Wednesday, January 11, 2012
James Vincent Forrestal (February 15, 1892 – May 22, 1949) was the last Cabinet-level United States Secretary of the Navy and the first United States Secretary of Defense.
Forrestal was a supporter of naval battle groups centered on aircraft carriers. In 1954, the world's first supercarrier was named USS Forrestal in his honor, as is the headquarters of the United States Department of Energy. He is also the namesake of the Forrestal Lecture Series at the United States Naval Academy, which brings prominent military and civilian leaders to speak to the Brigade of Midshipmen, and of the James Forrestal Campus of Princeton University in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey.
Forrestal observed a famously punishing work schedule in the last years of his life, and rumors had circulated in the press as to his health. President Truman's decision to dismiss him as Secretary of Defense on March 31, 1949 is said to have caused him to suffer a "nervous breakdown", a charge denied by Forrestal's brother. Forrestal was hospitalized on April 2, 1949. On May 22, 1949 he was found dead on the roof of a covered walkway below the window of a kitchen across the hall from his 16th floor room at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC, commonly known as the Bethesda Naval Hospital), a bathrobe sash knotted tightly around his neck. This happened on the day Forrestal was to be discharged from the hospital. The news media reported that he had committed suicide, and the local coroner and U.S. Navy officials agreed. The circumstances of the death were reviewed, however, by a committee convened by Rear Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of NNMC (1948–1951). The committee released only a brief list of conclusions several months after it had completed its work. The conclusions noted only that Forrestal "died following a fall" and that the fall caused his death. The board did not speculate as to what might have caused the fall.
The committee's full report was not released until 2004. In a review of the board's evidence and findings—solicited by the Navy and kept secret with the report until 2004—Chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Dr. Winfred Overholser concluded that Forrestal "came to his death by suicide while in a state of mental depression," but the report's own conclusions were seen to have been accurately reported 55 years earlier, that is simply that Forrestal died from the fall. Debate over the exact circumstances of Forrestal's unusual death continues today, with some critics citing the U.S. government's withholding of the official report and autopsy results as well as possible signs of struggle in evidence photos as indicating foul play.
There were unsubstantiated reports in the press of paranoia and of involuntary commitment to the hospital, as well as suspicions about the detailed circumstances of his death, which have fed a variety of conspiracy theories as well as legitimate questions. For example, among the discrepancies between the report and the accounts given in the principal Forrestal biographies are that the transcription of the poem by Sophocles appears to David Martin, author of the six-part series Who Killed James Forrestal? to have been written in a hand other than Forrestal's. If Forrestal's, according to some intelligence sources, then he could not scribble the word "nightingale" in the poem because it was the code name of the Ukrainian Nazi elite unit Nachtigall Brigade which Forrestal had helped to smuggle to the United States to supplant Kim Philby's failed ABN (Anti Bolshevik Nationals), an MI6 Soviet émigré fascist group. There was also broken glass found on Forrestal's bed, a fact that had not been previously reported. Theories as to who might have murdered Forrestal range from Soviet agents, to U.S. government operatives sent to silence him for his knowledge of UFOs. (read more)