Long-time residents like to point out with pride that Dwight "Ike" and Mamie Eisenhower lived for a short time in a boardinghouse in Laurel during his posting to Camp Meade. But a new book sheds some light on their time in Laurel — a time that proved crucial to Dwight Eisenhower's career, but also a time that produced their darkest days, both personally and professionally.
Steven Rabalais has written a biography of Fox Conner, one of Eisenhower's primary mentors and a forgotten, but highly influential, military leader. His book, "General Fox Conner, Pershing's Chief of Operations and Eisenhower's Mentor," provides details on three life-altering events that happened to the Eisenhowers during their time at Camp Meade (Camp Meade became Fort Leonard Wood in 1928, renamed Fort Meade in 1929). Other Eisenhower biographies, as well as his own memoirs, confirm the events and help fill in some details.
"Eisenhower himself would tell you that meeting Fox Conner was a watershed moment in his career," Rabalais said. "Eisenhower probably wouldn't have amounted to what he became without his time at Meade."
In March 1919, Eisenhower, an army major, was sent to Camp Meade for the second time in his career. He had been thwarted throughout World War I in his efforts to be sent to Europe and join the fighting. At Meade, however, he was given an opportunity to continue his work with a relatively new weapon — tanks. He also coached the camp football team.
In the autumn of 1920, he met Col. George Patton, who had commanded a tank brigade in France in World War I. After the war, Patton had been sent to Meade, where he and Eisenhower became good friends and next-door neighbors.
"From the beginning he and I got along famously," Eisenhower wrote in his 1967 memoir, "At Ease." In their side-by-side quarters, Eisenhower distilled gin and Patton brewed beer, according to Rabalais.
In 1920, the Army transferred the Tank Corps into the infantry, and Eisenhower and Patton, each of whom commanded a tank battalion at Meade, were tasked with making it work. Together they developed tank tactics, procedures and design. Eisenhower benefited from his friend's combat experience with tanks.
It was through Patton that Eisenhower met the man who was destined to be his most influential mentor. At a dinner party hosted by Patton and his wife, Gen. Fox Conner discussed tanks with Eisenhower and Patton. The discussion went on for hours and was even moved to the tank repair shop.
"At the time, Eisenhower had not comprehended that he had just gone through a job interview," said Rabalais.
After his time at Camp Meade, Conner requested that Eisenhower become his executive officer in Panama. The Eisenhowers pulled up stakes and the move propelled his career. Before leaving Camp Meade, however, Conner would help Eisenhower through a career crisis.
Losing a son
Mamie Eisenhower came from a wealthy Denver family, and she struggled in the couple's early years adapting to the military lifestyle. "Social life among the married couples was rather thin in the post-war months at Meade," Dwight Eisenhower wrote in "At Ease."
Eisenhower and Patton sometimes needed more entertainment than poker games and dinner parties. A 1969 Time magazine review of John Eisenhower's book, "The Bitter Woods," contained one anecdote as to how they entertained themselves:
"Back in the early 1920s, when they were bored peacetime soldiers at Fort Meade, Ike and George Patton used to drive back and forth at night along a lonely road where holdups were known to occur. Armed to the teeth, they offered themselves as bait —but in vain."
The "lonely road" was no doubt Route 602 (later Route 198) to Laurel.
While the Eisenhowers renovated their quarters to make them appropriate for a family, Eisenhower "rented a wretched single room in a Laurel, Maryland, boardinghouse" on Montgomery Street for a month, wrote Carlo D'Este in his book, "Eisenhower, A Soldier's Life," published in 2002.
This added to Mamie's unhappiness. She did not like Laurel "where make-do and secondhand were by-words," wrote D'Este. "That was a horrible time," said Mamie in a 1977 oral history quoted by D'Este. The Eisenhowers left Laurel for good when Mamie declared "Ike, I just can't take this any longer," according to the oral history.
But there was one bright spot for the couple: the birth of their son, Doud Dwight Eisenhower (nicknamed "Icky"), who was a favorite of the Tank Corps.
"Soldiers there nicknamed him 'Mascot of the Corps' … He loved to march about in his miniature Army uniform," wrote Jim Newton in his book, "Eisenhower, The White House Years."
Crisis developed at Christmas in 1920 when 3-year old Icky came down with scarlet fever. Doctors from Johns Hopkins University assisted Camp Meade's Army doctors in treating the boy. Icky was quarantined for a few weeks before he died on Jan. 2, 1921 at Camp Meade's hospital.
"This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life, the one I have never been able to forget completely," Eisenhower wrote in "At Ease."
In the spring of 1921, and still reeling from Icky's death, Eisenhower faced the very real possibility that he would be court-martialed, as detailed in Rabalais' book.
The previous year, while their quarters were still being renovated, Eisenhower put in a claim for reimbursement for Icky's living expenses, who was staying in Denver with Mamie's family. The Army paid the claim.
But Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower were living in Army housing at Meade. According to Army regulations, Eisenhower could receive one or the other: government housing or payment for off-base lodging. When Eisenhower realized his mistake, he reported it and expected to have to pay back the money.
Unfortunately, the Army's acting inspector general, Brig. Gen. Eli A. Helmick, recommended he be court-martialed. Camp Meade's commanding officer, however, considered the recommendation to be unduly harsh. Instead, he delivered a verbal reprimand and ordered Eisenhower to pay back the money. The Helmick was not appeased, and ordered a court-martial to proceed.
It was at this point that Conner's request for Eisenhower to join him in Panama as his executive officer came through. Conner communicated to his former boss, Army Chief of Staff John Pershing, to resolve the situation.
"Conner's behind-the-scene maneuvering bore full fruit" when Helmick said in staff memo that "the trial of Major Eisenhower is not recommended," wrote Rabalais. "When Fox Conner rescued Dwight Eisenhower's career in 1921, he changed the course of history."
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Contact Kevin Leonard at email@example.com or 301-776-9260.