"How Would You like to Be Attached to the Red Army?" A Cameraman at Yalta Tells What It Was like to Spend a Few Days in Claustrophobic Luxury with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt-And to Be Offered a Job by Joseph Stalin

By Hopkins, Robert | American Heritage, June-July 2005 | Go to article overview

"How Would You like to Be Attached to the Red Army?" A Cameraman at Yalta Tells What It Was like to Spend a Few Days in Claustrophobic Luxury with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt-And to Be Offered a Job by Joseph Stalin


Hopkins, Robert, American Heritage


Robert Hopkins was 15 years old when he first met Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the inauguration of New York's Triborough Bridge in 1936. His father, Harry Hopkins, ran the WPA, which had built the bridge. Of course Hopkins remained FDR's close lieutenant throughout the war, and once, as a newly minted GI, Robert was able to return late to Fort Dix bearing this note:

November 30, 1941

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

Private Robert Hopkins is to be excused from reveille. He has been in consultation with the Commander-in-Chief.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Few soldiers can have had a more varied wartime career than Hopkins, who became a photographer and divided his time between being under fire on the front lines and breakfasting on caviar with the highest of High Commanders. So it was that early in 1945 he went from the German front to Malta, where he met his father. "Dad told me we would be taking off to fly to the Crimea that night and to be sure I had all my equipment with me." He was heading toward the Yalta Conference, where, for the last time, the three main leaders of the Allied effort met to begin shaping the postwar world.

We were flying over the Black Sea when I woke up at seven o'clock on the morning of February 3. I learned that we would be landing at Saki in the Crimea and would continue by car to Yalta, 90 miles away.

When our plane touched down, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was there to meet us. He remembered me from the Teheran Conference and greeted me in a friendly fashion. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already landed. The President and my father arrived a few minutes later in the President's plane, The Sacred Cow. Also on the plane were his daughter, Anna Boettiger, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Averell Harriman and his daughter, Kathy, and Maj. Gen. Edwin M. ("Pa") Watson, the President's military aide.

Soviet soldiers in dress uniforms lined both sides of the runway. They snapped to attention as the President's plane landed, and a Russian military band struck up. When the President was installed in a jeep and was talking to my father, I used some of my small supply of precious four-by-five-inch color film to photograph them. The result proved to be my favorite photograph of President Roosevelt and my father together.

President Roosevelt reviewed the honor guard with Prime Minister Churchill walking alongside his jeep. Then we boarded a convoy of cars and set out on the bone-jarring drive to Yalta. It took us five hours on that battle-pitted road, through the stark, scorched earth landscape, to reach our destination. The entire route was guarded by Soviet soldiers, most of them women, posted within sight of one another. That 90-mile drive from Saki to Yalta took almost as much time as our 1,400-mile flight from Malta to Saki.

Camouflage paint dimmed the splendor of Livadia Palace when it loomed out of the trees. The Nazi High Command, which had occupied the palace, had vacated it only months before we arrived.

MY FATHER WENT STRAIGHT TO BED TO RECUPERATE from the grueling journey. He had a private room near the President's quarters on the main floor of the palace. Anna Boettiger, Adm. William Leahy, Gen. George Marshall, and Adm. Ernest King also had private rooms, but just about everyone else had to share. I recall that there were 16 Army colonels jammed, dormitory-style, in one room. Miraculously, I found a tiny room up under the eaves of the palace, furnished with a cot, a straight-back chair, and a small table. I immediately claimed it, enormously pleased at having found a room to myself. That night I had no sooner closed my eyes than I became aware that I was in fact sharing my room with a horde of Russian bedbugs that emerged from under the torn wallpaper in battalions. U.S. Navy personnel, responsible for the logistics of the conference, came to my rescue with aerosol insecticides. …

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