World War II was still boiling toward its end when President Harry S Truman left the nation’s capital, headed out West in one of history’s most momentous months.
His mission in June 1945? A little rest and relaxation among political allies and Puget Sound scenery in Washington.
Just a few weeks earlier, the Allies had crushed the Nazis in Europe after almost six years of conflict. But World War II wasn’t over yet. American forces were fighting the Japanese in a bloody battle for Okinawa. And diplomats from 50 countries were in San Francisco hammering out the details for what would become the United Nations.
It was only a year earlier that Harry Truman had been a longtime U.S. senator from Independence, Missouri. In November 1944, he was elected as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president. He was sworn in that January. But in April, FDR died: Truman was president.
It had been a busy few months for the new commander-in-chief. So he climbed into his presidential airliner and flew to Washington state for a little vacation.
Washington’s governor at the time was Mon Wallgren, who was also new to his job. Wallgren left the Senate at the same time as Truman. They had worked closely together on a committee investigating defense spending. The two Democrats had become good friends and, some say, poker buddies.
The plan was for Truman to spend a few days relaxing in Washington before heading to San Francisco to speak at the close of the historic United Nations conference. But first, in the only public event of his visit, the president honored a local member of the military, presenting the Medal of Honor to Sgt. John D. Hawk of Bremerton.
As the ceremony on the Capitol steps in Olympia was wrapping up, news came from San Francisco. The UN conference was taking longer than expected, so Truman would stay the weekend in Washington.
With a few extra days to kill in the Evergreen Playground, the president and the governor went fishing in Puget Sound. It was chilly, so Truman borrowed a sweater from Wallgren. Truman didn’t catch anything, so he borrowed a fish for the requisite photo op.
With the extra time, Truman visited Fort Lewis and took a cruise from Tacoma to Olympia. He also took a trip to Mount Rainier and threw a few good-natured Cascade snowballs at the press corps.
But then the presidential pause in the Pacific Northwest came to an end. It was time to get back to work. On June 26, Truman gave the closing address at the UN conference in San Francisco. In rousing remarks that drew vigorous applause from the attendees, he said, “There were many who doubted an agreement could ever be reached by these 50 countries differing so much in race and religion, language and culture. But these differences were all forgotten in one unshakeable unity of determination to find a way to end war.”
The next few weeks only got busier for the president. Just ahead lay the Potsdam Conference with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, which was considered the first skirmish of the Cold War. Then, the atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico in July and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Japan surrendered, and the war was over. But now the rebuilding began, along with the resettlement of countless refugees across Europe and Asia.
As he navigated the turbulent waters of history that summer, Harry Truman’s vacation memories of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier must have seemed a world away.