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FDR in San Rafael

A president’s not-so-secret secret mission included visits to Novato’s Hamilton Army Airfield and downtown San Rafael.



BETWEEN SEPTEMBER 17 and October 1 of 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on a “secret” tour of U.S. defense plants. World War II was well underway and, for his protection, FDR left Washington, D.C., via a special train and under a press blackout. By September 24, after visiting a Chrysler tank plant in Michigan, observing army exercises in the state of Washington and launching a naval ship in Portland, as part of his Northern California tour FDR inspected Hamilton Army Airfield outside Novato. All with the understanding that nothing could be published about the journey until the president was safely back at the White House. However, after leaving Hamilton Army Airfield en route to the army’s port of embarkation in San Francisco, the presidential caravan passed through San Rafael, and that’s when former Marin County Free Library director Virginia Keating took this rare photo of FDR in his limousine. Recently, Washington, D.C.–based historian Brody Levesque, author of The Sunshine Special—FDR’s 1939 Lincoln Series K Presidential Limousine, personally identified the vehicle in Keating’s photo as the one that often accompanied President Roosevelt. The limo traveled via a custom-built railcar. But if FDR’s journey was hush-hush, as all accounts say it was, how did Keating, along with others seen lining San Rafael’s streets, know that America’s 32nd president would soon be passing their way? “I think it may have been because throughout the 1940s, the Marin County Free Library was headquartered at 1111 Grand Avenue in downtown San Rafael,” says Laurie Thompson, librarian at the Anne T. Kent California Room at the Marin County Civic Center. “And because the county librarian is a county employee, she was privy to information that would impact her surroundings, which indeed a presidential visit would.”

Photo courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library

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