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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.
James Vincent Forrestal, Lieutenant, United States Navy
Last Updated: Aug 18, 2010
James Vincent Forrestal Lieutenant, United States Navy Secretary of the Navy - Secretary of Defense In the early morning hours of May 22, 1949, the recently ousted first American Secretary of Defense, James Vincent Forrestal, committed suicide at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. His death came as a shock to official Washington, where he had been a commanding figure, yet to those who knew him well, there was a certain grim logic to this tragic end.
Born in Beacon, Dutchess County, New York, on February 15, 1892, to an immigrant father and an American-born Irish mother, he sought through much of his early life to escape his origins. He attended Princeton University, where he became a major figure on campus but, for reasons that are not clear, left in the Spring of his senior year and so failed to graduate. This setback notwithstanding, he went to work for the Wall Street investment firm of William A. Read and Company (later known as Dillon Read Company). Rarely mentioning his past, or even visiting his family, he began an astonishingly swift ascent in the world of finance. He was a workaholic with a burning desire to join the ranks of the super-rich. Within a few years of his arrival on Wall Street, he made a substantial fortune in the bull market of the Roaring 20's and was moving in glamorous social circles. In 1926, at the age of 34, he married the beautiful Josephine Ogden, a columnist for Vogue Magazine and who had once been a chorus girl with the Ziegfeld Follies. Yet as he skyrocketed to success, there were hints of the later tragedy to come. His marriage would prove to be a difficult, at times harrowing, union with a deeply unstable woman. And h himself had serious emotional problems. He was "instinctively resistant to any genuine surrendering of himself," it has been written, and unable to make deep commitments to other people, including those he ostensibly loved. The consequences of this failure was a barren personal life and, eventually, mental collapse.
He entered the Federal Government in 1940 after two decades on Wall Street. His initial assignment was a Special Assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to aid in the military mobilization effort. In a short time, however, he was appointed Under Secretary of the Navy, where he became the prime architect of the massive Naval buildup during World War II. He flourished in wartime Washington, D.C.. His organizational genius and his appetite for seven-day work weeks enabled him to become an influential player in the Roosevelt Administration. When Secretary of the Navy William Franklin (Frank) Knox died in April 1944, he was the natural choice to replace him. This ascension to a top cabinet post occurred just as the Government began to discuss seriously its postwar security policies. He played a key role in the debate. He was suspicious of Soviet intentions and believed, long before most colleagues, that a bitter struggle with Moscow lay ahead. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he waged a zealous crusade to alert U.S. policy makers to the Soviet threat. Forrestal believed that the Soviets were animated by messianic faith and would risk war to spread the faith. By time time of his death, his pessimistic outlook had become widely accepted.
As the nation's first Secretary of Defense, he sought to reorganize and coordinate the country's military services, becoming "the Godfather of the national security state." Yet this label is ironic in the light of his initial opposition to military unification. A fierce Navy partisan, he worried that a centralized military establishment would eliminate the Navy's autonomy. In the bureaucratic struggle over the National Security Act adopted by Congress in 1947, he lobbied hard against giving broad powers to the Secretary of Defense. Then, fatefully, he accepted the new job and discovered that he had succeeded all too well. When he took over the top Pentagon position in September 1947 he was already, in the words of a close friend, "a burned-out-case." Over the next year, his mental and physical condition deteriorated rapidly. The frustrations of his daunting job ground him down, as did a relentless campaign against him by columnist Drew Pearson. His personal life, moreover, had become emptier than ever. Once, near the end of his life, an aide found him in his office at 9:30 in the evening and suggested that he go home. He replied bleakly, "Go home? Home to what?"
The pressures of his life had caused his behavior to become erratic by 1949 and he resigned his Defense Department post on March 1, 1949. He was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital (where he was placed in a 16th floor suite which had originally been built for President Franklin Roosevelt) shortly thereafter for psychiatric care.
On May 22, after several prior attempts at suicide, and after copying a passage from Sophocles' "Chorus From Ajax," he jumped from the 16th floor hall window. His funeral was one of only nine which have been held in the Memorial Amphitheater, took place on May 25, 1949. He was then laid to rest in Section 30 of Arlington National Cemetery.