Paul Harless had a glimpse into war that few people did.
Harless was 18 when he joined the Navy in 1939. His first assignment was with the USS Arkansas, which patrolled the United States’ East Coast, but his second assignment, which began in May 1940, was aboard the USS Potomac, a former Coast Guard cutter, which had been transformed into the presidential yacht for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was dubbed the “Floating White House.”
“He was very friendly, and he liked to tell jokes – the dry kind,” said Harless, who never spoke directly to the president, but observed him during his three years on the 165-foot-long ship with its crew of 42.
Most of the time the yacht was used for recreational purposes. FDR liked to fish off the back of the ship, which was protected by bulletproof glass, and it was the location of Eleanor Roosevelt’s 57th birthday celebration.
“In March or April, he liked to go every weekend to the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
But the vessel also served some official functions.
During his three years with the Potomac, Harless watched as the president met with other dignitaries including Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands, Crown Princess Martha of Norway and Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden.
“There were all kinds of people – politicians and royalty,” he said.
FDR also did one of his fireside chats from the Potomac on March 19, 1941.
And Harless was aboard the ship as it transported FDR to a secret meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941. The president was supposedly heading on a fishing expedition and a visit to Martha’s Vineyard.
Instead, he was secretly transferred to the USS Augusta and headed to Newfoundland where the two leaders forged the principles of the Atlantic Charter, which formed the Allied partnership during World War II, according to the USS Potomac website, usspotomac.org.
The Potomac has been restored and is maintained in the San Francisco Bay area. Harless helped provide information to the nonprofit organization that restored it.
Harless was off-duty the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“We had just gotten back from a trip to New England on the Potomac and dropped him off in Washington,” he said. “That Sunday morning I was in a hospital in Washington visiting a friend when they announced it.”
Harless saw other action in the Pacific during World War II. He spent 19 months and saw 12 major battles including Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“We came back to San Francisco after 19 months and had gone 173,000 miles,” he said. “I saw nearly all of the islands of the Pacific.”
Harless also served during the Korean War. He left active duty after his service in Korea, but he stayed in the Naval Reserves. He retired with a total of 34 years of service.
He moved to the North Augusta area in 1952 and took a job at DuPont at the Savannah River Site. He retired from there in 1982.