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Home Town Matteawan, now part of Beacon
Last Address Arlington National Cemetery
Date of Passing May 22, 1949
Location of Interment Not Specified
Wall/Plot Coordinates Not Specified
Military Service Number Not Specified
Last Known Activity
James Vincent Forrestal
Lieutenant, USNRF/NRFC, WWI
Secretary of the Navy - Secretary of Defense awarded the
Distinguished Service Medal of the United States
by President Trumen, March 1949
James 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.
When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a seaman second class, United States Naval Reserve Force (USNRF) on 2 June 1917. The young sailor became enthused by naval aviation and he took flight training with British instructors from the Royal Flying Corps at Camp Borden–considered to be the birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force–and at Deseronto, both in Ontario, Canada. He was commissioned as an ensign, Naval Reserve Flying Corps (NRFC) at Boston, Massachusetts, on 17 November of that year, and he gained his wings of gold as Naval Aviator No. 154 [HTA–heavier-than-air] on 6 December 1917. Soon thereafter, Forrestal served in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. Following the Armistice, Forrestal was discharged from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant, NRFC, on 30 December 1919.
Forrestal was a supporter of naval battle groups centered on aircraft carriers. In 1954, the Navy's first supercarrier was named the 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, 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 unexpected decision to dismiss him as Defense Secretary on March 31, 1949 is said to have strained him to the breaking point, causing him to suffer a nervous breakdown. He 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 Bethesda Naval Hospital, a bathrobe sash knotted tightly around his neck. The press reported that he had committed suicide and the local coroner and Navy officials agreed. The circumstances of the death were reviewed, however, by a committee convened by Rear Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical Center. 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.
On March 28 1949 President Harry S. Truman presented the Distinguished Service Medal of the United States to James V. Forrestal at the White House. He died to months later.
47th United States Secretary of the Navy
May 19, 1944 – September 17, 1947
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Forrestal a special administrative assistant on June 22, 1940. Six weeks later, he nominated him for the newly established position, Undersecretary of the Navy. In his nearly four years as undersecretary, Forrestal proved highly effective at mobilizing domestic industrial production for the war effort. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, wanted to control logistics and procurement, but Forrestal prevailed.
In September 1942, to get a grasp on the reports for material his office was receiving, he made a tour of naval operations in the Southwest Pacific and a stop a Pearl Harbor. Returning to Washington, D.C., he made his report to President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and the cabinet. In response to Forrestal's elevated request that material be sent immediately to the Southwest Pacific area, Stimson (who was more concerned with supplying Operation Torch in North Africa), told Forrestal, "Jim, you're got a bad case of localitis." Forrestal shot back in a heated manner, "Mr. Secretary, if the marines on Guadalcanal were wiped out, the reaction of the country will give you a bad case of localitis in the seat of your pants".
He became Secretary of the Navy on May 19, 1944, after his immediate superior Secretary Frank Knox died from a heart attack. Forrestal led the Navy through the closing year of the war and the painful early years of demobilization that followed. As Secretary, Forrestal introduced a policy of racial integration in the Navy.
Forrestal traveled to combat zones to see naval forces in action as the Under Secretary of the Navy and as the Secretary of the Navy. He was in the South Pacific in 1942, present at the Battle of Kwajalein in 1944, and (as Secretary) witnessed the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
1st United States Secretary of Defense
September 17, 1947 – March 28, 1949
In 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed him the first United States Secretary of Defense. Forrestal continued to advocate for complete racial integration of the services, a policy eventually implemented in 1949.