World War II produced a number of American military leaders from the understated Dwight Eisenhower to the flamboyant George Patton. But for sheer star quality few could equal General Douglas MacArthur. And on September 21, 1951 when MacArthur arrived at the Allentown Fair, it was a red letter day in local history.
Why MacArthur came to the Allentown Fair at that particular time is not clear but there may have been several motives. He claimed he responded to an invitation from the Lehigh County Agricultural Society to attend the Father and Son Day event to show his own young son Arthur, who had spent most of his life overseas, what a real American county fair was like. But others reasons may have been the dismissal of the General the previous April by President Harry S. Truman from his command of the military during the Korean War. Perhaps he was thinking of running for president in 1952 and wanted to test the waters. No one can say for sure.
But on that beautiful first day of fall 60 years ago, few people in the Lehigh Valley wanted to probe or cared about what MacArthur’s reasons were. They merely wanted to enjoy the show that he always provided and bask in the glow of the event.
At 10:30 a.m. a caravan of Cadillacs arrived at the center of the Phillipsburg –Easton Bridge. On hand to greet the General was Pennsylvania Governor John Fine. “Governor, this state is like your name, ‘Fine.’ Not only is it the arsenal of democracy, it is also the cradle of liberty,” noted the General dressed in full uniform.
An estimated crowd of 65,000 surrounded the cars carrying MacArthur, his wife and son, various military aides and state and local officials. The next stop was Bethlehem. Here they were greeted by the mayor and a large crowd at Liberty High School. As they pulled out of town MacArthur noted to his aide Gen. Courtney Whitney that the smokestacks of Bethlehem Steel reminded him of those he had seen in Korea.
At Club Avenue in Bethlehem Allentown Mayor Donald Hock was on hand to welcome MacArthur’s party to the city. The trip had not been an easy one. “It seemed everybody was trying to get into the act,” one reporter complained later. “Drivers with more brass than a band begun cutting in and out of the line. Most of them had no business there and the state police escort was having its headaches.”
The next stop on the schedule was to be Zion’s Reformed Church and the Lehigh County Soldiers and Sailors monument in Allentown’s Center Square. As the open cars approached Allentown, the crowds were so thick the motorcade slowed to a crawl. Arriving at the church MacArthur placed a wreath under the plaque dedicated to Revolutionary War heroes. Then he and his wife went inside to sign the guest book. The Liberty Bell Shrine however was still 10 years in the future.
Then the General marched smartly over to Center Square to place a wreath at the monument. “I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death,” he said.
With that the General re-entered his car as it headed out to the Allentown Fairgrounds. In a way security services would never allow today, the crowds swarmed toward the car in an effort to touch the war hero. Whatever else some other parts of the country may have felt, the Lehigh Valley loved the “old soldier” in their midst and had since the darkest days of World War II when he vowed “I shall return” on leaving the Philippines. MacArthur Road, the former 7th Street Pike, was given that name as far back as 1942 making it one of the earliest roads to honor him.
MacArthur’s caravan entered the Fairground’s racetrack. As a packed solid grandstand looked on, the procession of cars moved slowly. The three MacArthurs waved up at the crowd who waved back vigorously. Howard Singmaster, president of the Allentown Fair Association, escorted them to his private dining room. It was 2:30 in the afternoon before they emerged into the grandstand seats.
Now came the presentations. Along with a war bond purchased in his name in 1942, MacArthur was given a bust done by local sculptor Mike Iacocca. Jean MacArthur was given a large bouquet of roses. Young Arthur got a school slate board from Slatington and a book bag. The local press noted he could use it “when he starts his first term in school on American soil next Monday.”
Following these events the MacArthur family settled into their seats to enjoy the show. There were harness racing and vaudeville acts. But much to her regret, Jean MacArthur told Mrs. Singmaster, they were not able to walk the Midway due to the crush of the crowd. A planned wreath-laying at the U.S Army Ambulance Corp Monument, erected to honor those who had trained at the Fairgrounds during World War I when it was converted to Camp Crane, was canceled.
Finally at 5:00 p.m. it was time for MacArthur and his party to leave. There was a brief panic when it was discovered that the chauffeurs had apparently gone AWOL and could not be found. But eventually they were discovered.
The MacArthur party was driven to the railroad station and got aboard the private car of the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s president. They were last seen waving from the observation platform as three distant specks.
In 1952 Republicans nominated Eisenhower, not MacArthur. Recalling that Ike had once worked for him, MacArthur’s only comment was “best clerk I ever had.”
The General died in 1964, shortly after warning against getting involved in land wars in Asia. His wife died in 2000 at age 101. Arthur MacArthur, long a musician, lives under an assumed name in New York.