On the deck of the destroyer USS Murphy, the bearded king perched on his gilded throne, surrounded by gorgeous oriental carpets and fierce barefoot bodyguards carrying daggers and swords. Nearby, on the ship’s fantail, the king’s sheep grazed in an improvised corral.
It was Valentine’s Day 1945, and King Ibn Saud, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, had come to visit President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The 69-year-old king was a warrior who’d conquered a vast desert that turned out to be sitting atop an ocean of oil. In 1943, two of his many sons toured the United States and dined in the White House. Back home, they informed their father that Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector. So the king sent the president a set of rare Saudi stamps. In his thank-you letter, FDR said he hoped to meet the king: “There are many things I want to talk to you about.”
Months later, the two leaders agreed to rendezvous aboard the USS Quincy, the cruiser that was taking FDR home from his conference with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta. The meeting would take place in Egyptian waters near the Suez Canal. But first FDR dispatched the Murphy to pick up the king in Jeddah—an errand that turned out odder than anyone anticipated.
When the destroyer arrived in Jeddah, William Eddy—the retired marine colonel who was America’s representative in Saudi Arabia— escorted the king’s foreign minister aboard to inspect the ship’s guest quarters. The foreign minister was appalled. “The king,” he said, “couldn’t possibly live in quarters like this!”
So Eddy and the minister concocted another plan: The king’s servants would pitch a royal tent on the destroyer’s deck.
That solved one problem, but another arose. The king customarily traveled with an entourage of 200, including wives, slaves, cooks, aides, a ceremonial coffee server and the royal astrologer. Eddy informed the minister that the ship couldn’t possibly accommodate so many guests, and they somehow managed to whittle the entourage down to a mere 42.
The next day, the king arrived with a load of supplies, including carpets, tents, the royal throne—and 86 sheep.
The ship’s captain balked at the sheep, so Eddy huddled with the king, who explained that the animals were for eating en route—and, of course, he’d brought enough to feed the ship’s crew. Eddy thanked him for his generosity but said regulations prohibited the crew from eating anything but navy chow.
So the king agreed to bring only enough sheep for his entourage— about 10. With that problem solved, the king came aboard.
“The immediate impression was one of great majesty and dignity,” wrote Captain John Keating, the ship’s commander. “One sensed the presence of extreme power.”
The voyage up the Red Sea to Suez took two nights and a day. The sailors entertained their royal guest by firing cannons and machine guns and detonating depth charges. The king loved it. “First I am a warrior,” he said, “then I am a king.”
The king also ate his first slice of apple pie a la mode, which he loved, and watched his first movie, a documentary about aircraft carriers. He enjoyed the film but told Eddy that he wouldn’t permit his subjects to watch movies because they would “distract them from their religious duties.”
Meanwhile, aboard the USS Quincy, Roosevelt—ailing, exhausted and only two months from death—met with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Then he prepared for his meeting with Ibn Saud by studying a briefing book, which reported that “The King’s three admitted delights in life are said to be women, prayer and perfume.” The briefing book also revealed that the king was a fierce warrior, a skillful politician and a devout Muslim who abhorred liquor and tobacco. The president, who loved martinis and cigarettes, agreed to refrain from those pleasures during the king’s visit.
On the deck of the Quincy, the president sat in his wheelchair surrounded by sailors, watching the approach of the Murphy, where the king sat on his throne, surrounded by bodyguards.
“When the two ships were finally nestled together, Ibn Saud walked up the gangway, lordly in his flowing robes but with a pronounced limp, apparently from a wound received in internecine warfare in Arabia,” wrote American diplomat Charles Bohlen. “He greeted the president, who was in his wheelchair, and the two went to a cabin to confer.”
With Eddy translating, the leaders hit it off. “The king,” wrote Eddy, “spoke of being the ‘twin’ brother of the president, in years, in responsibility as Chief of State, and in physical disability.”
“But you are fortunate,” Roosevelt replied, “to still have the use of your legs to take you wherever you choose to go.”
“It is you, Mr. President, who are fortunate,” said the king. “My legs grow feebler every year. With your more reliable wheelchair, you are assured that you will arrive.”
“I have two of these chairs,” Roosevelt said. “Would you accept one as a personal gift from me?”
“Gratefully,” said the king. “I shall use it daily and always recall affectionately the giver, my great and good friend.”
Lunch was served—a curried lamb dish concocted by the ship’s chief cook, a man named Ordona. The king ate with gusto and informed the president that it was the first meal he’d eaten in ages that didn’t cause digestive distress. Consequently, he asked if FDR would kindly give him the cook as a gift.
Hearing Eddy translate that request, a waiter slipped away to warn Ordona: “Run! The king wants to take you to Arabia!”
While Ordona hid below deck, Roosevelt informed the king that, alas, he could not grant his request because the cook was obliged to serve out his navy enlistment.
After lunch, Roosevelt raised a more serious subject—the fate of European Jews who had survived the Holocaust and now hoped to create a homeland in Palestine.
The king objected. If the Jews need a homeland, he said, it should be in Germany, not Palestine. “What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe?” the king asked rhetorically. “It is the Christian Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay.” The Arabs, he added prophetically, would rather die than yield their land to the Jews.
The king raised the issue of French colonies in Syria and Lebanon, and the president promised to work for their liberation.
The two men parted in friendly fashion. The king presented FDR with elegant Arab robes, perfume and a sword in a diamond-studded scabbard. The president gave the king a DC-3 airliner equipped with a rotating throne so he could always face Mecca while flying. And, of course, one of his wheelchairs. (But not his cook.)
The bizarre encounter lasted only five hours. But—as Thomas W. Lippman, a historian of Middle East diplomacy, has pointed out—the king departed with a fondness for the president that evolved into a lasting alliance between their nations: “Under Roosevelt’s spell, he had cast his lot with the United States, and there it stayed.”
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.