Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Blaze Incident – Podcast #68

The Blaze Incident hit the front pages of the press on January 17th of 1945.  With the United States embroiled in World War II at the time, you would think that it would take a story of extreme national importance to grab the front-page headlines.  So, I will let you judge for yourself as to whether this story was truly worthy of all of the attention that it received.

It had been learned by the press that three US servicemen, all trying to get home on leave, were bumped from their flight aboard an army transport plane because load critical to the war effort needed to be transported aboard the airplane in their place.  The load was so big that it took up the space of three seats.  Just what could be that urgent?  Perhaps a piece critical to the soon-to-be-used first atomic bomb?  Or possibly an essential part needed on the front to protect the troops?  Or how about critical medical supplies?

Keep dreaming.  None of these are correct. Instead, it was a big, big dog.  Make that a gigantic dog.  It was one 130-lb (about 60-kilogram) bullmastiff.  And this was not just any bullmastiff.  This particular dog, named Blaze, had nothing to do with the war and was being shipped by its owner Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, the second oldest son of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Elliot Roosevelt in 1938
Elliot Roosevelt in 1938. Library of Congress image.

The timing of this event couldn’t have been worse.  Elliot was just about to be considered by the Senate for promotion to Brigadier General, his dad was days away from being inaugurated for a record fourth term as commander-in-chief, and let’s not forget the nasty global war that was on everyone’s mind.

Now before I tell you more, I first must mention that the military had a letter ranking system for the cargo that it carried.  C & D ratings were used for passengers or cargo not considered to be extremely urgent in nature.  As you can imagine, an A classification was the most critical material for the war effort.  White House Press Secretary Stephen T. Early described an A rating as “an emergency so acute that precedence should be given over all other traffic.”

Can you guess the rating of Blaze the Dog?  It was an A.  And just where was this Bullmastiff headed that was so important?  To the home of Colonel Roosevelt’s new bride of 45 days in Hollywood, California – movie actress Faye Emerson.  She is basically forgotten today, but Emerson was a superstar on 1950’s television and was best known at the time for her controversial plunging necklines.  Emerson is credited as having had the first wardrobe malfunction ever on live television – long before the famous Janet Jackson incident.

But I diverge from the real story…

One of the men bumped off the flight by the dog was 18-year-old Seaman 1st Class, Leon LeRoy.  He was a gunner on a Navy tanker. Upon his arrival back in New York on January 9th of 1945 from an overseas stint, he learned that his dad had passed away on December 6th and asked his superiors if he could take some time to visit his grieving mother in Antioch, California.  An emergency leave was granted and LeRoy hopped aboard an army cargo plane in Newark, NJ, and headed west.

When the plane reached Dayton, Ohio, 22 men with a D priority were bumped from the flight as cargo with a higher priority was loaded aboard.  This included the crate that contained Blaze.  Three men with a C rating, which included Leon LeRoy, were allowed to stay aboard.

Everything was fine for the three men until the plane touched down in Memphis, Tennessee on January 11th.  Apparently, there was a backlog of B priority freight sitting there that needed to loaded, which necessitated the removal of some of the lower priority cargo.  When an unidentified army lieutenant examined the various priorities, the three men ranked at the bottom and were booted from the plane. They protested loudly that the dog was allowed to stay aboard, but, as they say, the rules are the rules.

And here is where things got interesting.  Leon LeRoy was forced to hitchhike from Memphis to Dallas, TX, but somehow lost his leave papers during all of the commotions back in Memphis.  He was picked up by the military police in Little Rock, Arkansas, and held as a prisoner for two days until receiving a telegram from his superior officer clearing up the situation.  He had to enlist the help of the Red Cross to get new papers and they were the ones that leaked this story to the press.

The second man was Sergeant Dave Aks of Riverside, California.  After thirty months of duty in the Pacific, he was granted an emergency leave after learning that his wife was very ill.

The third man was a Navy Seabee, but he was never personally identified in the press.  Yet, another man, a guy named Maurice Nix, had also been on emergency leave and had just completed a visit to his sick wife and four children.  Attempting a return to his assigned duty station on the West Coast, he was prevented from boarding the airplane in Dallas.  He learned that this was because he had a D travel designation and that a huge mastiff already aboard had priority over him.  As a result, Nix was forced to borrow $100 from the Dallas Red Cross to purchase a ticket aboard a commercial airliner to get back to his base on time.

When the news first broke, everyone was in denial.  No one in the military knew how this could happen.

The press caught up with Faye Emerson while on a train to Chicago, ultimately bound for Washington, DC, and her father-in-law’s fourth inauguration.  She was completely caught off guard and clearly embarrassed by the whole situation.  Faye was quoted as saying, “I assure you that my dog travels as freight and awaits his turn.”  Clearly, she had not read that day’s newspapers…

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also questioned the story.  “I’m perfectly sure that is not true.”  She added, “I can’t imagine any plane dispatcher who would be as stupid as that.” Mrs. Roosevelt continued, “No army cargo plane would put a seaman off for that reason.”

Members of Congress, particularly those of the opposing Republican party were quick to chime in with some asking to have those responsible court-martialed and for Elliott Roosevelt to be kicked out of the military.

As you would expect, hearings were held on Capitol Hill, and very quickly other abuses of the system were brought to light.  That includes a skilled army technician who was bumped off of a flight because a higher priority was given to a case of whiskey.

And then there was the story of a Superintendent that had a lower priority than the group of workers he was in charge of.  As a result, the superior officer was bumped from the flight and the workers waited ten days until he finally arrived to tell them what to do.

Basically, it was discovered that if you could offer a tip or a bribe, your cargo could be given a higher priority on the cargo planes.

But after a thorough investigation, that was determined not to be the case in the Blaze incident.  Instead, here is how it all went down:

Blaze and another puppy, along with Elliott Roosevelt, left England on November 13th for Presque Isle, Maine and a few days later went on a B-25 to LaGuardia Field – now known as LaGuardia Airport.

A Marine Corps pilot then flew the dogs to Washington, DC.  The White House was called and they sent a station wagon out to pick up the dogs.   Elliott Roosevelt eventually returned to England and according to Press Secretary Early, left instructions to fly the dog to his wife “when there was an empty bomber available.”

It was Elliot’s sister Anna Boettiger that made the shipping arrangements.  On January 5th, she called Colonel Ray W. Ireland, who was the Assistant Chief of Staff for Priorities and Traffic at ATC – that’s Air Transport Control – and said that the dog needed to be shipped.

Ireland just happened to have been a former manager for United Air Lines and when he was appointed to this position, Secretary of War Henry L Stinson said that Ireland would “speed the flow of manpower and materials into all phases of the war effort.”

He clearly did that when he personally made the decision to give Blaze the dog an A priority.  It turns out that Elliott’s sister had never made any such request – Ireland just did it because he thought that he thought that it was a nice and proper thing to do.

Now you would think that since they had finally gotten to the root of this whole mess that this would have been the end of the Blaze incident, but it wasn’t.

Fast forward to November 30th of that same year.  President Roosevelt had died, World War II had finally ended, and the world was now at peace.  But a battle among two canines had erupted back on the home front.

Faye Emerson got the crazy idea that it would be great if Blaze met the late President’s famed Scottish Terrier Fala at the Roosevelts’ estate in Hyde Park, NY.  I’m not sure how Blaze got to New York from Hollywood, but I am quite certain that it wasn’t as Priority seating aboard military aircraft.

Let’s just say that the idea of pairing up a giant bullmastiff with a petite terrier was not a good idea.  During their first encounter, Blaze leaped out of the vehicle he was in and attacked Fala, but was quickly pulled away.

Their second encounter the next morning went even worse.  Blaze tore into Fala, and it was only through the intervention of an unnamed bystander who repeatedly pounded Blaze’s head with a rock that Fala was not killed.  Fala was rushed to a nearby veterinary hospital suffering from a loss of blood.  Stitches were needed to repair the numerous tears and bites made to his body.  Fala did recover and died naturally on April 5th of 1952, two days shy of his 12th birthday.

Blaze’s sudden aggressiveness left Elliott Roosevelt with no choice but to put the dog to sleep.  Blaze’s remains were checked for rabies, but the test came back negative.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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