It was early on a Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, when the armed forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Navy’s Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.
The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was notified almost immediately. It had been an act of war, a deliberate attack on one sovereign nation by another, and Roosevelt intended to ask the Congress for a declaration of war.
Work began almost immediately on what we now know as Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, to be delivered to a joint session of Congress the following day.
There was no knowing if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been an isolated event, or whether there would be a continuation of such attacks, sabotage on facilities, or even assassination attempts.
The speech was scheduled for noon on the 8th, and the Secret Service knew they had a problem. Roosevelt was fond of his 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible. Roosevelt called it the “Sunshine Special,” but the car was anything but secure. Armored Presidential cars would not come into regular use for another 20 years, after the assassination of President Kennedy.
Federal regulations of the time restricted the purchase of any vehicle costing $750 or higher, $10,455 in today’s dollars, and that wasn’t going to get them an armored limo. They probably couldn’t have gotten one that quickly anyway, even if there had been no restriction on spending.
In 1928, Al Capone had purchased a Cadillac 341A Town Sedan with 3,000 pounds of armor and inch-thick bulletproof windows. It was green and black, matching the Chicago police cars of the era, and equipped with a siren and flashing lights hidden behind the grill. Capone himself was at Palm Island, Florida in 1941, having been in and out of Alcatraz by this time and reduced to a neurosyphilitic wreck. His limo had been sitting in a Treasury Department parking lot, ever since being seized in his IRS tax evasion suit from years earlier.
Mechanics cleaned and checked Capone’s Caddy well into the night of December 7th, making sure that it would safely get the Commander in Chief the few short blocks to Capitol Hill. It apparently did, because Roosevelt continued to use it until his old car could be fitted with the same features. To this day, Presidential limousines have flashing police lights hidden behind their grilles.
Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill. He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”