, which began with the D-Day landings in June of 1944, eventually led to the capture of most German missile launching sites, and in January of 1945 some Meteors were stationed at a British airbase in Belgium. But they never encountered any Me 262s, although their airfield was bombed by German Arado Ar 234 jet bombers in March.

The first U.S. jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, also began its military career during WWII. Four YP-80As, a preproduction version of the plane, were assembled in Europe in January of 1945. Two had been sent to Britain and two others to Italy. The planes sent to Britain never saw combat, but the ones sent to Italy may have been used to try and intercept Arado Ar 234 reconnaissance jets.

In 1947 the U.S. Army Air Forces became a separate branch of the U.S. military called the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The Air Force re-designated the prefix used to identify American fighter planes from P to F, and thus the P-80 became the F-80.

North Korean MiG-15

Jet fighters were among the planes the U.S. sent into combat when the Korean War began in June of 1950. Among them were the Air Force’s F-80 Shooting Stars and the Navy’s Grumman F9F Panther carrier-based fighters. American jets ruled the skies over Korean battlefields until the Communist forces surprised the U.N forces by introducing Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters in November.

The performance of the MiG-15 was superior to the F-80 and F9F, but that didn’t stop American pilots from engaging the MiGs in aerial combat. The world’s first claim for a jet-versus-jet aerial kill came on November 1, when a Soviet-flown North Korean MiG-15 shot down an F-80C. (The USAF credits the loss to anti-aircraft fire.) The U.S. Air Force’s first claim for a jet-versus-jet kill came a week later, on November 8, but Soviet records show the MiG-15 survived the fight. The U.S. Navy first claimed shooting down a MiG-15 with one of its F9Fs on November 9. Soviet records confirm this loss.

The advent of MiG-15s in Korea forced the USAF to send some squadrons of its newer Republic F-84 Thunderjet and North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters there in December. The F-84s were tasked with escorting Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, but their performance also proved to be inferior to that of the MiGs. The F-86s, however, had a swept wing design, like the MiG-15s, and the Communist pilots soon found the Sabres were formidable foes.

And so, at the start of 1951, the jet fighter era was finally fully under way.

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