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Joint Base Andrews Features

NEWS | Nov. 27, 2006

1st presidential flight from Andrews was a surprise visit to mom

By Dr. Craig B. Waff 89th Airlift Wing Historian

"On Sunday, 24 November [1946], the nation's spotlight could well have been focused on Andrews Field -- however, it was not." So began the account, in an early periodic history of the base, of a particular mission that originated at Andrews early that fall morning, only four days before Thanksgiving. What kind of mission could have prompted 1st Lt. Earl R. Parsons, the historical officer of the base at the time, to suggest that an important historic event had occurred at Andrews, but had received no public notice?

Today, Americans are used to seeing images of high government officials, especially the President of the United States, departing from and arriving at Andrews. In the mid-1940s, officials normally arrived and departed from Washington National Airport. Special air missions were transitioned to Andrews only in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Air Force introduced the use of jet transports, which required longer runways. In the mid-1940s, the most common aircraft at Andrews were A-26s, AT-6s, B-17s, B-25s, C-45s, C-47s, L-5s, P-38s, P-47s and P-51s.

In fact, 60 years ago this week, a presidential special air mission did originate at Andrews for the first time and was conducted with great secrecy. This flight out had been arranged by telephone earlier that week while President Harry S. Truman was vacationing in Key West, Fla. The president and various staff members, plus some reporters, had arrived back in Washington Saturday, Nov. 23. Those reporters didn't expect President Truman to fly out of town so quickly again, especially with the United Mine Workers having declared a nationwide coal strike, the second of the year, only five days earlier.

However, at 6 a.m. Nov. 24 Lt. Col. Henry T. Myers, the presidential chief pilot, after a short flight from Washington National Airport, landed at Andrews flying the Sacred Cow, the modified C-54A Skymaster that had been transporting President Truman by air since he took office Apr. 12, 1945, upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. An hour and a half later, according to Lieutenant Parsons' account, two unmarked 1946 Mercury convertible coupes drove onto the base. One of the vehicles contained the president and several Secret Service men, while the other carried Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughn, President Truman's military aide, and several additional Secret Service men. A few minutes after President Truman and General Vaughn were greeted by Col. Curtis D. Sluman, the base commander, and Lt. Col. Frank L. O'Brien, who would shortly be named deputy base commander, they boarded the plane along with two of the Secret Service men and "departed into the blue" at 7:50 a.m.

Lieutenant Parsons noted the secrecy that surrounded this flight: "No publicity was initiated on this operation, so if the President should again choose to use Andrews Field as a secret base of departure, he might do so."

Why had the "nation's spotlight" been deliberately kept away from Andrews on this occasion, and where were President Truman and General Vaughn headed? Was it a matter of national security?

To the contrary, the mission was purely personal. President Truman's mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman, who lived in Grandview, Mo., would be celebrating her 94th birthday Monday, Nov. 25, and the president wanted to spend some time with her. He needed to be in Washington Monday, in order to deal with events connected with the coal strike, so he arranged for the Sacred Cow to fly him out to Missouri and back in a single day. The unavoidable shortness of the visit, less than the duration of either of the flights between Washington and Missouri, was in fact the reason why the flight had been shrouded in secrecy. As Charles G. Ross, President Truman's press secretary, explained in a press release issued later in the day, the president had kept the flight secret because during the short time that he would be with his mother, he wanted to assure "all possible privacy."

Members of the Truman family were given only short notice concerning the impending visit. A week earlier, in fact, family members told the press that President Truman's mother was not expecting him to be able to come home this year, as he had previously.

The Sacred Cow landed at Grandview Airport, which later became Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, Mo., at 1:10 p.m., the flight taking longer than expected because of heavy head winds, according to Colonel Myers. Met by his brother John V. Truman, the president was immediately driven to their mother's home, while General Vaughn, a native Missourian, dined with friends in nearby Kansas City.

Sixteen members of the Truman family sat down at the dinner table. Mr. Ross reported that the president found his mother "in good health and fine spirits." According to Mary Jane Truman, the president's sister, "We had turkey and everything that goes with it. It was a nice family visit. Harry didn't discuss anything going on in Washington, and he didn't seem worried, but then, he's always happy. Mother wasn't too surprised by his visit, because Harry always comes if he can, but we didn't know in advance."

Within two hours, the visit ended, and the Sacred Cow, with the President aboard, departed Grandview at 3:46 p.m. and arrived in Washington at 7:15 p.m. The duration of the return flight -- 3 hours and 29 minutes -- was eleven minutes shorter than any previous return flight, which Myers attributed to a strong tail wind all the way.

It was only after President Truman had departed from Missouri that reporters learned about the President's secret trip, via a phone call from Mary Jane Truman to the Kansas City Star and a press release from Mr. Ross. The Star's account was picked up by the Associated Press newswire, and it and a separate AP story written by a Washington reporter were printed in the New York Times and probably other newspapers around the country. Neither story, however, mentioned that President Truman had departed from Andrews Sunday morning, so indeed the "nation's spotlight" did not focus on the base that day.