Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 9, 1941
“...Gaston Carson, the 175-pound halfback from New York City has scored the final touchdown of the season, and what a season it’s been for Navy. Head Coach Swede Larson has led his team to the third victory in a row over Army with wins of 10-0 in ’39 and 14-0 last year. It looked like it might be another shutout victory until a late second quarter touchdown by Army made the game an even match, but in the final minute of the game, Gaston Carson proved his mettle, pulled a rabbit out of the hat with a 45- yard run for a touchdown and sealed the deal. It’s Navy over Army for three years in a row! I’ll bet Army fans are asking themselves, ‘How long can this go on?’” The announcer put his hand over the microphone and said to one of his engineers, “Okay, fellas, I’m going to wrap it up now.” He took his hand away. “This is John Wilkinson broadcasting as part of the National Broadcast System. Good night to football fans, everywhere.”
Gaston Carson sat in the locker room holding his helmet in one hand and a cup of water in the other. The room hung heavy with the smell of dirty socks, sweaty bodies, and musty uniforms. He watched as Sam Booth dumped a keg of water over their coach. Arthur Knox was in the corner with a few others, on one knee, offering up a prayer of thanksgiving. Ray Swartz was ready to get some beer and celebrate. It had been an unusually good year, and there was much to celebrate. Their nine- game season had ended with five shutout victories, and only one loss, to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were having a great year themselves with an 8-0 record. Gaston took a slap on the back and congratulations from Gene Flathman, a guard that weighed a good hundred pounds more than he.
Gaston was in his own world reflecting on how his life would be changing. This was his last season of football, and his last year at the academy. This time next year he and his classmates would be serving their country at home or abroad as crew members on ships, aides in the Department of the Navy, engineers, statisticians, and accountants. These men he served with were the finest the nation had to offer. There was a lot to celebrate, but he was saddened by the fact this would all end and they would be scattered about. He hoped to be on an aircraft carrier; James Donaldson hoped to serve on a battleship; and John Harrell would be heading to submarine school. Football had brought them all together to win battles on the gridiron, soon they would be defending their Country. Gaston was struggling to get his mind around it.
In April 1941, eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt needed a person he could trust for a secret mission. He called on his eldest son, James, because he was the man the President trusted most. The mission was to assure our allies around the world that the United States would soon be joining the war. If news of the trip reached the press, it would have dealt the Roosevelt Administration a crippling, if not fatal, blow. The country at the time was strongly against the United States getting involved in the conflict in Europe.
In the past James had served his father as Administrative Assistant to the President, and was later appointed Secretary to the President. There were rumors that James had the greatest influence of anyone in the Franklyn Delano Roosevelt’s administration. But, after allegations he used his influence with his father for personal gain, James resigned from his White House position, and the President was left without anyone he truly trusted.
On December 9, 1941, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the morning after President Roosevelt had delivered his “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress, he had need of another person for a secret mission, but this time his son, James, was on active duty and was not available. He chose another man, a much younger man, but one he knew he could trust.
It was 5:00 a.m. The President’s Chief of Staff found Midshipman Gaston Carson in his bunk at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.. The United States had been at war with Japan less than 24 hours.
Unlike the President’s son, Gaston Carson wasn’t chosen for this secret mission because he was blood. Gaston wasn’t related to Roosevelt at all, and had never served the President in any official capacity. The young man wasn’t in politics and didn’t run with the Washington crowd. Gaston Carson was chosen because no one would suspect he was on a mission for the President. Gaston was as far from politics as anyone the President knew. There was no one better suited for the job, and he knew Gaston could be trusted.
At 22 years, Midshipman Carson had a vision of graduating from the Academy and serving his Country as an officer in the US Navy. He wanted to serve on one of the new aircraft carriers, like the USS Enterprise. It was a dream about to be realized, but a dream the war was about to cut short.
Gaston was sitting uncomfortably on a straight-back wooden chair in the ante-room outside the President’s bedroom, waiting for Franklyn Delano Roosevelt’s aides to finish dressing him. It’s a miracle, Gaston thought, I was a vagrant roaming the streets of New York City, and here I am in the White House only ten years later. It was a miracle, of sorts, or maybe fate. Gaston was born into poverty ten years before the stock market crash of 1929. The son of a prostitute and a father he had never met. By way of his circumstances, he should have been running with the many gangs that roamed the back streets and alleys of New York City during the Great Depression. But he was here in the White House waiting for the President to finish dressing.
The day before, with a handful of midshipmen, Gaston had listened closely to a large Philco radio in the recreation annex at the Naval Academy. President Roosevelt was addressing the nation following the vicious attack on Pearl Harbor. Gaston knew, at that moment, his life would change forever, but he never imagined he’d be sitting in the White House, waiting for the President to join him. In a few days the naval academy would be nearly vacant. It was nearing the Christmas Holiday and many would be going home to their families, maybe for the last time, before going to war. With no family, Gaston had planned on spending the holidays visiting friends. Christmas dinner was scheduled to be with his girlfriend, Cheryl, her sister, and mother. With the reality of war setting in, for many this would not be a Christmas to remember, but one to forget. His girlfriend’s father had been in Pearl Harbor and they had not heard from him.
Gaston shifted his thoughts to the last time he had been in the White House. It had been with a group of classmates his freshman year in high school. He didn’t even see the President that time. That was nearly eight years ago. Now, dressed in his midshipmen’s winter dress uniform, he toyed with his cap and stared at the ornate carpet at his feet. His mind was spinning. This must be serious, Gaston thought, it’s still dark outside and the President is barely awake. Hell, I’m barely awake. Am I in trouble? Why would the President summon me to the White House in the middle of the night?
“Gaston,” the President said. “Once you’ve finished counting the threads in the carpet or whatever you’re so interested in, I want you to join me for breakfast.” Roosevelt was sitting in a wheelchair. He was wearing a red silk smoking jacket over a white shirt. He had a white scarf draped around his neck.
“Yes sir.” Gaston grinned and flushed a little. “I missed mine this morning.”
Breakfast was served in the President’s chamber. Aides brought in a small table and covered it with a white linen cloth. Eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice, coffee and tea, in silver containers, were served.
As they finished breakfast sitting across from one another at the small table, Roosevelt took a sip of steaming tea. “Gaston, I’m not going to keep you in suspense any longer. The Japs are a formidable enemy and they caught us sleeping in Pearl Harbor, literally with our pants down. The sons-a-bitches didn’t have the decency to warn us they were coming. They led us to believe we could settle our differences peacefully. Instead, they blindsided us with a cowardly Sunday morning attack. I’m sure you know our Pacific Fleet has been devastated. Thank God we sailed our aircraft carriers prior to the attack.”
He took another sip of tea and removed his cigarette holder from his mouth. “There’s talk the Japanese are planning an attack on our mainland next. It’s a highly heated debate among my staff. Frankly, I don’t know who is right. That’s where you come in.”
“Me, sir?” Gaston swallowed hard. He wanted to speak. Better wait for the President to get around to it himself. He couldn’t help himself. “Sir, it’s my last year at the Academy. I’m thinking of dropping out and joining the war. There’s some talk they may be commissioning officers early to get them into battle.”
Roosevelt shook his head. The cigarette holder in the corner of his mouth moved up like a flag at half-mast. “I understand your youthful enthusiasm to serve, and I’m going to give you that opportunity, but I need you in another capacity.”
“But, sir, I can fight as good as any man, and with the war and all, I will probably get field promotions, even if I don’t go in as a commissioned officer. I’ll be an officer before you know it. Heck, I’m older than many of the volunteers. I could be an officer in no time.”
The President laughed. “Son, I wish I had your energy, and frankly your naiveté. Seriously though, I need someone I can trust to tell me the truth and to keep a secret. The people on the West Coast are starting to panic. They have convinced themselves that there is going to be an invasion by the Japanese on their shores. There are submarine sightings and, sadly, hostilities against the Japanese population in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I need someone to be my eyes and ears on the West Coast. After careful consideration, I’ve decided you’re that person. As of today you will be on special assignment answering only to the Commander in Chief; that’s me.”
“What about my commission? With all due respect, sir, you have the entire Army and Navy at your disposal. They’re far more experienced than I. I was going to serve on an aircraft carrier.”
Roosevelt laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about. I’ve been following your progress at the Academy. Number one in your class in every endeavor; that touchdown against Army was a stroke of genius; this is a natural for you. As for why I need you, I haven’t time to go into all the details, but suffice it to say we’re in a political climate that makes it impossible for me to know who I can trust. It’s created by powerful people that surround me. Hell, half the people around here tell me what they think I want to hear. The other half have political ambitions of their own. Many would like to see me fall on my ass, literally!” He removed the cigarette from the holder and put in another. He lit it and drew in a deep breath.
“Gaston, I’m going to be honest with you. From the day we met you’ve been honest with me. Painfully honest at times. Do you think you can still do that from the West Coast?”
“Sir, it’s true I have always been honest with you, and I don’t want you to think I wouldn’t be under any circumstance, but I’m still a kid. Let me finish school, serve my time in the Navy and then I’ll do anything you ask, I promise.”
“Gaston, if it was last week, you would have swayed me with that argument, but this is today; the world is a different place than last week. You mentioned you wanted to quit the Academy and join the fight. I’m asking you to do that, right now, for me.”
Gaston stood up. “Yes, sir.”
“At ease, son, I’m not finished.”
Gaston sat back down. He felt his cheeks flush again. He had never felt so uncomfortable in his life.
“There is near panic out West,” FDR continued. “The Navy is calling for a good portion of its arsenal to be sent to patrol the coastline. The Army wants to establish posts every twenty miles along the beaches from Seattle to San Diego. I need to know what’s actually happening, in Oregon especially. The Japs want us to divert our limited naval fleet to protect the West Coast while they expand their empire into the Pacific. We need every last man we can enlist to fight the battle in the Pacific and in Europe. I need to know that I’m not sacrificing our war effort by limiting our resources off the Pacific Coast. You’re going to make sure I have a clear picture.”
Roosevelt reached in his breast pocket and pulled out an envelope. “This will help with your expenses and aid in your transition to civilian life.” He slid it across the table. “You will be operating undercover, meaning you will dress like the civilians. You will answer to no one but me. That’s very important. There will be those who will demand to know who you are answering to. Don’t tell them you answer to me. If you must, you can tell people your orders come from Washington. That’s it!”
He pulled out a small card. On one side was the President’s seal, a picture of Gaston, the word ‘Diplomat’ and a telephone number on it. “If you get into serious trouble, this is your ticket out. I don’t expect you’ll use it, being the resourceful man you are, but just in case. And Gaston, I’m counting on you to be straight with me. The Nation is counting on you.”
Gaston finally touched the brim of his cup to his lips. The coffee was cold. He wondered what the President was sending him into. He had never been west of the Mississippi. He needed time to think. He felt guilty that the first thing that came to his mind was, What about Cheryl? What would he tell her? “How secret is the job, sir?” he asked. “I mean, my girl, Cheryl, she’ll know something is going on if I just up and leave.”
“Tell her you’ve quit the Academy and have taken a job with the Government. You’ll be working as a civilian assigned to the Coast Guard Station in Yaquina Bay, Oregon. You will be able to collect your mail at that station and can take up housing there. As a diplomat you will be able to travel freely, ask questions, and pry into reports of ship sightings or, God forbid, a Jap invasion.” FDR gave a stifled laugh. “As far as the Commander at the station is concerned you are on special assignment. What they won’t know is that you are reporting directly to me. Also the FBI will undoubtedly want to know who you are. Try and keep a low profile and tell them as little as possible, short of getting yourself thrown in jail.”
“Why not just tell them I’m your eyes and ears?”
FDR leaned back, briefly studied the President’s Seal on his gold cigarette case, before opening it and removing a cigarette. He placed it in his long ivory cigarette holder, slid it between his teeth, and lit it. A bellow of blue smoke streamed from his nostrils. “Trust me son, if they know you’re working directly for me, the truth will escape you like a dog chasing its tail. You must keep it a secret.”
Cheryl Barton stood at the porch of her parents’ colonial- style home on the outskirts of Annapolis. She wore a light button down sweater and pleated skirt and shivered in the crisp winter air. Her father, an ensign serving on the Arizona, was officially listed as missing in action, meaning they hadn’t heard from him since the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had been crying off and on the past two days, but had run out of tears. She had comforted her mother and younger sister as bravely as she could, but fearing the worst, they had each burst into tears in the depth of the night when they were alone. Staring down the long drive, waiting for Gaston to arrive, she was thankful she had finally stopped crying. Fifteen minutes earlier Gaston had called and told her he would be by shortly. His call was a welcome flicker of light in two of the darkest days she had ever known, but there had been something in Gaston’s voice that told her he was hiding something. It was unusual for him to come by in the middle of the week. She hoped nothing was wrong.
Her lips curled up as she saw a car pull into the driveway, but vanished when she realized it wasn’t Gaston. A dull gray sedan crept slowly up the gravel drive and stopped an unusually long way from the front of the house. Two Navy men in their winter dress uniforms approached her. She panicked. “Mama!” She turned and opened the door to the house. “Mama, come quick!” Dread overtook her. There was no mistaking why they were there.
It took over an hour for Gaston to maneuver his 1936 Plymouth coupe through the Washington traffic. In the short time since the declaration of war, the Capitol was already a madhouse of activity. It seemed the city had doubled in size overnight, and, in fact, it had. The country was at war, and Washington DC was swelling with contractors, lobbyists, military personnel, and, of course, politicians. It was more traffic than he’d ever seen. As he maneuvered his dirty, brown, two-door sedan through a seemingly endless mass of vehicles, he considered what he would tell Cheryl. He had been given an assignment directly from the President. How could he keep from lying about it? If he told her the truth, she probably wouldn’t believe him anyway. He hated to lie. It went against every fiber of his being. It shouldn’t be that hard, he thought. When his mother was alive, he had to lie just to survive. Telling the truth often got him a beating from one of the many men in his mother’s life. After she was gone, he had made a promise to himself never to lie again. Still this wasn’t that simple; it was all right if the President told you to do it, wasn’t it? He decided he couldn’t lie to Cheryl. He wouldn’t lie to her. She was his steady girl. They would probably marry one day. It wasn’t right to keep secrets from someone you loved. He let out a long sigh as if the world had been lifted from his shoulders. He was content that she could keep his secret.
As traffic closed in around him, he felt the heavy burden of the President’s actions come over him. Ever since that day, long ago, when he slept in James Roosevelt’s bedroom, he had wanted to be an officer in the Navy. He remembered seeing the pictures of James’ father in his naval uniform. He was a tall, handsome man standing by his son. Gaston imagined the man was his father and he was the boy in the picture. Now, that same man had taken away his dream. He would never serve his Country as Commander of a ship. He would be lucky if he ever set foot on a ship. He clamped his jaw to keep from crying. He was a civilian, and every other man his age was fighting the war.
When Gaston turned into the long drive, he found a dark house with Cheryl, her mother, and sister sitting in the living room. In spite of the chilly December day the front door was wide open. Immediately he knew something was wrong. “What happened?” he asked, as he entered the house, but by the look on Cheryl’s face, he already knew.
Cheryl ran up to him and put her arms around him. “Daddy was killed when the Arizona went down,” she whispered. “Mom and Lilly are pretty upset.”
Gaston hugged her tight, “He was a brave man serving his Country,” he said, trying to comfort her. “How are you holding up?”
“Gaston, the goddamned Japs killed my dad!” She broke into a hysterical fit and started pounding his chest. “They killed him! They killed him!”
Gaston wrapped his arms around her again and held her trembling body close to him. He felt the wetness of her tears on his shirt as they streamed down her face. He was without words. What do you say to someone who has lost their father?
He had never known his father, and his mother had died when he was twelve. As he held her tight and tried to comfort her, he wondered what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been rescued from that alley in a New York City ghetto so many years ago. His eyes grew misty as he thought about that day.
“She’s dead, you little shit. She ain’t no use to me now. Get your things and get out!” a man called Slade was yelling at him.
He only knew him as Slade, a tall thin man in a shiny blue suit and slicked back hair. Even though it was hot weather, a white silk scarf was draped over his shoulders like he was some kind of royalty. An unlit cigar seemed to be permanently attached to the corner of his mouth. Slade was his mother’s john. She’d given him strict orders not to be present when Slade was around, but his mother was dead, lying lifeless on the bed, and he had nowhere to hide.
“You hear me, boy? Get yer ass out of here and don’t come back or you’ll get what’s commin’ to ya!”
Gaston gathered his clothes from a dresser drawer. He found a battered suitcase in the closet and his mother’s purse. He rummaged through her purse and took out a pack of cigarettes, one crumpled dollar bill, a Standing Liberty quarter and eleven pennies. He stuffed the money in his pocket and his clothes in the suitcase and walked out on the street. It was summer; the August air heavy with humidity from a passing storm. The concrete burned the soles of his bare feet. A worn pair of sneakers, the only shoes he owned, hung by the shoelaces around his neck. He lugged the suitcase as far as he could, and when he could no longer walk, he found a dark spot and collapsed. He found a thick newspaper by a garbage can. That night he slept on a bed of newsprint, behind a brownstone house. He was scared, hungry, and more alone than he had ever known. Little did he know that the place he had chosen to sleep his first night alone in a noisy city would change his life forever.
He felt the cane in his side. “Wake up, boy. Are you okay?”
Gaston looked up at a very tall man with wire-rimmed glasses and a long cigarette holder in his mouth. The man had steel braces on his legs and a cane in each hand, still he stood tall.
Gaston rose to his feet, speechless. He would surely go to jail. The man looked to be someone important. In the street beyond the man was the largest, most luxurious vehicle he had ever seen. He looked up at the man wearing a black silk hat and a wide grin.
“Come on lad, let’s get some breakfast. I’ll bet you have a hell of a tale for me.”
Something about the man told Gaston he could trust him, or possibly it was his desperate circumstances, but Gaston decided he’d let the man give him a ride in that grand and luxurious automobile. The man held himself upright with the two canes. He watched as the man labored his way back to the car, refusing to be helped by the driver. The driver reached for Gaston’s suitcase, but he was having none of that. After a bout of tug of war, the man relinquished and let Gaston take care of it.
Gaston climbed up into the back seat of the open carriage. The black leather seats were hot from the morning sun, but Gaston had spent a cold night with little protection and it felt good. The man in the silk hat let the driver assist him to the seat beside Gaston. Gaston felt like they were the star attraction in a parade as they slowly drove down the street. “Gee, mister,” Gaston said, “you must be rich.”
He looked down at Gaston. “We are all rich. You have your whole life ahead of you. I have the White House.”
At the time Gaston had no idea what the man was saying. They pulled up to a large brick house. Several servants came out to assist the man as he got out of the car.
After a bath and a change into his cleanest dirty shirt, they had breakfast served. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” the man asked.
Gaston stared at him with wide eyes, shaking his head. “Someone famous, I suppose. You don’t get a house like this or a car like that unless you’re a gangster, or you’re famous.”
Roosevelt laughed again. The lad was getting to him. “It’s okay, eat up. You look like you could use a good meal. When was the last time you ate?”
Gaston shook his head and took a mouthful of oatmeal. Suddenly, it came to him: the man on the front page of the New York Times. He had seen the paper before he laid it out for a mattress. “I know who you are,” Gaston said, after swallowing hard. “You’re the new Governor of New York.”
“Bravo boy. How’d you know that?”
Gaston took a drink of orange juice. “I read it in the New York Times.”
“Well, boy, you know who I am, now tell me your story.”
“Gaston, darling, you said you had something important to tell me,” Cheryl said, breaking the silence.
Gaston, shaken back to reality, grimaced. “Somehow in the scheme of things, it doesn’t seem so important anymore.”
“What are you doing out of uniform? You didn’t go off and enlist!”
“Worse, I’m afraid. You know I have less than a year left at the Academy.”
“Of course; well, what is it?”
“I had to drop out, but I’ve been asked to serve our Country in another way.”
“What way? Why are you being so elusive?”
Gaston picked his words carefully. “I’m going to the West Coast on a special assignment.”
Cheryl started to laugh. “A special assignment! You a spy? Are you sure they’re that hard up for G-men? No, it’s something else. Come clean with me, Buster. You’re breaking up with me, aren’t you?”
Cheryl’s demeanor went from inquisitive to anger. “That’s it, you’re breaking up with me and going to war! I hate you Gaston Carson!” She turned to go away.
Gaston grabbed her arm. “I’m going to serve out the war in Oregon at the request of the President. If I can, I’ll send for you.” He pulled her to him and kissed her on the lips.
She pushed away from him. “You’re not telling me the truth. You think you can kiss me and I’ll let you get away with that? Oregon! That’s half way around the world.”
“It’s not that bad. It’s only 3,000 miles.” His attempt at making light of the situation failed.
“You are breaking up with me. You can’t run away and expect me to wait for you.”
Gaston was becoming frustrated with the conversation. “What do you want me to do? We are at war!” He looked at Cheryl’s mother still sobbing in the arms of her younger daughter. “Sorry, Mrs. Barton. I’m so sorry for your loss. I didn’t know Ensign Barton that well, but he was a good man. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
“Thank you, Gaston. I’m sorry the two of you didn’t have the opportunity to get to know each other better. He would have liked you.”
“Gaston is breaking up with me, Mother!” Cheryl turned and ran out of the room.
Mrs. Barton shook her head and stood up. “Gaston, go ahead and do what you have to do. I’ll talk some sense into her. If it’s meant to be, you’ll come back after the war and she’ll be waiting.” She gave him a knowing smile.
Gaston hugged her. “I have to catch an airplane tomorrow morning. Imagine me flying across the country!”
“Stay safe. We’ll miss you.”
Cheryl’s sister got up from the couch. “Kill some Japs for me, Gaston. And hurry back. If Cheryl won’t have you, I’ll be a lot older by then and we could get married.”
Cheryl stormed out from her bedroom. “Lilly, you little brat!” She ran up to Gaston. “I’m sorry. I love you. Please don’t do anything dangerous. Gaston, I’m going to miss you. I’ll wait...I promise, I’ll wait ‘til you come back.”