The narrator was from a Navy family. The guided-missile destroyer USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16) was named for his father. The son became an Anglophile and served multiple tours of duty in Great Britain. In the mid-1930s he was posted to England as an assistant naval attaché. He recounted his experiences there in his U.S. Naval Institute oral history; the following is an edited excerpt from his interview with Paul Stillwell on 30 October 1986.
My arrival in London was in November 1935. We naval officers in the U.S. Embassy reported to the top naval attaché, Captain Walter Stratton Anderson. His career was on the upswing then, but he was later sidetracked by the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. You can’t go on from there after being Commander Battleships and lose all those ships—whether it’s your fault or not.
When I was on my way to London, somebody here in Washington said of Anderson, “You’ll get along with him if you know how to handle him.” I found I got along beautifully with Captain Anderson. I had two things that helped me. One thing was that he had served with my father. The other was the advice on “handling.” Let me tell you what I mean. For example, I might say, “Captain, have you got a minute?”
“No, no, my boy. I’m very busy. I’ve got to see the First Sea Lord in 20 minutes.” And that was that.
On the other hand, I could say, “Captain, I know you are busy, and you are on your way out. But sometime when you’ve got a minute, I’d like to talk to you.”
“Oh, no. You sit down and tell me what it’s all about.” It was a matter of how you presented things.
I might digress and say that life then was very formal compared to now. If anybody asked you to dinner at 8:00 or afterwards, you didn’t ask what to wear. You wore a tailcoat and white tie, unless they said, “Don’t bother to dress. Wear a dinner jacket,” or something like that. A member of the brigade of guards, if he went out in the evening with a lady to the theater or dinner, had to be in a tailcoat and a white tie.
We made our official calls in a morning coat and top hat. You were supposed to exchange calls with the entire diplomatic corps. It was customary, if someone had a lot of honors after his name, you would put, “Admiral the Lord So-and-So, KBE, CB, etc.” For a real swell, you would have to put more than one “etc.” I remember I was thrilled once to get a card addressed to me, “Lieutenant Elliott Strauss, USN, etc.” If anybody on earth didn’t rate any “et ceteras,” it was me. I still have that card someplace.
George V, who had been Britain’s King since 1910, died in January 1936. I remember the evening before his passing; I went to the moving picture with some friends. Always then at any public performance the last thing they did was play the first few bars of “God Save the King.” They played it very softly that evening. When I left, there was a bulletin that said, “The King’s life is moving peacefully toward its close.” The next morning there was a funereal feeling over London. His death was a personal loss to the populace. There was a hush all over, and the shops had crêpe on objects in the front windows and so forth.
A bit of sartorial information that I had not known is that normally when people wore a tailcoat with a white tie, they wore a white waistcoat. But that was a “fancy” waistcoat, so that during the time of mourning one wore a black waistcoat with a tailcoat. So that you looked very much like a waiter during all that time.
Earlier, soon after my arrival in England, I had marched in the funeral of Admiral John Jellicoe, who had commanded the Grand Fleet at Jutland in 1916. This time I marched in the funeral observance for the King. The funeral took place in very cold weather. It had representations of the heads of state. Then it had representation of the services. For the U.S. Navy, that was Captain Anderson, the top naval attaché. Captain Julius Furer was the naval constructor attaché in our embassy. And then, of course, just the plain assistant attachés came after that. We wore our full-dress regalia with cocked hats, epaulets, and trousers with the stripes down the sides.
Naturally, the Royal Navy was represented, as were the royal guards and other regiments. It was quite a very impressive procession. The casket was on a gun carriage that was towed by sailors and accompanied by the King’s sons on foot. The casket had been in Westminster Abbey five days or something like that. The King’s sons took turns standing at the head and foot of the casket, leaning on swords with their heads bowed. They would rotate doing that; I think it was a two-hour watch.
The whole diplomatic corps went into mourning for three months. The embassy had its stationery, as did all the other embassies, printed with a black border around it. When I wrote the first letter to my family, they thought somebody in the family had died.
It was a far different environment from today’s.
To learn more about the U.S. Naval Institute Oral History Program, visit the program’s webpage at usni.org/archives/oral-histories.