July 25, 1943
On July 25, 1943, shortly after Allied forces invaded Sicily and Allied bombers attacked Rome, five United States senators set out on a unique and controversial mission. They boarded a converted bomber at National Airport to begin a 65-day tour of U.S. military installations around the world. Each senator wore a dog tag and carried one knife, one steel helmet, extra cigarettes, emergency food rations, manuals on jungle survival, and two military uniforms. The senators were to wear the military uniforms while flying over enemy territory and visiting U.S. field operations in the fragile hope that, if captured, they would be treated humanely as prisoners of war.
The idea for this inspection trip originated among members of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The latter panel, chaired by Senator Harry Truman, had spent two years examining waste and corruption at military construction facilities around the United States. Both committees wished to expand their investigations to onsite overseas visits. Majority Leader Alben Barkley at first opposed the idea of senators taking up the time of military commanders. With the encouragement of Senator Truman and President Franklin Roosevelt, however, he reluctantly agreed to create a small committee chaired by Georgia Democrat Richard Russell and composed of two members from the Truman Committee and two from Military Affairs.
The committee's main task was to observe the quality and effectiveness of war material under combat conditions. As laudable as this mission seemed, departing members received a good deal of criticism both from colleagues and constituents. At a time of stringent gasoline rationing, a constituent wrote Russell that it would be wiser to allocate his aircraft's fuel to the needs of "your Georgia people."
The senators' first stop was England, where they bunked with the Eighth Air Force, dined with the king and queen, and interviewed Winston Churchill. They moved on to North Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, China, and Australia, before returning home on September 18.
Russell had planned to brief the Senate at a secret session set for October 7. Before that briefing, however, committee member Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., upstaged the chairman by giving his own account in public session. Although this, and leaks by other members, infuriated Russell, his committee's report framed the key issues of postwar reconstruction and set a firm precedent for future overseas travel by inquiring senators.