Sailor was the piper of history – FDR/Abdulaziz Meeting

Published: February 13, 2005

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60th Anniversary of Historic Meeting between King Abdulaziz and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Editor’s Note:

The meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 1945 was made possible by the use of two US Navy warships. FDR traveled to the Yalta conference and then to the Great Bitter Lake aboard the cruiser USS Quincy. The USS Murphy, a destroyer, escorted the Quincy on the voyage and was dispatched to Jeddah to transport King Abdulaziz to the meeting with FDR.

The ship that delivered the King to the meeting earned a storied place in the history of World War II. The Murphy, commissioned in 1942, started her career seeing combat off the coast of Morocco in support of the invasion of North Africa, completing escort duties in the Atlantic, and screening forces during the invasion of Sicily. In October 1943 the Murphy was screening a convoy in the North Atlantic when it collided with a tanker and was sheared in two. The forward section, separated between the bridge and the forward stack, sank with the loss of 35 crewmembers. The after section was towed to New York where the ship was rebuilt and returned to action. The “new” USS Murphy screened invasion forces at Omaha Beach on D-Day and then sailed to the Mediterranean to support the invasion of southern France. The Murphy, after her historic appointment in the Red Sea hosting King Abdulaziz, served in the Pacific theater. She arrived in Japanese waters after war’s end but was one of the first US ships to land at Nagasaki, Japan.

The story of the USS Murphy’s mission to Jeddah would not have gotten much attention had the St. Petersburg Times not published a firsthand account of the historic sailing. Thomas Hilliard was a boatswain’s mate, or ‘bosun’ aboard the Murphy and detailed his role in hosting the King. We hope you enjoy this glimpse at history which first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on September 12, 2005.

Sailor was the piper of history
Thomas Hilliard was an eyewitness when the U.S. and Saudi Arabia joined destinies in 1945.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published February 12, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG – He was a bosun’s mate to history as he piped the king of Saudi Arabia aboard the destroyer for a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt.

Thomas M. Hilliard didn’t know it at the time, but a deal was about to be done that would tie the Americans and the Saudis together in geopolitics and oil for the next 60 years.

It was the first time a president had met the king, leader of a poor, clannish country without much developed oil. With the close of World War II, that was about to change.

The bosun’s mate, now an 82-year-old resident of Coquina Key in St. Petersburg, was more concerned with accommodating the apparent quirks of a king than with watching the future unfold.

Hilliard remembers the mad rush to sew a 50-foot canvas tent for the monarch who wouldn’t sleep in “an iron cabin.” He recalls the eight live sheep the 49-strong contingent brought aboard, as well as the Persian carpets servants rolled out everywhere the king stepped so he would not set foot on the ship’s deck. Monday, Hilliard will be honored at a reunion of the few still alive who were there for the Great Bitter Lake meeting near the Suez Canal.

That 1945 Valentine’s Day meeting of the two leaders established an international relationship that would help satisfy this nation’s diet for oil and set in motion events that reverberated most notably in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

* * *

At the time of the 1945 accord, the United States was producing its own oil. That was soon to change forever, because of the demands of a war economy and the industrial boom that was to occur afterward. The nascent Arabian American Oil Co. – Aramco – was about to become a gusher for the globe.

At the most basic level, the request for Hilliard’s presence Monday at an elegant luncheon in Coconut Grove is an attempt to mend a fraying alliance.

“I guess friendship with Saudi Arabia is a little bit on the strained side right now,” said Hilliard, a 29-year Navy veteran, chatting in a home chock full of Navy mementos and family photographs.

He was aboard the USS Murphy when it took King Abdel Aziz, or Ibn Saud as he was also known, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a historic shipboard summit with Roosevelt, who was fresh from the Yalta Conference that dictated the shape of the post-war world. Roosevelt died two months later.

In addition to the sheep, the king brought along several 100-pound bags of rice and a bountiful harvest of watermelons and tomatoes.

It took two days to get to Great Bitter Lake for the meeting with Roosevelt on the USS Quincy. One recent afternoon, Hilliard thumbed through two scrapbooks of fading photographs and articles. One photo shows the tent the crew erected for the king near the bow of the destroyer.

“He said he wouldn’t sleep in one of those iron cabins,” said Hilliard, adding that the monarch had been offered the commodore’s stateroom.

There wasn’t enough canvas on board to make a suitable tent, so the Saudis provided 25 to 30 “great, big rolls.”

“We hand-sewed the canvas together” with 4-inch needles and sail thread, Hilliard said.

“I started in the morning and worked all night. And the next morning before the king arrived, we were just finishing up.”

His royal highness also required other comforts.

“He wouldn’t step on a steel deck,” Hilliard said. “Wherever he went, they rolled (rugs) out. He wouldn’t have a sip of anything or a thing to eat unless one of his tasters checked it out.”

An elaborately appointed chair served as his throne. The ship’s crew built a corral at the stern for the small flock the king had for his own use. They also set a 2-by-6-foot plank against the flagstaff – there the king’s men could hang the slaughtered sheep. They cooked atop charcoal pots on deck.

U.S. officers received camel hair Saudi robes, including headdresses, leather sandals and ivory-handled sabers. They also got Swiss gold watches worth about $300. Chief petty officers got $70 to $100 each. Hilliard and other crew members got about $55 or $60. It was a handsome sum at the time.

Monday he will get a chance to reminisce with at least three fellow crew members.

“We’re all getting up in age. And we’re losing a few every year,” said Hilliard, historian for the USS Murphy, which was decommissioned in 1946.

The destroyer’s exciting assignment came soon after the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the momentous meeting of Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. The Allies discussed key issues such as Europe’s postwar reorganization, plans for dividing Germany into zones and the founding of the United Nations.

Roosevelt and the Saudi king’s meeting that followed was similarly significant. The United States was looking for a steady flow of cheap oil, military bases in the Middle East and Saudi cooperation to help Jews settle in Palestine – the modern state of Israel would not be founded until 1948.

The king refused to help with the Palestine issue. Instead, he said, “Give the Jews and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.”

But the United States achieved its other two desires. For the Saudis, the summit led to an influx of much needed America dollars and technology.

Decades later, Osama bin Laden would use the issue of U.S. military bases on Saudi soil and its support of Israel to justify his followers’ attacks. On Sept. 11, 2001, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, a fact that has enraged the American public and prompted politicians to question the genuineness of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance.

That’s where Friends of Saudi Arabia come in. The nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., is the organizer of Monday’s luncheon. Executive director Michael Saba describes Friends of Saudi Arabia as a cultural, social and educational organization whose members are both American and Saudi. Many of the Americans are former employees of Aramco. Others have simply lived in the country, said Saba, himself an American.

Friends of Saudi Arabia simply wants to establish “people-to-people relations” between Americans and Saudis, he said.

Monday’s luncheon is the organization’s inaugural event. The leaders who met on the Quincy 60 years ago will be represented by two of their descendants. Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is the son of the Saudi crown prince and grandson of the king. H. Delano Roosevelt is Roosevelt’s grandson. About 10 veterans and their wives from the Quincy and the Murphy are expected. The occasion will carry on the relationship established decades earlier, Saba said.

Hilliard almost did not accept the invitation. He couldn’t afford the cost of travel and accommodations, he said. Friends of Saudi Arabia said it would make the arrangements.

Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corp., one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, is sponsoring the entire affair.

The use of this material does not imply recommendation or endorsement of any product or service by the St. Petersburg Times or Times Publishing Company.

Source: St. Petersburg Times

Reprinted with permission.