On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, 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. Roosevelt intended to ask 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 Willamette University football team, in Honolulu at this time to play the “Shrine Bowl”, took up a defensive cordon around the Punahou school.
Roosevelt’s 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 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.
Advanced syphilis had reduced Al Capone to a neurological wreck by this time. By the time of FDR’s speech, Capone had been released from Alcatraz, and resided in Palm Island, Florida. 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.”
The internet can be a wonderful thing, if you don’t mind taking your water from a fire hose. The reader of history quickly finds that some tales are true as written, some are not, and some stories are so good you want them to be true.
Napoleon once asked, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” Winston Churchill said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”.
You can find on-line sources if you like, to tell you this story is a myth. Others will tell you it’s perfectly true. CBS News reports: “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt made use of a heavily armored Cadillac that was originally owned by gangster Al Capone until the Sunshine Special could be modified with armor plating, bulletproof glass, and sub-machine gun storage“.
As a piece of history, you may take this one as you like. I confess, I am one who wants it to be true.